Inventors are rarely successful, but improvers are successful and profitable


Many investors are working hard to find companies that can disrupt the market or fundamentally change technology, hoping to seize the opportunity and gain the first opportunity to invest, but this post might disappoint you. “Because successful businesses (in terms of what investors get paid) are usually improvers, not inventors.”

Take Apple and Microsoft as examples

Apple (ticker: AAPL ) and Microsoft (ticker: MSFT ) are good examples. Strictly speaking, these two top two market caps, most of their current best-selling products are not invented by themselves. I once wrote an article on this blog called “Has Apple’s innovation gone with Steve Jobs?”, also expressed this view. You can find this article by searching my blog.

As for Microsoft, there are many examples. The inventor of the original concept of its Windows is Xerox (ticker: XRX), and even windows GUI on Apple’s macOS computer operating system launched many years before Microsoft. International Business Machines (ticker: IBM ) OS/2 windows operating system was recognized as a very advanced early graphical windows operating system. Whether it is the windows operating system launched by Apple or International Business Machines in the early years, as far as I my experience with these two operating systems, in terms of interface or function, they are much better than the early Microsoft Windows operating system.

But neither Apple nor International Business Machines can make a lot of money by their mscOS or OS/2. Let alone Xerox, and Xeros has not even commercialized it. In the end, it’s Microsoft that makes the money. Because it uses the most used personal computer hardware in the world, and it has a lot of software that users really need.

In the same way, Apple’s iPad tablet launched in 2010 is still the first choice for users to buy a tablet. When it was launched that year, the world’s eyes lit up. But as early as 2001, Microsoft and many hardware vendors released a tablet with Windows operating system, but failed and nobidy noticed. Because the customer’s experience was poor, it is too heavy and too thick, there is no finger sensor, solid state hard disks are not yet popular, and the display ability of the screen is too poor, and there are a lot of problems. At best, it’s just a laptop with no keyboard and a stylus attached.

Tesla’s EV is a success

Electric vehicles are not a new concept. In fact, the technology was very mature in the late 1990s, and it was only stuck in the battery. At that time, the range of electric vehicles was generally 50-80 miles, which was far from the requirement of at least 125-150 miles in those days, so it could not be sold at all.

There are many reasons behind Tesla’s (ticker: TSLA ) success. But one of the most critical reason is that automotive batteries, which are the most critical to the cost and range of electric vehicles, have made great progress in the past decade–significant improvements in both cost and range.

Contemporary electric vehicles basically have a range of 400 miles, and they continue to increase rapidly every year. Without 400 miles of range, it would be a tough sell at all.

Eli Lilly technically succeeded, but failed commercialization

Before the 1980s, people with diabetes had to inject insulin produced by animals, but they would be rejected by the body. In the late 1980s, Eli Lily (ticker: LLY) spent a billion dollars to improve the purity of insulin and solve the phenomenon of human rejection, and invented Humulin, which is only 25% price higher than animal-made insulin. However, Novo (tickere: NVO) is accepted in the market, because Novo provides an injection method that allows patients to automatically inject for many weeks, with a needle insertion of only ten seconds at a time, which is fast and convenient.

This examples prove that the technology has no first mover edge, cannot take the market first, and only the user’s acceptance will be. The products that come from Eli Lily was perfect in terms of technology, but it has no advantage at all in terms of usage scenarios.

Advanced technology or functionality not required but must be easy to use

Before Intuit (ticker: INTU), which went public in 1993, launched Quickbook, there were already many accounting software designed for small and medium-sized enterprises on the market. After careful observation, founder Scott Cook found that small and medium-sized business owners believe that the functions of the products on the market are too rich and beyond the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises. Usually the business owners have to use their own accounting software for bookkeeping.

Therefore, Quickbook designed a clean interface for this pain point. Once users open Quickbook, they can quickly get started without manuals. It took 70% market share within two years of its launch.

The Statistics

The “Patterns” journal of “Cell Press” published a report by Stanford University‘s Office of Technology Licensing (OTL), which analyzed Stanford OTL’s 50 years from 1970 to 2020, a total of 4,512 sales data of 6,557 inventors, and only profitable 20%.

Closing words

Economist Xu Xiaonian said: “Entrepreneurs need ‘innovation’, not ‘invention’; they need to combine creatively, not create from scratch.” Another economist, Joseph Alois Schumpeter thought: “What an entrepreneur has to do is to rearrange and combine existing elements to create new products, technologies and services.”

There are two types of innovation in the world, one is disruptive innovation and the other is improved innovation. The former depends on interest and talent, the latter on skills and methods. The first category is rare, and usually impossible to make money; the real money-making enterprises, almost without exception, belong to the latter.


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