Kodak was synonymous with cameras. With all things photographic.
You bought a Kodak camera. You loaded it with Kodak film. You used Kodak flashbulbs. You got your pictures processed using Kodak laboratories using Kodak chemicals. You got your photos back from the chemist, or through the post, and they were in Kodak folders printed on Kodak paper – or if they were slides you used a Kodak projector to screen them onto your living room wall.
The term “a Kodak moment” became vernacular for describing a moment so glorious it should be captured on film.
On Kodak film.
So in other words, Kodak WAS photography.
Now Kodak is dead.
Digital photography killed it.
But hold on – Kodak invented the digital camera.
Yes, that’s right.
Kodak invented digital photography.
So why isn’t Kodak the market leader? It’s not the market leader. In fact it’s not even in the photographic business anymore. It went bankrupt.
What happened to Kodak is fascinating – and we can draw personal lessons from analysing the death of a corporate giant.
Here’s what happened ~
In 1975, a 24 year old engineer named Steven Sasson, working for Kodak, invented the first digital camera. Compared to what we use now, it was huge. It took 23 seconds to produce a black and white image that was 100 pixels by 100 pixels.
He took it to his bosses, who were singularly unimpressed. He said later –
“They were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set,” he said. “Print had been with us for over 100 years, no one was complaining about prints, they were very inexpensive, and so why would anyone want to look at their picture on a television set?”
The thing was, Kodak had held a dominant position in the photographic market for more than 100 years. They were making money on every stage of the photographic process. They didn’t want to take on anything which could in any way threaten their stranglehold.
However, they had the good sense to keep Mr. Sasson working on the digital side of things, and It would take him a further 14 years to develop the first consumer Digital Single Lens Reflex camera –
Kodak was ahead of Nikon, and Canon. They were the first to market. So what happened? Why didn’t Kodak capitalise on their invention?
They were complacent.
They were tops.
They were stolid.
They never made decisions fast. Why should they?
They were insulated.
They were based in Rochester, it was a company town, and they didn’t abide with outside criticism. They were Kodak, after all. The market leaders.
Kodak saw change coming – they knew that digital was the future – however they were old world, cumbersome, and they misjudged their place in the world. They became victims of their own corporate hubris.
Interesting, at the same time a Japanese company, Fujifilm, was also facing the same dilemmas. The Harvard Business School, and business colleges around the world, have since made case studies of why Kodak went bust and Fuji thrived.
Fuji now holds a significant market share of the digital camera market. What’s interesting is that many thought being a highly structured hierarchical Japanese company, they would not handle change, and that a US company would – the United States leading the way in technology advancements via Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
But no, Kodak wasn’t nimble enough – and the Japanese were.
Here is a fascinating case study done by the London Economist several years ago, citing why Fuji prospered and Kodak failed. The Economist article – Kodak vs Fuji case study ~
What personal lessons can we learn from this?
- We have to be humble.
- We have to be nimble.
- We have to be aware of complacency.
- We have to be aware that the world is always in flux.
- We have to pay attention.
- We have to accept that ego and pride are ultimately not strengths, but weaknesses.
You can have a lot of money. You can have a big house. An expensive car. You can have personal and professional status. All of this is transitory. It can be taken away from you.
What do you have left?
Kodak thought they were the big cheese. Now they’re gone. Personally, I have learned a lot from the death of a giant.