Sometimes inventors of new game-changing technologies can make grave mistakes that could totally wipe out their business. I recently found an interesting article by Forbes that I’ll summarise very succinctly into two parts: Basically the two worst mistakes inventors can make are to A) be too secretive about their discoveries due to fear of somebody stealing their ideas, and B) rely heavily on suing competitors they feel violate their patents.
In 1905, the Wright brothers enjoyed a complete monopoly on aviation. They had the world’s only working airplane, were the only two pilots able to fly it, and had a formidable patent protecting it. Yet within five years they would regularly be surpassed by competitors at home and abroad, and before what was remembered as the Golden Age of Aviation arrived in the 1920s, they would be out of the aircraft business entirely. What happened?
LESSON 1: TOO MUCH SECRECY CAN BE DETRIMENTAL
At a time when no other airplane could even take off, the prototype Flyer had first flown in December 1903, and the 1905 Flyer was capable of carrying two men and fuel for a fifty-mile trip. However, the publicity-shy brothers did not alert the press, so there was little coverage of their experiments. When a few curious newspaper reporters eventually started showing up, the weather had turned bad and the brothers had hangared the plane. It didn’t fly again for nearly three years, and by then many new airplanes had been flown both in Europe and America, and much of the world thought of the Wrights as frauds.
Even after their patent was granted, they still refused to show the airplane to any prospective buyer, including the military, without a sizeable deposit. Always afraid that somebody might steal their designs, they would furnish the names of village residents who had happened to see their test flights as proof that their plane could fly. They would not even enter flight competitions with rivals even though they could have won these handily and gained worldwide recognition for it.
LESSON 2: LITIGATION IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
On the Fourth of July 1908, a man named Glen Curtiss piloted his speedy June Bug biplane more than one kilometre and the brothers soon sued him for infringing on their wing-warping system, or some variation of it, but the truth was that their airplane was no longer the industry standard. As they had feared all along, aviation enthusiasts had understood, copied, and improved on it. They chose not to fight back with technical innovations however, turning to the courts instead and slapping Curtiss with a long-threatened patent-infringement lawsuit. The litigation stretched out for eight years of trials and appeals, slowly suffocating the Wrights’ company. Wilbur Smith, who was the brains behind the whole enterprise, would spend most of his time in court and away from the company and its engineers.
Therefore there was no more innovation, no more research, no more upgrades to the flight control systems. Soon, Curtiss’ airplane, the very man they were suing, wound up with a better integrated control wheel system far superior to that of the Wright brothers, and soon Wilbur died while the case was still in the courts. By 1914 the Curtiss Aeroplane Company had become the largest aircraft manufacturer in the United States while the Wright Model C was obsolete, with nine people killed in flight. The Wright brothers’ company eventually won the lawsuit but by the time it was finalized, Orville Wright had already left the company. The Wright company was now so far behind the competition that in order for it to survive it ended up having to merge with the same Curtiss to form the Curtis-Wright Corporation.
Be open with the public and the media. Be quick to quench the public’s thirst for information and welcome their curiosity. Hurry your product to market and avoid holding back because you think somebody might steal your ideas. Carefully safeguard your secrets but avoid being so secretive to the point where everybody thinks you’re a fraud. And finally, always remember that it’s better to have sales than a court case.