Technology is not what makes or breaks startups.

Technology is not what makes or breaks startups.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

tagged: ideas, invention, quotes, constraints, creativity, selling, timing, technology

It's not a matter of divining the best technology as a guaranteed method for which technologies will take off or which startups will suceed.

Photo Credit: Ctd 2005

While on our visit to the Maritimes1 this summer, we visited the Alexander Graham Bell museum. After inventing the telephone, he moved to Nova Scotia and did a variety of experiments and tinkering.

I was totally jazzed to visit the museum. Here is this man who is a legend in inventing. He must surely epitomize ideas and creativity, no? Well, here we were going to find out as we spent a couple of hours walking through the museum.

His family history was into elocution and speech, his father was an elocutionist and created an innovative way to teach speech to deaf-mutes. His mother and his wife were both deaf. Not so great a stretch that he was interested and did great work in acoustics. Did you know that he invented the telephone at age 29?

So what did he do the following 46 years of life?


One of the topics that dominates the museum is the work that he did in hydrofoils. He experimented with many things, including kites, solar power, and genetics (breeding sheep, specifically).

Yeah, I hadn't heard of any of this work either. He got into this idea that hydrofoils were the way to go - like an airplane in the water2. That this was going to be a big breakthrough idea. He had several different prototypes, some setting new water speed records and even had the interest of the US Navy for awhile.

Two points I want to make:

  1. Timing is everything
  2. Sales, sales, sales

1. Timing is Everything

The above image is the famed "HD-4" (4th prototype hydrodrome). It is the one that set speed records. They built several more prototypes.

But what happened?

A placard in the museum summarizes the sad story:

"Encouraged by the initial success of the HD-4, [they] forged ahead with more designs for naval hydro foils. ... Anticipating orders for hydrofoil craft, Bell-Baldwin Hydrodromes Limited was formed. But the war was over. The moment had passed.
No orders came."

Bell-Baldwdin thought they had the timing just right. They were working on hydrodromes because World War I was on and they were building a better warship.

Unfortunately, by the time they had an interesting hydrodrome, the war was over. This failure to sell their invention had absolutely nothing to do with the technology or its success. It was just the wrong time in the market. Had they been 5 years early or 20 years later the outcome would likely have been different.

2. Sales, Sales, Sales

A third problem with the hydrodromes that Bell-Baldwin tried to sell was the Baldwin himself. Bear in mind that I pulled this off a placard, the words aren't mine.

"Over the years, Baldwin designed a number of small hydrofoil boats for various clients. Some were meant to race and were very fast. However, Casey [Baldwin] was not a businessman and commercial success eluded him."

Again, a problem having nothing to do with the technology.


Technologists often get caught up in the technology; the whiz-bang of a new idea.

But when it comes time to making a business out of that technology, it's often things that have nothing to do with the technology that will sink it3. Keep that in mind the next time you are looking at a business opportunity. The technology may be great, but does it have other problems?

Links & Notes

  1. The maritime provinces of Canada are the East Coast of Canada, and primarily on the ocean. For you Americans, think our version of New England. They are just North and a bit East of Maine.
    We've been making a point of visiting more of Canada recently, knowing that we will not live here for our entire lives and want to see more of. We've now seen both coasts, and we also got Montreal into this visit (great city).
  2. Bell & company actually called them "hydrodromes" - like "aerodromes" of the day. The foil itself, just being the "wing" that lifts the "ship" out of the water.
  3. Sorry for the pun. This post has been littered with opportunities to make puns about getting businesses to "lift off" and how Baldwin was a "fish out of water" when it came to sales, I couldn't resist this one.
  4. Wikipedia Links:
    1. Alexander Graham bell:
    2. Hydrofoils:

A couple of great quotes I grabbed while at the museum:

"I can't bear to hear that even my friends should think that I stumbled upon an invention [, the telephone,] and that there is no more good in me."
-Alexander Graham Bell
"He exercised a great deal of constraint on our thinking and our ideas."
-J.A.D. McCurdy re: Alexander Graham Bell

Sunday, August 16, 2009, 12:00 PM

tagged: ideas, invention, quotes, constraints, creativity, selling, timing, technology