Great Innovators: Not Always Great Explainers

Ideas are exciting. Good ideas are breathtaking.

Article posted: February 23rd, 2016

Great ideas are invented by great minds. The printing press, the airplane and even SPAM (the franken-meat, not unwanted emails), if your taste buds are so inclined, have all revolutionized modern life.

But for great ideas to succeed, they usually require an equally inventive marketing strategy. Some ideas virtually sell themselves, while others inexplicably require years of legwork before they take off.

Examples of both cases can be found right in front of our eyes. The television, that longtime standard of many families' evening routine, was an instant hit with consumers everywhere. Energy-efficient light bulbs, on the other hand, had to fight consumer backlash for years before becoming (literally) a household item.

When the inventors of great ideas fail to successfully market those ideas, there's always the likelihood that a more business-savvy individual will pick up the pieces, run with it and reap all the rewards. Some inventors slave away for years, against all odds, before finally achieving success. The presence of both outcomes is what makes the history of invention such a fascinating one.

What Do Soda and Sheepskin Boots Have in Common?

At any given time, Coca-Cola is probably more popular than the president of the United States. On any given day, almost 2 billion bottles of Coke are sold (and presumably consumed). If any product enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the word "refreshment," Coke would be it.

For all its ubiquity, Coke almost ended up as just another footnote in America's post-Civil War industrial history.

The sparkling beverage was invented by Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John S. Pemberton in 1886. At the time, soda fountains had become popular social gathering spots, a trend driven in part by the rise of the anti-liquor Temperance movement. Those who sampled the drink gave it a certified "excellent" rating, and with the demand for more soda, Pemberton's concoction seemed destined for greatness.

Despite a marketing boost from Pemberton's friend and business associate Frank M. Robinson, Coca-Cola only sold a slight nine servings per day in its first year. Discouraged, Pemberton sold the majority of his business to a man named Asa G. Chandler.

It was Chandler who would single-handedly revive Coke's fortunes. He did this by handing out free coupons for the drink, correctly predicting that people would try it and come back for more. Ironically, however, even Chandler experienced a lapse in judgment, selling Coke bottling rights to a handful of businessmen for $1 apiece.

Before Pemberton died, he predicted that Coca-Cola would one day be a household name. The inventor of Ugg boots, on the other hand, had no such inkling.

Australian Shane Stedman makes around 500 custom surfboards every year. He also invented Uggs in 1973 as a simple way to keep surfers' feet warm during the wet and frigid Australian winters. The boots were and still are made of sheepskin, a naturally warm material.

Immediately popular with surfers and local teenagers, Uggs (which were originally called "Ughs!" after the sound people made after seeing how unattractive the boots were) drew competitors. It wasn't long before variants of Stedman's handmade boots were being produced en masse by Australian footwear manufacturers.

Fearful of being crushed and unwilling to take his business to the next level, Stedman sold the rights to the boot to U.S. company Deckers for around $14,000, which then renamed the boots "Uggs."

Coke and Uggs were both brilliant ideas that had plenty of potential but fizzled out at the point of sale. Where Pemberton and Stedman saw potential failure and uncertainty, Asa G. Chandler and Deckers saw a product and an opportunity that could go global.

In It for the Long Haul

If you're reading this, you're on the Internet. So are billions of other people worldwide. So much of modern society would be unimaginable without the Internet, and yet so many take it for granted.

In other words, we all owe Tim Berners-Lee an immense "thank you." Becoming the father of the internet in 1991, Berners-Lee pioneered the technology that would allow computers across the globe to communicate with each other and share information. It was a long slog, and he was met with detractors along the way, from academics who wanted to keep the Internet out of the hands of ordinary folk, to mega-corporations whose sole aim was monetizing it.

Nevertheless, Berners-Lee persisted, writing the code that would link everyone across the world in an endless tapestry of websites and data. He didn't patent his innovations, but kept them in the public realm, allowing succeeding generations of coders to deliver the helpful and enjoyable version of the Internet we know today.

Best of all? Berners-Lee continues to preside over the Internet's direction as the head of the World Wide Web Consortium, an organization that oversees the development of Web standards.

Berners-Lee took a stance that was unpopular with academia and industry, but his position has ultimately paid untold dividends for both. No college research team or transnational corporation can imagine conducting their current affairs without the help of the Internet, which has become even more invaluable than the phone.

Missed opportunities and dogged persistence are often part of the story for many inventors. While their ideas may be earth shattering and their work ethic incredible, being able to successfully get those ideas to market presents one of the most challenging obstacles.

However, for those who have a knack for business, or those whose determination knows no bounds, greatness awaits.



Latest Stories