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Photographic Memory

By Chuck Violand

March 11, 2019

In 1880, a young banker invented dry plates, an early product used in the development of photographic images. Over the next four years, after leaving the bank to work full time on his business, changing the name of the company to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, buying the patents for roll film, and registering the name Kodak, George Eastman’s company was off and running. The rest, as they say, is history.

There are some important business lessons to be learned from the Eastman Kodak Company, especially as they apply to small businesses in rapidly changing industries.

At the height of their success, Eastman Kodak dominated the global photographic film market with 80% market share in the U.S. and roughly 50% of the global market. That’s a whole lot of pictures! These numbers are daunting and help to explain why some at Kodak might have thought the company was invincible.

The Kodak brand name was so dominant that it became part of popular culture with phrases like “A Kodak moment” and “Put a Kodak in your pocket.”

The factors that led to the demise of Kodak are many and varied. Some theorize that it was the advent of digital imaging that led to their fall. Instead, it was Kodak’s failure to adopt digital imaging that was the cause. After all, it was a Kodak engineer who discovered and developed digital imaging in 1975.

So confident was Kodak of their market domination that they passed up the opportunity to be the official film of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Their rival, Fuji, seized the opportunity instead and gained a foothold in the American market.

Eventually, Kodak lost so much business that, in 2012, they were forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. They were able to emerge from it in 2013, although the company is now a shadow of its former self.

I always find stories like this both tragic and instructive. And there’s always a lesson that can be applied. In this case, I think there are several lessons to be learned.

The times our businesses are most in peril aren’t when we’re launching them, or when we’re experiencing financial difficulty, or even when they’re being buffeted by troubled economic conditions. Instead, it’s when they’re successful. This is the time when it’s easy to get lulled into thinking we’re too good or too big to fail. We can become complacent and believe that the things that made us successful in the past will continue to provide success in the future.

It’s also easy to become so focused on internal issues or on refining our processes that we overlook market changes or new threats from outside that can disrupt an industry and seriously impact our companies. In the case of Kodak and photographic film it was ignoring the opportunity with digital imaging.

Part of the job of every CEO, whether their company is the size of Kodak or a one-man operation, is to constantly evaluate changes in the marketplace and identify both the opportunities and the threats they pose to the company.

While some might claim that a picture is worth a thousand words, in the case of Kodak, I’d argue that a story is worth a thousand warnings.