#264 The Story of Edwin Land and Polaroid

Summary Notes


Edwin Land, the visionary founder of Polaroid, paralleled Steve Jobs in many ways, from their college drop-out status to their relentless pursuit of product perfection. Both Land and Jobs were driven by the belief that their inventions would fundamentally alter human interaction, with Jobs even calling Land a "national treasure." Polaroid, under Land's leadership, became synonymous with innovation, creating a technology monopoly through its instant photography—a field Land envisioned and toiled over from a young age. Despite his company's initial success, Land's later project, Polavision, failed to capture the market, ultimately leading to his departure from Polaroid. Land's legacy, however, lives on, not only in the products he created but also in the influence he had on future tech leaders like Snapchat's Evan Spiegel, who saw Land as a role model for his own camera company.

Summary Notes

Silicon Valley Parallels and Polaroid's Path

  • Polaroid's journey closely mirrors the Silicon Valley startup model.
  • Tech genius founder Edwin Land paralleled Steve Jobs in creating a culture of relentless technological refinement.
  • Both Apple and Polaroid were established near top universities to attract talent and focused on product design.
  • Edwin Land was a visionary akin to Steve Jobs, both becoming wealthy through their innovations.

"Polaroid followed a path that has since become familiar in Silicon Valley. Tech Genius founder has a fantastic idea and finds like-minded colleagues to develop it."

This quote emphasizes the startup culture that has become synonymous with Silicon Valley, highlighting the pattern of a tech genius founding a company based on a transformative idea.

"At Apple, that was Steve Jobs. At Polaroid, it was Edwin Land."

This quote draws a direct comparison between Edwin Land and Steve Jobs, showcasing how both individuals were central to their respective companies' identities and successes.

Edwin Land's Philosophy and Impact

  • Land's approach to business involved doing "interesting science" that was unique and challenging.
  • He was criticized for excessive spending on R&D but believed in the importance of innovation.
  • Land's influence was recognized by Steve Jobs, who admired him and criticized Polaroid's board for forcing Land into retirement.
  • Land and Jobs shared a vision of creating products with minimal compromise, changing the nature of human interaction.

"Do some interesting science that is all your own, and if it is, in his words, 'manifestly important and nearly impossible,' it will be fulfilling and maybe even a way to get rich."

This quote encapsulates Land's business philosophy, where he valued the pursuit of groundbreaking and nearly impossible science over immediate financial gain.

Christopher Bananos's Book on Edwin Land

  • The book "Instant: The Story of Polaroid" by Christopher Bananos provides a detailed comparison between Edwin Land and Steve Jobs.
  • The author has read multiple biographies on Edwin Land, emphasizing the importance of studying Land's work for tech founders.

"If Steve Jobs studied Edwin Land, I think every other founder should as well."

This quote suggests that Edwin Land's work is essential learning for tech founders, as evidenced by Steve Jobs's own study of Land's career.

Early Life and Inventive Nature of Edwin Land

  • Edwin Land's childhood was marked by classic inventor behavior, including disassembling household objects and causing electrical mishaps.
  • Both Land and Jobs were encouraged in their youth to explore and manipulate their environments, fostering their inventive natures.

"Did he once blow all the fuses in his parents' house? Of course he did. When he was six years old."

This quote illustrates the precocious and inquisitive nature of Edwin Land from an early age, a trait common among inventors.

Breadth and Depth in Knowledge

  • Both Land and Jobs valued a combination of breadth and depth in knowledge, bridging the gap between the humanities and science.
  • They admired individuals who possessed expertise in multiple disciplines, such as chemists who were musicians.

"Edwin Land liked people who had breadth as well as depth, chemists who were also musicians or photographers who understood physics."

This quote highlights Land's appreciation for multidisciplinary talent, reflecting a belief that innovation benefits from a fusion of diverse knowledge areas.

Talent Acquisition and Aesthetic Influence

  • Land sought undiscovered talent, often from unconventional sources such as art history departments, to bring a fresh perspective to Polaroid.
  • He valued aesthetically inclined individuals, a strategy that mirrored Jobs's approach at Apple.

"It was a clever end run around the competition for talent, because few corporations were hiring female scientists, and even fewer were looking for them in Smith's art history department."

This quote explains Land's innovative approach to talent acquisition, which involved hiring from less traditional pools of candidates, such as female art history students, to gain a competitive edge.

Tenacity and Control

  • Land was known for his tenacity and near-absolute control over his company, much like Steve Jobs's leadership style at Apple.
  • Land's determination was evident from his childhood, resolving never to be controlled by others.

"Lan's control over his company was nearly absolute, and he exercised it to a degree that was compelling and sometimes exhausting."

This quote describes Land's strong leadership and the extensive influence he wielded within Polaroid, paralleling the control Steve Jobs had at Apple.

Early Focus and Lifelong Pursuit

  • Land discovered his passion for polarization of light at a young age and dedicated his life to this field.
  • His early work on polarization laid the foundation for Polaroid's success in instant photography.

"You may be noticing that none of this has anything to do with instant photography. Polarizers, rather than pictures, would define the first two decades of Land's intellectual life."

This quote points out that Land's initial focus on polarizers was separate from the instant photography for which Polaroid later became famous, demonstrating his long-term commitment to his field of interest.

Origins of Polaroid

  • The original name of the company was Land-Wheelwright Laboratories.
  • The first product they created was named Polaroid, which led to the company being renamed after the product.
  • Edwin Land was skilled at managing people and orienting them around a mission.

"Company is actually called Land-Wheelwright Laboratories. It's his last name and last name of his partner." "The first product they make out of this laboratory is actually going to be called Polaroid."

These quotes establish the origins of the Polaroid company and its initial focus on a product that would eventually become its namesake.

Mission-Driven Approach

  • Edwin Land believed that having a mission was crucial for the success of a company.
  • He inspired his team with a mission to save lives from highway glare.
  • Land's approach is compared to Jeff Bezos's belief that missionaries make better products than mercenaries.

"A chalkboard in their lab read, every night, 50 people will die from highway glare." "Missionaries make better products."

The quotes underscore Land's strategy of motivating his team with a powerful mission, which is likened to the philosophy of Jeff Bezos regarding the importance of having a mission-driven team.

Edwin Land's Innovations and Failures

  • Land's initial idea was to use polarizers in sunglasses and automotive applications.
  • He faced a significant failure when he could not convince Detroit to adopt his polarizing technology for vehicles.
  • This failure taught him the importance of having direct control over product design and sales.

"He's like, hey, these Polarizers, yeah, we could put them on sunglasses, but we could also put them on windshields and headlights." "He is also going to fail at convincing Detroit to actually adopt his invention, which was a very important failure for him."

These quotes highlight Land's innovative ideas and his crucial learning experience from failure, emphasizing the value of maintaining control over product development and customer relationships.

Personal Life and Work Ethic

  • Edwin Land's personal life was often overshadowed by his dedication to work.
  • His intense work ethic was evident in his response to family members and his actions following personal events.
  • Land's professional dedication sometimes came at the expense of his personal relationships.

"Land didn't say a word, and after dropping her off at the house, he went back to the office." "My work is my life."

These quotes illustrate Land's extreme commitment to his work, which often led to the neglect of his personal life and relationships.

The Importance of Language and Communication

  • Land valued language, literature, and clear communication within his company.
  • He appointed a "keeper of the language" to maintain the quality of Polaroid's communication.
  • Land's shareholder letters were personal and engaging, focusing on his vision rather than financial metrics.

"Land could write, too. As Polaroid grew, his letters to shareholders gradually became a particularly dramatic showcase for his language and his thinking." "Keeper of the language."

These quotes reflect Land's belief in the power of language and effective communication as a cornerstone of his company's culture and external messaging.

Polaroid's Transformation Post-World War II

  • World War II marked a turning point for Polaroid, shifting from consumer products to wartime innovations.
  • After the war, Polaroid became known for inventing the instant photography industry.
  • Land's ability to invent solutions on demand was legendary.

"Then you have all the war work they did, which was rather remarkable." "It's all the invention of the instant photography industry and the instant camera."

The quotes capture Polaroid's pivot during World War II and its subsequent rise to fame through the creation of the instant photography market, showcasing Land's inventive prowess.

The SX-70 and the Power of Invention

  • Land visualized the instant camera after his daughter's question about seeing photos immediately.
  • Great inventions often seem obvious in hindsight, but they can induce a fear of being preempted by others.
  • Land and Chester Carlson (inventor of the Xerox photocopier) shared a similar experience of urgency to document and patent their inventions.

"Great inventions have a tendency to seem obvious after the fact." "Land already had a strong patenting instinct."

These quotes discuss the nature of invention and the anxiety inventors feel to protect their ideas, as well as Land's foresight in securing patents for his innovations.

Perseverance and Persistence in Entrepreneurship

  • Land's journey with Polaroid exemplified the importance of perseverance and persistence in entrepreneurship.
  • He joked about the time it took to solve certain problems, highlighting the long-term commitment required for success.

"Land joked that he roughed out the details in a few hours, except for the ones that took from 1943 to 1972 to solve."

This quote humorously conveys the lengthy and challenging process of innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit of perseverance that Land embodied.

Product Demonstrations as a Marketing Tool

  • Both Edwin Land and Steve Jobs were adept at product demonstrations.
  • Claude Hopkins, a renowned copywriter, emphasized the unmatched impact of a dramatic demonstration.
  • Land's product demonstrations for Polaroid cameras generated significant publicity and customer excitement.

"No argument in the world can ever compare with one dramatic demonstration." "This picture, it usually takes 50 to 60 seconds for the Polaroid to appear."

These quotes highlight the effectiveness of live product demonstrations in marketing and the ability of such events to captivate audiences and generate media coverage, a strategy successfully employed by both Land and Jobs.

Evolution of Polaroid and Vision of Edwin Land

  • The development of Polaroid's camera was a significant leap from traditional photography.
  • Edwin Land envisioned a camera that was portable and could be carried around easily.
  • The first Polaroid camera, known as the Land Camera, was much larger than what Land had ultimately envisioned.
  • The book referenced provides detailed visual evolution of the camera, showing its transformation over decades.

"The camera that Polaroid was able to make in 1947 doesn't look at all like the final version, the version that he saw in his mind, one that you could almost fit in a pocket."

The quote highlights the initial design of the Polaroid camera and how it differed from Land's final vision of a compact, easily portable camera.

Hiring Paid Critics

  • Hiring paid critics was a practice used by influential companies like Sony and Polaroid.
  • Edwin Land and Akio Morita (co-founder of Sony) both employed this method to improve their products.
  • Ansel Adams, a renowned photographer, was hired by Polaroid to provide detailed feedback on their products.
  • Norio Ohga criticized Sony's early audio tape recorders, leading to improvements in their design.

"For a retainer of $100 a month, Land got Ansel Adams formidable knowledge on tap."

This quote explains how Ansel Adams was retained by Polaroid to provide expert feedback, which was invaluable to the company's product development.

Impact of Paid Critics on Product Development

  • Ansel Adams and Norio Ohga provided detailed, critical feedback that was used to refine products.
  • Adams' feedback to Polaroid included detailed reports and test photos, while Ohga's criticism of Sony's recorders led to technical improvements.
  • Both critics had long-term relationships with the companies, with Adams staying on Polaroid's payroll for his professional life and Ohga eventually becoming Sony's president.

"Eventually, Adams filed more than 3000 of these reports."

This quote emphasizes the extensive and detailed feedback provided by Ansel Adams to Polaroid over his tenure as a paid critic.

Polaroid's Success and Monopoly

  • Polaroid experienced immediate success upon the release of their camera.
  • Edwin Land's company became a technology monopoly, yielding high profits.
  • The company's financial success allowed them to avoid price competition and maintain high profit margins, especially with a 60% margin on film.

"They sell more than they can even produce."

The quote signifies the high demand and success of the Polaroid camera upon its release.

Leadership and Management Style at Polaroid

  • Edwin Land led Polaroid with a hands-on, intensive approach, similar to other tech entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.
  • Land's style was described as that of a "benevolent dictator," with direct involvement in various projects.
  • Employees experienced intense focus from Land, which could be both motivating and challenging.

"Land circulated among the offices, roving, probing, asking questions, pausing only to catnap in a barkleanger he kept in his cluttered office."

The quote illustrates Edwin Land's direct and involved leadership style at Polaroid.

Aspirational Branding and Marketing

  • Edwin Land positioned Polaroid as an aspirational brand with high-quality products and marketing.
  • The company focused on creating first-class products with high margins and reinvesting profits into research and development.
  • Polaroid's strategy was similar to Steve Jobs' approach with Apple, focusing on luxury and quality over competing with lower-priced commodity products.

"Why not make only first class products with high margins so that Apple could continue to develop even better first class products?"

The quote reflects the philosophy of focusing on high-quality, high-margin products to fuel continuous innovation, a strategy employed by both Polaroid and Apple.

Polaroid's Cultural Impact and Human Nature

  • Polaroid cameras enabled private, instant photography, which led to new, sometimes adult, uses for the technology.
  • This aspect of human nature is compared to the early days of Snapchat, which also saw use for private image sharing.
  • The discussion highlights the recurring patterns in human behavior and technology use across different eras.

"We will never know exactly who first figured out that using a Polaroid camera meant whatever happened in front of the lens never needed to be seen by a lab technician."

This quote discusses the private nature of Polaroid photography and its impact on how people used the technology.

Visionary Insights of Edwin Land

  • Edwin Land's ability to see the future of technology and photography was based on a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and experience.
  • Land's deep understanding of light and photography allowed him to envision and create innovative products.
  • This theme emphasizes the importance of expertise and long-term thinking in achieving visionary breakthroughs.

"How could he see the future so clearly?"

The quote questions the source of Edwin Land's visionary foresight, suggesting that it was a result of his extensive knowledge and experience in the field.

Edwin Land's Unique Knowledge Set

  • Edwin Land possessed a unique set of knowledge that likely no one else had.
  • This unique perspective contributed to his ability to envision future technologies.
  • Land's knowledge set allowed him to predict technological advancements far ahead of their time.

Of knowledge that maybe, probably nobody else on the planet had. And it also gives you an idea of where things may be going.

This quote highlights Land's unique knowledge and suggests that it gave him insights into future technological trends.

Edwin Land's Prediction of the Smartphone

  • In 1970, Edwin Land predicted a device resembling a smartphone.
  • Land envisioned a camera that would be used as frequently as everyday items like pencils or eyeglasses.
  • His prediction described a camera that would be effortless to use and always with the user.

So, in 1970, he is going to predict what sounds a hell of a lot like a smartphone.

The quote summarizes Land's foresight in predicting a device that would become an integral part of daily life, much like the modern smartphone.

The Evolution of Product Design

  • Land's vision evolved over time, taking decades to realize.
  • The progression from sepia to black and white, and eventually to color film, illustrates the incremental advancements in product design.
  • Land's insistence on specific design elements, like the size of the camera, was driven by practicality and potential profit from film sales.

It took land 30 years to get there.

This quote emphasizes the long-term commitment and persistence required to bring a visionary product to fruition.

Sony's Parallel Innovation

  • Sony also aimed to create products that were portable and pocketable.
  • The company's desire to make a small, battery-powered radio led to innovative solutions like custom shirts with larger pockets.
  • The story of Sony demonstrates the showmanship and practical problem-solving that accompany great entrepreneurship.

You need, like, a big pocket for Land's camera.

The quote illustrates the challenges and creative solutions in product design, highlighting the importance of making products convenient for consumers.

The Founder's Role as the Guardian of the Company's Soul

  • Founders are seen as the guardians of a company's soul, impacting the company's culture and product development.
  • Great founders are deeply invested in their work, often speaking about their products with passion and love.
  • Land's dedication to his vision is evident in the way he described the impact of his products on human relationships.

The founder is the guardian of the company's soul.

This quote encapsulates the idea that founders play a crucial role in shaping a company's ethos and direction.

Financial Recklessness Versus Impact

  • Land's focus on quality and impact often came at the expense of financial prudence.
  • His extravagant product demonstrations, like the tulip event, showcased his commitment to showcasing the product's capabilities, regardless of cost.
  • This approach can be both a strength and a weakness, depending on the success of the product.

This financial recklessness when it comes to, hey, I'm putting quality above everything else.

The quote reflects the tension between prioritizing product quality and managing financial risks.

The Inevitability of Failure

  • Even the most successful entrepreneurs can face failure if they do not adapt to changing markets.
  • Land's investment in Polavision, a product that was too late to the market, led to significant financial losses.
  • The story serves as a reminder that no business is immune to failure over the long term.

And so, as a result of the failure of polar vision, there's a reorganization.

This quote acknowledges the consequences of not keeping pace with market developments and the inevitability of business cycles.

Edwin Land's Departure from Polaroid

  • Land's relationship with Polaroid deteriorated due to disagreements over the company's direction.
  • The struggle for control and differing visions led to Land's eventual departure from the company he founded.
  • After leaving Polaroid, Land continued his passion for research through the Roland Institute of Science until his death.

If I can't play this game, my way. I'm not sticking around.

The quote reflects Land's steadfast commitment to his vision and his unwillingness to compromise on his principles.

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