Makers and the Original Startup

On a recent visit to my hometown of Detroit, I visited Greenfield Village located just outside the city of Detroit in the suburb of Dearborn. You may be familiar with Dearborn as it is the home of Ford Motor Company. It is close to my heart as I both attended college and bought my first home there. During the years that I lived and went to school in Dearborn, however, I did not take the time to visit Greenfield Village despite it’s close proximity. That was a mistake. At first, I thought it would be cutesy or quaint, but I was wrong. It was inspirational and gigantic. Henry Ford is the creator of Greenfield Village and I liken it to a Disneyland for makers.

Interestingly, Henry Ford was obsessed with makers, both being one himself and meeting and hanging around others. For more on Henry Ford, the way he built Ford, envisioned and then realized the assembly line, consider watching the History Channel’s The Cars that Made America, executive produced by Dale Earnhardt Jr. I’m not a regular watcher of the History Channel, but this one was fascinating. Ford’s obsession with the future led him to predict the power of soybeans back in the 1930’s. Today it seems trendy or at least forward thinking to use soy products, but Henry Ford knew of their power almost a hundred years ago!

Speaking of being trendy. You know those ping pong tables and kombucha taps that startups like to brag about as “the new way to work,” well Thomas Edison’s lab was the original start up. He had an organ and he would go to the local pub, bring back food for the lab workers and play the organ while they worked. It was the concept of bringing the fun to work that enabled people to stay late, work long hours, and solve hard problems. Henry Ford loved it. And he loved Edison. He had such an affinity for Edison that he had Edison’s lab moved from West Orange, New Jersey to Greenfield Village where you can still see the organ and the chair Edison sat at every day within the whole intact lab. It is a awesome site that helps to personalize this fascinating maker.

What does this have to do with tech?

Edison didn’t know how to make an incandescent light bulb. He tried and he failed. Again and again. Tens, hundreds, thousands of times. He really didn’t know “how” to do it, but he knew he would. He knew he would find a way with such certainty and conviction that he tried and tried and tried again. He used whatever resources he could find, scrape up, and borrow to achieve this goal. He was single-minded in goal and outcome, but wholeheartedly open in execution and pathways. Tech is the same way. We need to have certainty of goal. A strategy for achieving that goal is nice, but flexible. A strategy will be tested on, iterated on and tested again. The only way to know if a goal is successful is to put it to the test. Does it light up? Do people want to use it? Even more important, will they pay you to use it? It seems so simple and yet, in execution, it is so hard. Just as Edison’s light bulb was. It required hours of experimentation and dedications, dozens of people, and years of his life. How dedicated are you to achieving your goal? Would you ask a million people to buy it, one by one? Are you willing to move away from your current strategy if it isn’t work without loss of momentum or wherewithal?

Like Ford, a veracious force of moving down the path of innovation is needed for building successful tech products. There will always be problems. There will also be hurdles. There will always be a changes in directions and in decisions. That is just part of the process. Is the end goal worth it to put up with all of those obstacles? If you need inspiration, go to Greenfield Village where you will be reminded of makers and doers like Ford and Edison and the Wright brothers. They knew that testing and experimenting were part of the process and they were willing to build, test, iterate. Repeat. Again and again until their ultimate goal was achieved. Will you?

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