On Avoiding That Kodak Moment

Abandoned Kodak BuildingThis is one of these blog articles that could go all over the place.

During last Thursday’s innochat on Twitter, Kris Ronald Anderson, founder of Berkshire Idea Generators in Monterey, Calif., suggested a new verb based on Kodak’s recent bankruptcy filing.

Anderson said kodak could become a verb, meaning “the act of holding on to one’s past performance too long.” He was referring, of course, the photo giant’s bankruptcy filing, which was largely brought about by its failure to properly address the challenges posed by digital photography.

Since Kodak has long been an iconic brand, that got me wondering if its name had entered the language in any other way. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary said it had as a verb, meaning to take photographs. Not all dictionaries, however, agree while others restrict its meaning to taking a photograph with a Kodak camera.

Score one for Kodak’s marketing department. But that pales in comparison with the innovations that came from its R&D group. Then management fumbled, and it is when you look at how they blew those opportunities, that Anderson’s definition becomes all the more poignant.

Digital Innovation

It is widely accepted that a big part of Kodak’s problem was its failure to properly handle the threat to its film business posed by the disruptive innovation posed by digital photography. But a closer look at Kodak’s history shows just how badly they handled it.

According to Knowledge at Wharton:Kodak Funsaver camera

  • Kodak actually invented the digital camera in 1975!
  • Between 1990 and 1999, Kodak filed 19,576 US patents, and more than 1,000 of those were for digital photography alone.

As recently as 2005, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) was lauding Kodak for its “success with two disruptions” — disposable cameras and digital technology — because at that time, it was “market share leader in digital cameras in the United States.”

By 2008, however, the HBR published an article called “7 Ways to Fail Big” that used Kodak as an example of how to bungle innovation and strategy. Executives had analyzed the digital threat “as far back as 1981 when Sony introduced the first commercial electronic camera, the Mavica,” according to the authors.

But Kodak had its moment and blew it. Enamored with the 60 percent margins on traditional photography, Kodak stuck with film and chemicals. It reduced emphasis on lower-profit digital because it feared cannibalizing its high-margin business.

Now, a shadow of its former self, its innovations wasted, and seeking protection from creditors, the word Kodak risks becoming the definition of willful blindsiding and strategic failure.

Image of FunSaver camera courtesy of Capt Kodak on Flickr.
Image of Abandoned Kodak building in Canada courtesy of Insight Imaging on Flickr.