Indie Business, According to Thomas Edison
Did you know that Thomas Edison did not actually invent the light bulb?
Maybe you did, but I'll bet you don't know how he managed to take all the credit for it. This question intrigued me, so I got in touch with Dr. Blaine McCormick, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business, to get the scoop.
dM: How do we know that other people invented electric lights before Edison?
Associate Dean McCormick: A book called "Edison's Electric Light: Biography of An Invention," by Robert Friedel and Paul Israel documents the 20-plus electric lights that preceded Edison's. This and other reliable historical document evidence, including records of the United States Patent Office, show that Edison's was not the first light bulb.
dM: Does this data show that Edison's light bulbs were better inventions?
Associate Dean McCormick: Edison definitely had the more reliable inventions overall, both audio and electric, but as always, market forces ultimately proved which system consumers preferred.
Having said that, the reality is that Edison was simply much better at marketing his inventions. His branding strategies were among the best and his name sold A LOT of products.
Edison often had first mover advantage, but that rarely translated into long term advantage. Still, we remember him as the inventor because he was that good at branding and generating buzz.
dM: What did Edison do that Indie Business owners can also do to successfully brand themselves and create the buzz?
Associate Dean McCormick: Edison grew up working in the telegraphy industry, which was the Internet of his day. By the time he was a young teen, he knew the industry so well that he just knew what made for good copy. So, first, know your industry well.
Small business owners should also learn to work well with the media and give them good copy, without assuming they are your marketing arm. Almost any media attention is good attention, but there are limits to that.
For example, it’s more important than ever to have the best product. If you say it’s the best and it’s not, the blogosphere will quickly spread word to the contrary. Consumers are better connected than ever before.
dM: Which of Edison's "best branding and buzz practices" are most relevant today?
Associate Dean McCormick: There are several:
- Work well with the media and give them great sound bites. One of Edison's that really caught on is, "I have not failed. I have successfully discovered 1,200 ideas that don’t work.” Edison viewed the media as his partners.
- Branding, marketing, and promotion still work together very well. The more inventive the marketing idea, the better the buzz. For example, Edison promoted electricity by having electric light parades around the streets of NYC.
- Read your press. Think about what image you're promoting and what’s being said about you. In Edison's home, the painting on the main stairs is called, “The Morning After the Ball”. It shows a lady reclining in her bed reading a newspaper account of the big ball the night before. I think Edison chose this this painting because it reminded him of what he did on a regular basis: Checked his image in the press and dressed better next time if necessary.
What about you?
Do you have any examples of what today's Indie can learn from historical figures who collaborated with media representatives to enhance their marketing efforts? I think of Madame CJ Walker, the former slave who became the nation's first woman millionnaire. She made the brave marketing decision to use her own photograph on the labels of her hair care products, a move that generated quite a bit of attetnion at the turn of the century when a woman of color was the last thing most people would have thought would help the sale of a beauty product.
How about a few success stories of your own? Leave them in the comments section below.
About Associate Dean McCormick
Dr. McCormick is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University. A nationally recognized scholar on the business practices of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison, Dr. McCormick is interviewed frequently across all forms of media including the New York Times, CNN, public radio, and ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. (And don't forget, Indie!) His latest book, Ben Franklin: America's Original Entrepreneur, a modern language version of the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, was lauded by Library Journal as one of the Best Business Books of 2005. You can read more about Associate Dean McCormick at the Baylor website.