Everyone knows that Thomas Edison was a determined inventor, but I recently learned that he was a rather undisciplined businessman. I just finished The Wizard of Menlo Park by Randall Stross, which recounts how Edison’s prideful principles and difficulty working with others got in the way of realizing his companies’ full potential.
For example, he resisted recording celebrity musicians for Edison Phonographic Works despite their proven ability to raise brand recognition and sales, because he found their monetary demands unreasonable and their vanity galling. The recording artists he did hire weren’t allowed to have their name printed on the record label. Stross points out the hypocrisy of this stance, given that Edison never shied away from using his own fame for commercial gain.
Despite his hearing troubles, Edison considered himself the company’s musical director and decided what to record based on his own narrow tastes, rather than on what the market demanded. His contempt for popular music prevented him from understanding and appealing to customers. Edison’s choice to take a purist, as opposed to a pragmatic, approach enabled the competition to edge him out, and “Victrola” from Victor Talking Machines eventually supplanted “phonograph” as the household name.
Edison’s ornery, unpredictable nature kept his employees on constant alert. According to Stross, “Workers spread word daily about Edison’s mood. ‘The Old Man is feelin’ fine today’ was welcome news. But if the word was ‘the Old Man’s on the rampage,’ employees dove for cover, ‘as in a cyclone cellar, until the tempest was over.’” It’s safe to say he didn’t concern himself much with strategies for creating a positive work culture or motivating employees, like so many leaders (including me) do today. The science is what drove him, and he inspired mainly by example. According to the Menlo Park Museum, “All of Edison’s employees willingly worked long hours because they respected and trusted Edison’s commitment to science.”
Regardless of Edison’s shortcomings in business strategy and human relations, his accomplishments remain heroic. In addition to developing countless world-altering inventions, including the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, and motion picture cameras, he established the world’s first R & D facility, where specialists from a variety of skilled fields came together to collaborate in a spirit of common mission.