8 Lessons in Entrepreneurship From the Greatest Inventor of All Time
Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb was far from a "light bulb moment."
If you’ve ever read Harry Potter, The Odyssey or any traditional folk tale, you’ll be familiar with the hero’s journey. They all (and countless others) follow the same template. It was literature professor Joseph Campbell who, in 1949, published the book that described and analyzed this structure: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This book has inspired writers across a range of genres including films, novels, plays and gaming.
In my new book, The Entrepreneur Journey, A Strategic Blueprint for Market Domination, I explore the idea that the mythological hero journey mapped out by Campbell might also provide a framework for the journey undertaken by entrepreneurs.
To illustrate the different phases in the entrepreneur's journey, I have started each chapter with an episode from the life of one of the most prolific innovators of all time, Thomas Edison. Edison will forever be associated with the phrase "a light bulb moment," a flash of blinding intuition that apparently comes out of nowhere, but the reality was very different. I hope these stories will highlight the complexities behind his invention, the teamwork and effective delegation needed, the extent of collaboration, the detailed planning and ceaseless cycles of testing and improvement.
According to Campbell, there are 17 steps on the hero's journey. I have narrowed these down to eight.
The journey starts when the entrepreneur, immersed in the world sensing their surroundings, is visited by inspiration and feels an urge to make a change. This call prompts a step away from everyday life, whatever the form of inspiration. For Edison, this came when he visited inventor William Wallace’s workshop in Ansonia, Connecticut, and saw his Telemachon, or new dynamo. It was at that moment he saw the solution to the problem of developing a system to supply cheap, abundant electric light.
Articulating this idea, expressing it, so it can be shared and understood by others takes a certain amount of dedication and even courage, particularly if the entrepreneur is operating in an environment in which individualism and personal growth are not prized. In Edison’s case, this meant returning to his own workshop at Menlo Park and inspiring his own muckers to invest in the project. This took conviction and passion, daring and an enduring sense of clarity and purpose
Those who have decided to proceed to the otherworld — the external world of the collective and teamwork — face their first initiation: crossing the threshold from the second phase to the third to present their idea to a group of peers such as investors, programmers and engineers. It is here that the entrepreneur must partner up with these collaborators, and they all need to reorient themselves to work together harmoniously and embark on the adventure of collaborative work and building the product. In this context, Edison’s habit of leaving his notebooks lying around constituted an open invitation to all his workers to engage with his ideas and give him their honest opinion. He also fostered collaboration by staying up all night socializing with his colleagues and workers.
Now the team must come to a decision as to what exactly they are going to build and bring to market and how they are going to achieve that. They must draw up the best plan together: There are many considerations (market forces and the nature of the competition) to take into account, and the task can be much tougher than they expect, especially if delays and internal conflict hinder progress. The entrepreneur might be tempted to abandon their internal call and initial purpose and proceed to build a product that does not resonate with their needs.
For Edison to complete his task, he was going to have to spend most of the little money he had leftover from the initial investment on the latest equipment. Menlo Park had to be the most comprehensive facility in the world for conducting electrical research. He was also going to have to hire new staff: men skilled in the arts of machining and glass blowing. The laboratory would now be a special-purpose facility. As Edison explained to his employee Theodore Puskas (who would go onto invent the world’s first telephone exchange), Menlo Park was going to need "all the means to set up and test more deliberately every point of the electric light, so as to be able to meet and answer or obviate every objection before showing the light to the public, or offering it for sale either in this country or Europe."
With their plan in hand, the team now starts to execute and actually create a system in the physical world, developing this system in the form of a service or product. There are threats to overcome — dragons to be slain — at this stage: tight budgets, unexpected setbacks, quality maintenance and compliance with legislation. Many iterations might be needed at this stage to emerge triumphant. But if you get through this stage, you’ll have passed the point of no return. In theory, there is always an option to pull back, but you may, as in the hero's journey, find that you have gone too far to be able to abandon the quest and must see it through. Within two weeks of creating a miracle light filament that could burn for 13-and-a-half hours, Edison and his team had improved on this design and applied for a patent. It was not until several months after the patent was granted, the following year, that they came up with a bulb capable of lasting 1,200 hours.
Now the work to develop a whole system — dynamo, lamps, connecting wires — could really begin. Again, Edison quite spontaneously adopted an approach entirely consistent with modern management in dividing the work between a number of multi-functional teams, each with its own goals, that briefed him on their progress every evening.
The prize as we move into the next stage is a product or system that is proven, through vigorous testing and experimentation, to function — an offering robust enough to fulfill the expectations, and indeed the aspirations, of those who use it. When John Kreusi, Edison’s chief machinist, remarked on the sheer quantity of the offers to build power stations that they were receiving, Edison looked at him and said "Do nothing. We’re not ready yet. We have carried out an experiment, that’s all. Yes, it was successful and the concept is there. We showed that. But that is not enough for a project such as this. We have to test every part of this system — not just for faults and improvements but for longevity. It has been shown to work, but we have to show it functions — not just once, but over a long period of time. If there’s a failure in the system we must discover it before anyone else does.”
It’s time to take your product to market, and there you will need to engage with potential users to make them aware that your offering can solve their problem — or even a problem they weren’t aware they had. (Bear in mind that the entrepreneur might still be pursued by guardians from the other world, in the form of revised regulation, for example, which might require a retreat to an earlier stage.) Developing your networks is a worthwhile activity, giving you far greater access to information, expertise and maybe even partnership. You will have a much better chance of success if you surround yourself with the right people from the beginning, such as marketers who will actively want to partner with you.
Although the Paris Electrical Exhibition of 1881 might have been an international scientific and trade conference rather than a marketing one, the presence of Edison’s team there enabled him to enrich his networks and size up the opposition.
Finally, the entrepreneur will begin to receive feedback from the users — some positive, confirming that they have made the right decisions; some critical, signaling the need for improvement. As in a video game where you pass to the next level, the journey begins again, this time with new challenges, but with the benefit of hindsight.
When Edison was presented with complaints from customers who were more than a mile from his stations and so unable to enjoy the benefits of his lighting system, he listened and went back to the drawing board and invented the three-wire system. In researching Edison’s story I was struck by the fact that although more than a century has passed since his Edison Illuminating Company was formed, the entrepreneur journey itself has not changed much.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor