Wright idea, wrong execution

Today marks the 116th anniversary of the day two brothers from Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright, achieved the first powered flight. It lasted just 12 seconds, but spawned a technological revolution that would change the world. They deserve their prominent position in the history of human ingenuity. And yet, from a business perspective, the Wright brothers were miserable failures.

In theory, they should have had it made. They had the competitive advantage of being the first and only people in the world with a working aircraft, and they were the only ones who knew how to fly it. They had all the technology patents they needed. And, once the world realized what they had achieved, they had businessmen, governments and the military almost literally throwing money at them. And yet their business failed. Spectacularly. So, what happened?

In short, they played not to lose, rather than to win.

So paranoid were they about people stealing their ideas, despite owning the patents, they shied away from media coverage and didn’t fly their invention for three years in case someone watching worked out how to copy their technology. Requests for demonstrations from potential buyers were refused. They declined to take part in the aviation competitions that began springing up all around the world. They believed that as long as they protected their secrets, their advantage was safe.

Unfortunately for them, aviation pioneers all over the world were already building their own aircraft and improving them all the time. And one succeeded above all the others – Glenn Curtiss. On July 4th 1908, he piloted his aircraft, named the June Bug, over 1km and won the Scientific American Trophy and becoming famous overnight. Soon, he was building planes that were far superior to anything the Wrights had developed.

How did the Wright brothers react? Law suits. Lots of them.

Instead of spending their time innovating to build on their leadership position, or even just perfecting their existing technology to make it more commercially attractive, they tried to sue their competitors into submission. Their few commercial successes were soon buried under the weight of legal process and high profile fatal accidents involving their second and third generation planes. They never regained their momentum. Eventually, after Wilbur had died from Typhoid, Orville sold what was left of the business and in time it became part of the one created by Curtiss, who had continued to innovate and improve his aircraft while the Wrights argued about patents in court. This is why from a commercial perspective, the Wright name is a footnote in the history of aviation, rather than the leviathon it could easily have become.

The moral of the story?

The mythical advantage of being first to market, brilliant, unique and patented intellectual property, and an avalanche of demand – all of them can be completely undermined if they are not leveraged for long-term commercial success with constant improvement, an agile business strategy and a positive, open approach to the market.

Ideas are not the lifeblood of successful innovation. Execution is.

If you want some ideas about how to maximize your competitive position, click here to book a free 30-minute consultation.

Subscribe to Hamish’s Thursday ThoughtShake>>

Copyright Hamish Mackenzie 2019