Enrique Dans
  • Professor of Innovation at IE Business School

Inspiration and perspiration

In a September 1932 interview with Harper’s Monthly, Thomas A. Edison described the secret of his success as an inventor:

“None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration”

Part of Edison’s genius was undoubtedly his knowhow and persistence in registering and litigating his more than one thousand patents, and his modest words are an inspiration to many. What’s more they are true, as I would like to illustrate with a couple of modern-day examples.

The first is Snapchat. Some might see it simply as rich kid Evan Spiegel’s hobby, who is in business “because he can”, but the reality is different: along with partner Bobby Murphy, he became obsessed by the idea of instant communication, and after some 34 attempts, finally hit on Snapchat. As a teacher of innovation with 25 years experience working in one of the most reputable business schools in the world for its dedication to entrepreneurship, I have seen a lot of founders fail, rethink their idea, persist, pivot to reposition it, and then be successful… I’ve seen it all. But 34 times, one after another, is a lot of times, however we choose to define “try”. We’re talking borderline pathological here.

Seen in this light, it’s not hard to understand why, when you finally break through, when you convince a venture capitalist to hand over $485,000 as seed capital (and he does this because he asked his daughter what applications were most popular at her high school, and she mentioned Instagram, Angry Birds, and Snapchat, and yours is the only one he’s heard of), or when Mark Zuckerberg offers you $3 billion for the company, but you say no. At this moment, the important thing isn’t that you don’t have a business model, or the yearly income you need to turn in to be worth that much, but is instead to continue being able to develop the idea you’re obsessed with. And in fact, you then turn down a $4 billion offer, and not because you’re holding out for a higher price, but because you’re convinced that you can do this on your own, and not have to give it to somebody else to take all the glory.

Making yourself a laughing stock for turning down an offer that would have made you not just filthy wealthy but dynastically rich isn’t the issue here either: the same pundits who questioned Spiegel’s mental sanity are now writing articles about how the company is worth five times Zuckerberg’s original offer. Snapchat has managed to attract more users and to sustain a phenomenal growth: it is what young people read, share and comment on, it’s what they use to send money, it’s the site with the non-intrusive advertising, and that hopes to be many more things. It already has a turnover of $50 million and is in search of a CFO.

But if you find Spiegel’s persistence inspiring, wait until you hear what Mark Zuckerberg says about Snapchat. The Facebook founder describes it has much more than a “nice idea”, instead seeing it as a clear trendsetter in terms of privacy among younger people, and desperately wanted to buy it.

When his original offer was turned down, he didn’t just walk away, but tried to copy the idea from within Facebook. He took the Poke function that at the time wasn’t being used much, and converted it into a Snapchat clone. The only difference were the terms and conditions. Zuckerberg got so involved in developing Poke that he even programmed some of the app’s functions, even using his own voice for some of the interface messages.

But it was no good, and the final straw was Spiegel’s stylish advertisement “welcoming” Facebook in the same way that Apple did to IBM when it started making PCs. Poke was out of the running, perhaps because of its terms of service, or for the Facebook connection, or because Snapchat just outperformed it. But nobody wanted to know anything about Poke. An unmitigated failure.

And what do you do when you fail? That’s right, you try again. This time Facebook launched Slingshot, an app that once again copied Snapchat’s self-destroying messages, but used a teaser function to encourage a wide adoption (messages were pixelated until you installed the app and invited friends aboard). And once again, the market wasn’t interested. So Zuckerberg tried again, this time getting rid of the only function that made it different to Snapchat. Again, to no avail.

So there we are: not just one failure, but two, and both very public. The lesson learned is that competing with Snapchat is more complicated than it seems. And what now. No, don’t say that you were waiting for this: a third attempt. It still has no commercial name, but the working title at Facebook is Project Lightning, and the idea is communicating during live events, and will be the company’s third attempt to unseat Snapchat. If at first…

Who knows whether Facebook will be successful this time round, or whether it will keep on for another 31 tries if it isn’t. But one thing is clear: success doesn’t come easy, and means a lot of hard work. As Edison said: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

Just. Keep. Trying.

The author has licensed this article under CC BY