Vani Kola of Kalaari Capital draws on uncanny parallels between the life and legacy of the iconic innovator and lessons every entrepreneur can imbibe from him
Diwali, the festival of lights, was my favourite as a child. Some of my most vivid memories of Diwali include wearing beautiful new clothes, participating in the Diwali puja (the ceremony of worshiping goddess Lakshmi), proudly distributing ghar ki mithai (homemade sweets) prepared with great love and diligence by my mother and most importantly, displaying the reckless bravado associated with lighting crackers with my friends from the neighbourhood.
While I was away from home all these years, Diwali always managed to bring back some wistful nostalgia. I have tried my best to recreate the magic of this festival at home and ensure that my children are not deprived of the lovely experience.
During Diwali, we decorate our home and illuminate it with some of the most beautiful lights — oil lamps that flicker with undying energy being my favourite. And every year, my mind thinks about the contribution of the light bulb to this festival. Can you imagine a Diwali without the beautiful array of lights on display?
The light bulb is a defining image of innovation. Thomas Edison, the man behind its genesis, was much more than an inventor. He was an entrepreneur and visionary beyond comparison.
He prophesied after the invention of the electric light bulb: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
It is commendable that he had this vision when there wasn’t a single home in the world that had electricity!
It is worth reviewing how much effort has gone into discovering this simple tool to help us come out of perpetual darkness. In the age of the Internet and the connected world of today, we often forget that there was another kind of connect that revolutionised our planet and transformed us from a largely agricultural and feudal society to an industrial democratic one.
It is ironic then that Edison was sent back from school as his teacher thought he wasn’t a good enough student. His teacher labelled him ‘addled’ as little was known about dyslexia at that time. His struggles in the classroom and his mother’s role in home-schooling him are well documented and legendary. A parallel for me is the recurring theme that keeps playing in my head: How often do we fail people because of our inability to accurately assess their true untapped potential?
Edison also developed hearing problems at an early age. His family was not doing well and he had to sell candy, newspaper and vegetables to supplement the family’s income. The path to fame and glory, riches and rubies is never as easy as we think it is.
While he was not born with a silver spoon, he was rich in self-confidence and had complete faith in a trait called perseverance. The best cheerleader who gave him unstinting support — his mom — is definitely worth a mention for shaping him so well.
The entrepreneurial spirit
The best way to overcome obstacles is to channel energies towards creating something for the larger good. It takes enormous vision and enthusiasm to do so.
This passion for creation led Edison to create General Electric (commonly known as GE), one of the largest publicly-traded companies in the world today.
GE was founded in 1892. If a company has to exist for more than a century and still be very strong, it has to be established on solid foundations and vision. Edison did exactly that.
If that is not proof of his exemplary vision, what can be?
Edison holds more than 1,000 US patents to his credit. It is among the highest by any inventor in the world. He is credited with the invention of electric light, motion picture camera, stock ticker, mechanical vote recorder and a battery for the electric car.
Can we even imagine our world without these inventions?
His legacy and lessons for entrepreneurs
Edison has left an undeniable legacy. A deep introspection on his life can give us so many valuable lessons in entrepreneurship and value creation. I would like to list the top lessons that we can take from Edison.
Self-belief, conviction and resilience
While life presented many obstacles, it couldn’t deter his self-belief and conviction. The bedrock of success in entrepreneurship is unwavering trust in one’s belief and abilities and Edison is a glaring example of this.
The electric light bulb was not a flash in the pan. Edison tried and failed many many times before he could actually make it work. Many of life’s failures are the result of people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.
Sustainability and excellence
There is no substitute for passion and for the zeal to create excellence. It is not enough to just invent a product, it is also important to think of the solution.
And therein lay his genius. He was able to think about his inventions and perceive its usefulness to a world that didn’t exist at that point in time. He could visualise his inventions creating a better world.
He not only discovered the electric bulb but also figured out how to get it into homes, set up a grid and make it totally safe to use. It was fuelled by his vision of creating a bright and illuminated planet using the “little globes of fire” (a phrase used by him to describe the electric light bulbs).
Every aspiring entrepreneur should have these virtues ticked on his checklist before venturing out on the entrepreneurship path.
Vision for the greater good
When Thomas Edison thought of GE, the vision was clearly to ensure that electricity was available to and affordable for the poorest of poor. He wanted to cater to this universal need. His total available market was the world. This market’s demand is perpetual, as there are still 1.3 billion people in the world who lack access to electricity. His vision is relevant to this day and will continue to remain so; till the universal demand is met.
Such defining vision is the first step to the creation of a sustainable enterprise. No wonder then that GE has been going strong for over 120 years now.
Have you ever wondered as to how many unicorns of today would last a hundred years or even the next decade? What hinders many of them, in my view, is the clarity of thought and sustainability that a great vision brings along.
Many a time people ask me, “What, according to you is the one quality that separates the best entrepreneurs from the rest?”
To me, given the right basics, it is the resilience and conviction with which a dream is chased that makes all the difference.
The best entrepreneurs manage to keep going because of a very broad and unbiased outlook on life. As Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I know 1,000 ways in which a light bulb will not work”.
If he had given up after trying only a few times, our Diwali wouldn’t be as bright and beautiful as it is today.
The views expressed here are of the author’s, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them. e27 invites members from Asia’s tech industry and startup community to share their honest opinions and expert knowledge with our readers. If you are interested in sharing your point of view, please send us an email at writers[at]e27[dot]co
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