Lessons for entrepreneurs from the innovators that went before

We are fast approaching the time of year when resolutions are made. Innovators promise themselves this year they will succeed to break new ground. It’s convenient to choose the start of a new year to  begin something new. And, the festive season often provides the advantage of time to think and plan.

At this time, when entrepreneurial spirit is at its highest, it can be valuable to review the success of the innovators that went before you. And, there are many.

In this post we take a look at five well-known innovation stories and extract a key lesson for the next generation of innovators.

  1. Coca-Cola and the unique distribution agreement that defined an industry

Coca-Cola didn’t invent a drink, but a syrup that could be turned into a drink through mixing it with soda water. Critical to Coca-Cola’s success, and now worldwide soft drink industry domination, was an agreement between chairman Asa Griggs Candler and two Tennessee businessmen requesting bottling rights. He parted with them for only a dollar.

Lesson: Stick to the plan (if the plan is good). Griggs Candler could undoubtedly have obtained more for the right to bottle his product. However, he had built his strategy around the recipe, which he perceived to be of greatest value to him. Despite an attractive proposition under his nose, he remained focused on maximising the agreement that mattered most to him.

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  1. Bringing people on board with the grand vision of the London Underground

London’s population was booming in the early 1800s. With commuters crowding train stations daily, the city was quickly becoming the world’s most congested. This didn’t sit well with London-based solicitor Charles Pearson, who came up with a monumental idea for resolving it: an underground travel system. There was nothing like it. It must have seemed ludicrous at the time. And, he certainly lacked the means to realise it.

But he believed in his idea and managed to achieve Royal Assent to the North Metropolitan Railway Act in 1854. This cleared the path for approval of a single line between Paddington and Kings Cross. Funding was secured, and Pearson’s vision began to come to life.

Lesson: Bold visions can be broken into milestones. Pearson, rather than aiming to win over the city and secure funding up front, figured out the best path – and series of agreements - to gain essential support for his grand vision.

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  1. A pledge among scientists guides the ethical purpose of AI innovation

Gartner predicts that AI will generate business value worth $3.9 trillion in the next couple of years. Gaining insights is a critical factor and AI (artificial intelligence) lets companies do it at speed. Contracts are the perfect example; in conducting smart searches of high volumes of document-based data, it’s easy for businesses to detect the presence of essential legal clauses and highlight anomalies.

Even so, the military remains one of the largest funders and adopters of AI technology. And in 2018 thousands of AI scientists, recognising AI’s potential for automatically tracking and firing on human targets, signed a declaration of non-participation in the development of harmful weaponry without human oversight. Orchestrated by the Future of Life Institute, the pledge calls on governments to form agreements that outlaw ‘killer robots.’

Lesson: Maybe you’re clear on the intended use of your innovation, but are you clear on all possible use cases? It pays to consider how your concept might grow outside of your immediate sphere and give thought to agreements that could benefit its evolution and governance.

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  1. Which of these innovators invented the first steam engine?

James Watt’s steam engine, sometimes referred to as The Boulton and Watt Steam Engine because of the involvement of English manufacturer and business partner Matthew Boulton, is acknowledged as a driving force of the industrial revolution. In fact, French military engineer Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot was the creator of the first prototype for a steam-powered automobile a decade beforehand.

But, where Watts succeeded in securing the right commercial agreements and partnerships to underpin the development of his engine, Cugnot failed to even patent his design. Funding for his experiments eventually dried up and his supporters disappeared.

Lesson: Innovators: consider all of the various types of agreement you might need, to give you the rights, the support and the funding to take your innovation forward.

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  1. Barclays buys-in to the concept of chocolate vending machines for dispensing cash

A combination of the innovation mindset of Barclays and head of De La Rue Instruments John-Shepherd Barron’s ability to pitch a strong concept brought forward the first ATM machine – effectively changing the way people interact with their banks.

Shepherd-Barron reputedly had an ‘aha’ moment in the bath, where he imagined that instead of walking into a branch, people would access their bank funds via a machine located outside of the branch in much the same way that they might access chocolate from a vending machine.

He drew up plans and created a concept pitch, which he took to Barclays, resulting in the installation of the first ATM machine in London in 1967.

Lesson: Focus equally on pitching your innovation to would-be supporters as you do on the development of your concept.

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These are just five of the innovation stories history has to offer. Visit The History of Innovation in 50 Agreements website to be inspired by more lessons from the innovators that went before.

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