The Polaroid Lesson: Never Be Married to a Specific Product or Medium

Learning about the imminent end of Polaroid instant films in this morning’s Le Devoir, I was inspired to read more about what’s going on with the company. They’ve clearly faced important disruption with the emergence of digital cameras and I wanted to see what had happened recently to one of the most innovative technology companies in US history. “Its founder, Edwin Land, held 533 patents, second only to Thomas Alva Edison in US history.” says the Boston Globe. They were the champions of the “razor and blades” model, selling cameras at low-profit margins to sell high-margin films. According to this Time Magazine article, profit margins in 1965 were already “perhaps as high as 30%”. Sounds familiar? They also were famous for their very high dividends. Sounds familiar also?


(Flickr picture by amayzun)

But the company is now, according to another Boston Globe article, “a shell of its once-great self, now owned by Petters Group Worldwide of Minnesota. There’s no research and development activity to speak of. The company primarily licenses the Polaroid name to electronics makers in Asia (…)”. There is a glimmer of light but it’s not much. In the same article, I read about Zink, a Polaroid spin-off that’s producing a cool ink-less printer for digital pictures. “As Polaroid was sliding into bankruptcy in 2001, the company was trying to figure out what to do with a printing technology it had developed that doesn’t rely on ink, but instead uses a patented type of crystal that changes color in response to heat. Paper coated with Zink’s crystals can produce full-color photos when exposed to just the right pulses of heat. The project was nearly killed as Polaroid stumbled through its bankruptcy proceedings, but Zink got a reprieve and was spun out as an independent company in 2005.”

What it means: I couldn’t find Polaroid’s specific mission statement but I’m convinced it did not talk about medium-specific products. The Zink innovation was too late to change the course of history for the company, but it serves as a great reminder to never be married to a specific product or medium. By following the “connecting buyers and sellers” mission statement, directory publishers have the opportunity to avoid Polaroid’s fate. Leveraging their sales force to sell new online products like Google Adwords or Yahoo Search products for example is a very smart way of conducting their business in an online (and fragmented) media world. I remain convinced that the smartest directory publishers will launch their own local ad networks, thereby drastically increasing their online reach. They already have all the assets, they just need to execute.

Update: regarding Polaroid’s mission statement, Cheryl (via Linkedin Answers) points me to this .pdf article. It’s “to put the latest cutting edge technology in the peoples’ hands and give them the power to use it comfortably, affordably… and in an instant.”