The real founder of the startup culture — the Wizard of Menlo Park

The three business lessons you should learn from Thomas Edison (and one lesson you shouldn’t apply)

Open space, serendipity and serial entrepreneurship are words (too) often heard in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and far beyond with the spreading of the startup culture. From Hanoi to Stockholm, and from Santiago to Tokyo, kids, nerds and dreamers get together in coworking spaces, garages and libraries to code and design the next big thing whether they want to save the world or be billionaires — or usually both.

The new directions in running a company with flexibility and openness are however not a few decades old nor did Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg come up with it. They just made it main stream. We might be coming out of darkness from a century of misplaced management thinking but an important role in figuring parts of how things would really work better was Thomas Alva Edison; the guy many of you know for different labels attributed to him: inventor, scientist and sometimes even genius.

When I was growing up in Croatia, Edison did not have a great reputation and it’s often portrayed as someone who, although with a great sense of business, lived off of the inventions by the real geniuses — the likes of Nikola Tesla — an amazing inventor and futurist from our corner of Europe. Edison was notorious trying to discredit Westinghouse and Tesla in the war of the currents by no less than electrocuting stray dogs, cats and — at one point — an elephant. However, as in any proper story, the good prevailed, AC won for the benefit of mankind and the villain Edison lost. As a matter of fact in modern culture we see more and more of this, somewhat justified, vilification of Edison — just check out the Oatmeal and Drunk History accounts. He might have lost the war of currents and the right to his vision of the movie industry, but he deserves a closer look and an insight at his influence on innovation, futurism and, believe it or not, modern-day tech startups.

Paper boy to hustler to inventor

Born in 1847, Edison grew up in a small town in Ohio in a struggling family and did not go to school much; he apparently asked too many ‘whys’. At 12 he was basically kicked out of school and thought at home. Thomas was definitely gifted with a great entrepreneurial spirit and robot-like hard working attitude. As a teenager he was selling newspapers and fruits on a train and has used amazing ingenuity and tricks to increase the demand. Not less important, not being of a privileged background (unlike another famous inventor that liked to use others’ inventions for his own products without accrediting them — i.e. Marconi) he was a self-made man who achieved a lot through hard work and his business acumen. In one word, Edison was a self-made — hustler!

After a series of events and jobs he ends up working for Western Union in Boston which allows him access to vast working resources and contact with many likeminded inventors. He invents a vote recorder for the legislative body (unsurprisingly dismissed as completely unnecessary tool by the US congress) and a type of a telegraph printer. Interestingly enough — he was always attentive to the whims of consumers and users’ experiences.

The one-stop lab

Menlo Park research lab. The upper floor,

After earning money from his inventions and raising some additional funds he created his Lab in Menlo Park, NJ. He thought of ways to combine R&D, production and marketing into not just one company but also one interconnected physical unit: his lab & researchers were upstairs, the manufacturing unit was downstairs and the bottom floor had a shop.

Edison invented a research group as opposed to being a lone inventor. He invented a method of inventing. He made it, commercialized it and publicized it.

Three points Edison got right when building a business:

  1. R&D above all, literally
    Research and continuous work on new products is crucial to get your competitive edge and stay on top. Edison got that early, very early; and combined his research unit, workshop and store. It was all in one physical space on different floors which allowed for increased communication, streamlined production and feedback from customers.
  2. Working culture
    Although working his team very hard every day at midnight the works stopped and everyone was having cigars, food and drinks in lab. At the time hoodies were probably not a thing but cigars definitely were.
  3. Social promotion, marketing & media
    Not less important, such soirées were very often joined by the press and media. He constantly maintained good relationship with the media and was willingly feeding them news on new inventions and updates from the lab. He was also very good in theatrics and showmanship which he used extensively in one case to promote and land an investment from JP Morgan.

One definitely outdated idea applied by Edison. Do not do this while building a business

  1. Creating too much of a cult around yourself
    The Wizard of Menlo Park took credit for all the 1093 patents form the research group and no one else from the Menlo Park lab was allowed to patent anything. This has since become quite a usual practice in IP but the question remains whether it is the right method to spur innovation. Things are changing and some modern-days entrepreneurs have, after testing it successfully, a better understanding of open source for fostering innovation (See how as Elon Musk has made Tesla’s patents public). Value and credit your team as creative, talented teams with a good dynamic are probably the most valuable asset of your business.
Edison and his research team. Facial hair was apparently trendy those days. Coincidence?

Thomas Alva Edison, friend or foe?

In conclusion Tomas Edison might have not been the best person in history, far from it; he was unfair to many people including the original movie studios or Nikola Tesla, and cruel to many many others unknown, but his legacy remains. However, Edison was the first one that understood how incubation, collaboration, marketing and commercialization have to go hand in hand in order to move mountains and make huge innovation leaps. The Wizard of Menlo Park was running a primitive startup accelerator.

Summary judgment

Scientist: not really 
Nice person: unlikely 
Successful entrepreneur: absolutely 
Visionary: no doubt about it

If you are interested in more details I definitely recommend one of my favorite podcasts: BBC 4’s ‘In our Time’ looking in depth into Edison’s life.

photo credits: afaik and remember from my days as an IP lawyer the copyright expires at around 70 years from the death of the author. As there is a slight chance this applies to some of the descendants of some of the photographers that took this photos, this is where I found them:
cover image: photographed by Mathew Brady in Washington, April 1878, United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cwpbh.04044.
Menlo Park lab image Edison research team image: Rutgers University, The Thomas Edison Papers

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