The Boston Globe named his company “the Apple of its time,” calling it “a juggernaut of innovation.”
When Harvard scientist Edwin Land founded the company in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1932 at just 23 years old, his initial focus was polarized sunglasses.
His polarizer technology patents also spawned products like glare-reducing goggles for dogs and 3-D movie glasses.
During World War II he made numerous products for the armed services, like infrared night goggles, target finders, a stereoscopic viewer device called a Vectograph, and the first self guided smart bombs.
He was rewarded for his contributions in 1963 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
At one point a well established company by the name of Kodak (founded in 1892) also became a customer of Land’s “polarizing” products.
But Land’s company didn’t have its biggest breakthrough until 1948, when he released his hallmark product bearing the name of the company itself…
The Polaroid camera.
The ability to take a picture and develop it in 60 seconds was a breakthrough of monumental proportions.
Land had replaced many of the time consuming steps (and chemicals) used in a darkroom to develop film by creating a type of film that developed itself after an image was captured inside the camera.
On November 26, 1948, the first Polaroid Model 95A “Land Camera” debuted at the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston for $89.75 (about $1000 today), just in time for the holiday season.
Polaroid only manufactured 60 units, 57 of which were stocked and advertised for sale. The Polaroid marketing team thought it would take a few weeks to sell the first batch, giving them enough time to produce a second run.
All 57 cameras sold the first day, and the iPod of its generation was born.
From that point on, Land became known as “the father of instant photography.”
What’s the backstory behind Land’s groundbreaking invention? Initially, it wasn’t a scientific quest or a mission to make money, but rather, a desire to please a very special person in his life…his daughter, Jennifer.
They were on a family vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico a few years prior. Jennifer was only three years old at the time. Whimsically, she asked her father why she couldn’t see the picture he had just taken of her.
That was all the inspiration Land needed.
From its inception the Polaroid camera quickly became a global sensation, and by 1972, Land was on the cover of Life Magazine with the inscription, “A Genius and His Magic Camera.”
A true genius, yes, but Land’s intellect was also complimented by his compassion and generosity.
He made company decisions based on his moral compass, doing what he thought was right as both a scientist and a humanist (much to the chagrin of his investors).
From the very beginning in 1932, he hired women and trained them to be research scientists.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Land put his company at the forefront of affirmative action.
During Nixon’s Watergate scandal in 1973, he resigned as his Presidential Advisor.
As if being smart and having a heart wasn’t enough, Land’s work ethic was the stuff of legend. He was notorious for marathon research sessions. When he had an idea, he experimented until the problem was solved without breaks. Land often had food brought to him and had to be reminded to eat.
Land led the Polaroid company as CEO for 50 years. He amassed an astonishing 535 patents in his name (for comparison’s sake, Thomas Edison had 1,093).
After he retired in 1982, the company had continued success, hitting its peak revenue of $3 billion in 1991.
But the writing was on the wall…
Without Land as the company’s visionary in chief, the company culture slowly stagnated. Senior executives became cocky, believing the Polaroid name and its existing products would sustain the firm. It was the beginning of the end.
New technologies of the 90s profoundly changed the world of photography. Single use cameras were all the rage, one-hour film processing was prevalent, and, of course, the dagger in the heart…
In 2001, Polaroid went bankrupt due to “innovation lag.”
The painful irony is that Land was among the first to experiment with digital photo technology dating back to the 1960s. But without him at the helm to drive innovation and take the risk of introducing breakthrough products (like his original Polaroid camera), a company that could have thrived, died.
It’s now a well known concept in business… upper management (often second generation) becomes complacent, feels entitled, thinking like stewards rather than entrepreneurs. They report to work, go through the motions, collect a generous salary, and fail to continue to do what got them there in the first place…innovate and take risks.
That’s when companies lose their edge… and their advantage. Like Polariod, they become victims of…
The Success Trap.