Kodak Lesson: The Missed Opportunity

When listing legendary companies that shaped the world and the way it is perceived, it is difficult not to mention Kodak. The company was a giant in the business of capturing the moment and preserving memories. The Eastman Kodak Company, simply known as Kodak, was established in 1888 by George Eastman and Henry A, Strong. Kodak remained dominant in the photographic film business for most of the 20th century. The strategy of the company was to sell inexpensive cameras while making a large profit from the sale of consumables like film, paper and chemicals.

One of Kodak’s engineers, Steve Sasson, invented the first-ever digital self-contained camera in 1975. The invention was so significant that in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Steve the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which was the highest honour that the United States government could bestow on an inventor or a scientist. He was also awarded the Progress Medal and Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 2012.  

Did the invention perpetuate Kodak as a market leader? No! Kodak only shelved it and didn’t use it. The portable digital camera would have affected the company’s sales of films because the camera was filmless. To avoid “spoiling its own market with its own product”, Kodak management decided to maintain the existing business model. As at 1976, Kodak enjoyed 90% sales in the film market and 85% sales in the camera market in the U.S. A future without film was inconceivable.

So confident was Kodak of its status that it turned down the opportunity to serve as the official film for the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984. Nature abhors a vacuum, they say, so Fujifilm had its much need opportunity to win the sponsorship rights. That opportunity established Fujifilm, a Japanese company, as a force in the U.S. It went on to open its plant, embark on aggressive marketing and took over the market.

Soon, the company began to struggle due to a decline in sales and its slowness to migrate to digital photography. It is ironic that 2012, the year that Steve Sasson received a Progress Medal from the Royal Photography Society for his outstanding contributions, particularly the invention of the portable digital camera, was the same year Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Fujifilm, on the other hand, was reported to have handled the migration quite well. The worst problem you can have is to be afraid of your own ideas and your own future. Rather than struggle to hold on to a passing trend, prepare yourself for the future.