“ … About half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” -Steve Jobs
“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” -Thomas Edison
They weren’t scientists. They weren’t artists. They weren’t even inventors. Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs were first, and foremost, executers.
These guys got shit done.
While we typically remember Edison as the inventor of the lightbulb and the father of the electric age, Edison’s legacy is largely the result of his management style and work ethic — not some innate proclivity for inventiveness.
Similarly, while Jobs is often hailed as a tech visionary, the creative genius who introduced the mouse-controlled, graphical user interface (GUI) to the world of personal computing, the real Jobs wasn’t an engineer who tinkered endlessly with electronics (that was Steve Wozniak).
Jobs, like Edison, was focused on the bigger picture: He didn’t just want to create products, he wanted to sell products.
“There’s a lot of steps you have to take to make a great design of mine into a product that can be sold,” Wozniak said in a 2014 interview. Jobs was the one responsible for taking those steps.
And a century earlier, Edison was responsible for the same thing.
“A scientist busies himself with theory. He is absolutely impractical. An inventor is essentially practical,” Edison once stated, before continuing:
“Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”
The Fine Line Between “Inventing” and “Stealing”
We often think of invention as a one-off or ex nihilo event: First there’s nothing, then there’s something. However, the reality of invention is significantly more complex, with newer iterations of “inventions” building on top of the older ones.
Take the lightbulb, for example.
In the early 1800s, Humphry Davy passed an electric current through strips of platinum, producing the first incandescent lamp.
In 1835, James Bowman Lindsay improved upon this by creating an incandescent lamp that could function inside of a sealed glass jar.
In 1840, Warren De la Rue took incandescent lamp technology a step further by enclosing a platinum coil in a vacuum tube.
It was Frederick de Moleyns, however, who nabbed the first patent for an incandescent lamp in 1841. His lamp’s bulb used charcoal powder and two platinum wires to produce light.
In 1845, John W. Starr demonstrated an incandescent lamp that featured a carbon filament enclosed in a vacuum. (This dude was definitely on the right track. Unfortunately, he died of tuberculosis the following year.)
In the 1850s, Joseph Swan picked up where Starr left off and worked on perfecting the vacuum technology needed to produce long-lasting bulbs. (Swan would eventually receive a patent for his incandescent lightbulb in 1880.)
By the 1870s, there were lots of players in the increasingly competitive lightbulb game. In addition to Swan, there was Alexander Lodygin, and Hiram Maxim, and William Sawyer, as well as the dynamic Canadian duo of Henry Woodward & Mathew Evans.
Heard of any of those guys before?
That’s because in 1878, Thomas Motherboard-Switchin’ Edison started the Edison Electric Light Company, and officially began work on “inventing” the lightbulb.
Despite his late start, Edison would go on to dominate all of his major lightbulb competitors.
Woodward & Evans, for example, had patented a carbon filament, nitrogen-filled bulb years before that worked pretty darn well; they just didn’t have enough capital to produce and sell the bulbs on a large scale.
Edison bought their patent.
Swan, meanwhile, set up the Swan United Electric Light Company across the pond in England. In 1882, Edison sued Swan’s company, citing patent infringement … until Edison’s lawyers, upon closer investigation, discovered that they had it backward: Edison’s company had actually been ripping off Swan’s work (and Swan had the documents to prove it).
To avoid a legal clusterf*ck, Edison negotiated a merger, which established the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company, a.k.a. Ediswan.
Edison bought Swan out of the company shortly thereafter, leaving Edison as the undisputed king of lightbulb mountain.
When we look back, it’s clear that Edison did not invent the lightbulb. He did make improvements to existing technology to make lightbulbs more commercially viable. However, in 1883 the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office ruled that Edison’s patent for those improvements — his prized patent no. 223,898 — was invalid because it borrowed heavily from the work of one of those other guys I mentioned (William Sawyer). That decision would eventually be overturned after 5+ years of litigation.
To reiterate, Edison didn’t go down in history for his originality. Edison’s name is forever tied to the phrase “inventor of the lightbulb” because he went out and claimed that title for himself. Call it deceitful, call it unethical, call it whatever you want. The bottom line is that it helped Edison sell lightbulbs.
As Edison biographer Ernest Freeberg noted:
“Edison was himself a great promoter of his image, and it was important to claim to be the sole inventor in order to win the crucial patents that would determine which person got to control the market share.”
Decades later, Steve Jobs would make his infamous visit to Xerox PARC and observe what the engineers there had created: the mouse and the GUI — technology that would become the basis for his Macintosh computer.
Like Edison and his lightbulb, Jobs didn’t invent the technology that would go on to define his career, but Jobs did successfully bring that technology to market.
Say what you will about their respective characters (Edison was said to have had a vacuum where his conscience should’ve been; Jobs was reportedly a jerk), there’s no question that these guys accomplished a lot.
Of course, they couldn’t have done it alone …
Getting Shit Done Is a Team Sport
“My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other, and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.” -Steve Jobs
One of the key reasons why Edison and Jobs were so successful in creating commercially viable products: They surrounded themselves with brilliant, hardworking people.
If you’ve always pictured Edison as some white-haired scientist dude who was constantly fiddling with wires and filaments, guess again. He had a team of super-smart people doing that stuff for him — a team that included machinist John Kruesi, mechanic Charles Batchelor, and physicist Francis Upton.
As Freeberg notes:
“[Edison] was in a very competitive race where he borrowed — some said stole — ideas from other inventors who were also working on an incandescent bulb. What made him ultimately successful was that he was not a lone inventor, a lone genius, but rather the assembler of the first research and development team at Menlo Park.”
Menlo Park, which Edison dubbed his “invention factory,” made it possible for Edison to move faster than all of his competitors.
While his rival lightbulb pioneers were experimenting with a few different filaments, Edison’s team was experimenting with thousands of different filaments.
What’s more, having a research and development team enabled Edison to simultaneously explore — and eventually produce — the rest of the technology needed to dominate the lightbulb industry: screw mounts, switches, meters, feeders, etc.
Fast forward to 1979. When Jobs wandered into Xerox’s research and development facility, he was like a kid in a candy shop. Clearly, Xerox had been successful in amassing a team of highly inventive people.
What they lacked was an executer.
As Jobs himself once observed:
“If Xerox had known what it had and had taken advantage of its real opportunities, it could have been as big as I.B.M. plus Microsoft plus Xerox combined — and the largest high-technology company in the world.”
Jobs immediately recognized Xerox’s mouse and GUI for what they were: the future of personal computing. When Jobs got back to Apple, the new priority for his team (which was working on the Apple Lisa) was to build their own mouse and their own GUI.
When Jobs moved from the Lisa project to the Macintosh project in 1982, incorporating (and improving upon) the mouse and the GUI remained his core focus. And in 1984, the Macintosh became the first mass-market personal computer to feature this revolutionary tech.
Take a decisive leader, put that leader in charge of a group of hardworking, creative people, and voilà: you have the recipe for getting shit done.
But remember, in order to innovate at breakneck speed, it truly needs to be a team effort.
While history may remember Edison and Jobs as “lone geniuses,” the reality is that they were both leaders who orchestrated and synthesized the work of other geniuses. And without the input of those other geniuses, Edison and Jobs would never have been able to move as fast as they did.
According to Upstart CEO and former president of Google Enterprise Apps, Dave Girouard, while getting input from others may — as a leader — sound like something that would slow you down, the opposite is actually true.
As Girouard notes in an article for First Round Review:
“The art of good decision making requires that you gather input and perspective from your team, and then push toward a final decision in a way that makes it clear that all voices were heard … you don’t want consensus to hold you hostage — but input from others will help you get to the right decision faster.”
Final Thought: Embracing the Honey Badger Mentality
For those of you unfamiliar with the honey badger, here’s all you need to know: “Honey badger don’t give a shit, it just takes what it wants.”
As a parting thought, I’d argue Edison and Jobs were both very much in tune with their inner honey badgers.
Once their goals were set, these guys did everything in their power to accomplish those goals — even if that meant swindling, or stealing, or, more generally, acting like total jerk-faces.
Edison and Jobs are the perfect examples of people who didn’t think the rules applied to them … and neither of them really made any efforts to shake those characterizations during their lifetimes.
Ultimately, their rebellious attitudes helped them innovate.
As Jobs once noted:
“It’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy.”
Or, in Edison’s words:
“Hell, there are no rules here — we’re trying to accomplish something.”
Illustrations by T. Blake Littwin
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