A generation ago, a “Kodak moment” meant something that was worth saving and savoring. Today, the term increasingly serves as a corporate bogeyman that warns executives of the need to stand up and respond when disruptive developments encroach on their market. Unfortunately, as time marches on the subtleties of what actually happened to Eastman Kodak are being forgotten, leading executives to draw the wrong conclusions from its struggles.
Given that Kodak’s core business was selling film, it is not hard to see why the last few decades proved challenging. Cameras went digital and then disappeared into cellphones. People went from printing pictures to sharing them online. Sure, people print nostalgic books and holiday cards, but that volume pales in comparison to Kodak’s heyday. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, exited legacy businesses and sold off its patents before re-emerging as a sharply smaller company in 2013. Once one of the most powerful companies in the world, today the company has a market capitalization of less than $1 billion.
Why did this happen?
An easy explanation is myopia. Kodak was so blinded by its success that it completely missed the rise of digital technologies. But that doesn’t square with reality. After all, the first prototype of a digital camera was created in 1975 by Steve Sasson, an engineer working for … Kodak. The camera was as big as a toaster, took 20 seconds to take an image, had low quality, and required complicated connections to a television to view, but it clearly had massive disruptive potential.
Spotting something and doing something about it are very different things. So, another explanation is that Kodak invented the technology but didn’t invest in it. Sasson himself told The New York Times that management’s response to his digital camera was “that’s cute – but don’t tell anyone about it.” A good line, but not completely accurate. In fact, Kodak invested billions to develop a range of digital cameras.