The light bulb comes to mind when we think of versatile inventions. Some inventions are so versatile that it’s hard to formulate a “business plan” without ruining the dream altogether. If it’s packed into a business plan, then we can lose a lot of the value by squeezing a dream into a profit-making box.
Here are some questions left unanswered if we try to put the literal light bulb invention into a business model:
What will the business sell?
We could sell light bulbs for homes, like the standard E26 bulb. Maybe it’s the most ubiquitous design today and it allows for the most variations while retaining most design features. Ok, let’s explore that path. Who is going to design the sockets? Who is going to make sure the electrical current is appropriate for the bulb? Who will publish the standards for the size of compatible sockets? Who will validate them? What tolerances will be allowed in the sockets so that the light bulbs can deviate by normal manufacturing levels while still functioning as intended? Who will limit the power of a light bulb so that customers stay safe? If we start placing 100W light bulbs in normal homes, 1879, who’s to say that the ceilings won’t catch on fire? Who will teach consumers how to treat a light bulb properly without breaking it and without causing a fire? Who will manufacture the light switches, and account for the contactors that will safely transmit current without sparking? Wow, with all of the value of this single invention, we have created many more problems. Is the patent-holding company responsible for all of the solutions? If so, the cost of engineering may sink the company more quickly than it can get off the ground.
What will the business NOT sell?
Imagine the investors who talk with Edison in 1880. He knows the potential of the light bulb. It can go anywhere that a candle can go, but outperform the candle. It could go in homes, businesses, public places. It can go in cars, it can go on streets for safety, it can go in mines to raise productivity, it can go in stores to attract customers, restaurants and leisure places to upscale the desirability of those businesses. It can add value all around the world. Then what does the investor say? They say pick one. “We can’t afford to do all of those applications so pick your favorite, Thomas,” they say. He’s immediately crushed. Picking one application will crush his dream, or slow it down drastically. It’s almost as if he could choose to make home lighting and it would immediately attract competitors in the adjacent spaces. If those companies are more powerful, they’ll make swift enhancements in those applications, then rapidly pivot into his space where he was successful but not as fast to scale. I can’t see how Edison could choose just one application, personally. What it means to Edison if he chooses one: “I’m going to spend the next couple of years learning about the customers, infrastructure, designs, and laws in this one particular space, become an expert at one area, and that’s all well but it won’t let me continue to scan all of the possibilities and intake knowledge at the broader level that I could intake without diving into a narrow field during those years. It’s a personal and heavy disadvantage for Thomas if he complies with this request.
What is the true value of the invention?
If you have not noticed, we are drawing analogies between a light bulb and a mobile robot. The engineering knowledge that forms the value of the invention of the light bulb can be broken into two parts: The existing stuff and the new stuff.
Existing stuff: Which knowledge must be acquired for the light bulb? Vacuums exist. Learn about vacuums. Glassware exists, learn about glassware. Manufacturing of glass exists. Learn about glass manufacturing and it’s limitations. Conductors exist. Learn about the properties of conductors. Filaments exist. Learn about light emitting filaments. Electrical power devices exist. Learn about electrical power. OK now we have the existing knowledge base broken down which an inventor must understand to handle the light bulb.
New stuff: Which knowledge must be acquired after the existing stuff is understood but the desired outcome is a light bulb? Limitations and handling of filaments inside vacuums. Relationship of electrical current and brightness. How to treat a filament so that it emits nice power, and also does not melt. Manufacturing methods which combine glassware, vacuum, and conductors. How can we perform the existing glass manufacturing but achieve a sealed vacuum in the product? How can we pass a filament through the glassware and achieve a seal? How can we control the location of the filament so that it sits in the proper location of the light bulb when the manufacturing is complete? Filaments materials & electrical performance: How can we blend metals to have a good light emitting performance, long lifespan, and affordable cost?
From the engineer’s perspective, he can feel secure that he is the best light bulb engineer if he knows the existing stuff and the new stuff. A company alike, can do this as a team. You could spend a lifetime getting better and better at these aspects and you could always stay ahead of the competition, but here is where that breaks down: The engineer discovers how to achieve the best performance and where the tradeoffs are made. (I imagine my materials MET121 professor Dr. Ronald Kohser, holding out his two arms in lecture to depict a balance.) Enhancements of materials or any engineering metric has a tradeoff. Then, you’ll find your tradeoff can be slid to one end once you know the application. For example, the light bulb power can be cranked up in a warehouse if we know that the facility operators will be trained in safety and handling, giving a greater brightness than a home lightbulb. Then we can re-study the other engineering limitations and optimize the invention for that application. This is called a niche.
Well, driving oneself into a niche too early while the industry is still forming can mean that you study materials that become outdated, and you can end your own career if you dive too deep too early. Edison certainly didn’t want any investors who know nothing about engineering to force him into a warehouse-lightbulb-building niche while he’s well aware that the materials of filaments are in rapid evolution.
If you think about it, the true value of the invention of the light bulb is understanding the underlying physics and engineering. From here, time may pass, new filaments may be invented, and you can start your career at any moment and still successfully innovate and make profitable new inventions.
It is almost as if making money requires you to dive into a niche, diving into a niche requires you to study the latest EXISTING technology to be competitive, and the study of the existing technology precludes you from studying the new innovations that your peers in adjacent fields are releasing every year. The inventor who meets an investor hears a wish for the inventor to narrow down, and this wish is directly at odds with the inventor’s personal dream: to maximize the utility and benefits to humanity, of the idea at hand.
This is getting us toward the reason that Edison founded “General Electric” instead of a company called “the light bulb company.”
I’m going to jump ahead because this section is getting so long and we haven’t answered the question yet. We stated that the true value of the light bulb was knowledge. But, knowledge doesn’t make money. So, it doesn’t get investors. Without investors, the company can’t hire 10 people to pursue 10x more knowledge and pursue 10 different applications at once (home lamp, car lamp, street lamp, etc). Then, the company can’t maximize it’s value (whether you’re after the money or the innovation, neither one is getting optimized if we just chase knowledge).
The true value part 2: Action
If the true value of the light bulb is knowledge but knowledge cannot manifest value, then the true value must be action. Action on the knowledge about the idea of the light bulb. So, which action?
The action that has the most value is the one which simultaneously builds the most knowledge and the most scalable outcomes towards a dream: The dream for the light bulb was to improve people’s lives by having access to more light.
If we look closer at the many niches where a light bulb creates value, we will decide two things: 1) each of the niches has some things in common, that could be served by a company. and 2) each niche has a formulation of the light bulb which is cost effective and can make profits, yielding a successful business.
We can draw the relationships in two ways: horizontally or vertically.
Horizontal integration means we will find the existing use cases such as warehouses and homes, where the light bulb serves a purpose. We will focus our company’s value on that which is common between them and we will make our company the best at serving all of those actions. For example, light bulbs go in ceilings, ceilings can be hard to access, so maybe our horizontally integrated company needs to outfit a crew who has technicians with ladders and can help all the types of customers get their first light bulbs installed.
Vertical integration: We will discover all of the processes involved in making and distributing a light bulb, from the harvesting of cotton (yes I just learned Edison’s patented bulb had a cotton filament) to the delivery of bulbs across the country, and we will take actions that make us experts in these.
To decide which way to go (or perhaps a combination of the two), we must study which directions have the best odds of success. This gives way to benchmarking: which industry players already exist who already have most of the knowledge & assets to handle a task lying in the gap from the invention to the dream? For example, if the USPS organization already has routes and team members who are delivering items, maybe we should ask them to get involved in light bulb distribution instead of trying to tackle this by ourselves.
In the 1880’s everyone had their eyes on the light bulb. Clever companies who deliver candles probably were already studying what they can do to profit as the demand diminishes. So, if the candle company is vastly larger than your light bulb company, you may discover that you should step aside, let them handle the delivery and the marketing for your new invention, and focus your company on developing the technology. Your profit margin will be smaller but your odds of success in the partnership will be vastly greater than your odds of competing with the established business.
So, the action to take if we discover the light bulb, then understand its utility, then understand it’s limitations (broadly, not focused on the cotton filaments that exist at this very moment, and leaving room for each performance metric to potentially 10x in the next 5 years) is to discover the key players horizontally and vertically and decide where your technology’s value is going to fill gaps. Discover who wants to play along with you, and who has dreams that go in a totally different direction. Build relationships with those players, and begin to add value for those players so that they trust you enough to pass value back to you.
How to take the action proposed:
The proposed actions (from the last paragraph) are not just engineering, not just business, and not just society-oriented.
But, the relationships are clear enough: Engineering and Business work together to serve society. If society does not like what the engineers and businesses produce, the former both fail. So, we need a language to speak to businesspersons and engineers, and we need a direction that serves society. The language is standards.
Standards are the anchor which allow businesses and engineers to successfully agree on actions and intend to serve society. I personally think the greatest value of the light bulb invention was the corresponding standards that took place. Which part of Edison’s work can I still see today? It’s the E26 standard, and it has become a pathway for countless business outcomes that made money and helped people.
The E26 standard means very little to the consumer, but it is one of the most powerful inventions I can conceive. Have a look at the description on wikipedia.
What is so powerful that it can make a businessperson, an engineer, and a customer agree? E26.
What is so powerful that it can make a mechanical engineer and an electrical engineer agree? E26
What is so powerful that it outlasted incandescent and saw its destroyer, the LED? E26
What is so powerful that it appears in software 150 years later? 💡 👈 E26
Standards take us forward:
So, if you can find a standard that won’t change for quite some time, and integrate your engineering ideas around that standard, you can focus your energy (no pun intended) in places where your value can see its way from invention to service of community.
If you can build a knowledgebase and build practical creations that compliment good standards, you can have a nearly failproof career direction. At least, you can afford to fail many times and learn what is necessary to get something right, and the world won’t sweep your invention out from under you while you build your dream of serving humanity.
And, if you continue your work long enough, you may become part of the communities & leaders who form new standards that fill the gaps the world needs to advance technology & quality of life.