Others come and go with little fanfare. For example, February 20 happens to be the 30th birthday of when the Minolta 7000--the first autofocus (AF), single-lens reflex (SLR) camera--debuted on the market.
How significant was this development? So significant that Canon--a competitor to Minolta back then--has memorialized the moment on its company timeline:
In February 1985, two months prior to the release of the "T80" camera, an event that rocked the camera industry occurred. Minolta introduced a true AF 35mm SLR camera, "Minolta a-7000," followed by the "Minolta a-9000" in September, while Nikon released "Nikon F-501" camera in April 1986. These SLR cameras were an immediate hit upon release and in addition to the already high domestic demand, high demand was generated in the North American market as well. The 35mm SLR camera leapt to stardom overnight.
It's not everyday that a technology company admits its competitor "rocked" the industry.
And boy, did Minolta rock it. The Minolta 7000 "opened a whole new market of consumers who wanted the sharpness of 35mm photographs without having to master complex focus controls," recounts a Harvard Business Review story from May, 1990. "And by 1986, with 36 percent of the market, Minolta eclipsed Canon as the 35mm market leader."
You've Seen This Film Before
You can guess how the story ends: Despite its first-mover advantage, Minolta was unable to sustain its edge. Canon danced through the door Minolta had kicked open, and regained the lead. The HBR story notes:
Canon's camera division retaliated by introducing two products that exploited a breakthrough in lens technology: sonically driven motors mounted in the lens to allow 50 percent faster focusing. By the end of 1986, Canon had pulled even with Minolta, and over the next 15 months it battled to remain at the top by hammering out three other models that covered additional segments.
There's one large innovation lesson to learn here. It's a lesson that, by this point, is more like a reminder, because it often recurs around introductions of pioneering consumer products: It's often wiser to be a smart follower than it is to be a first mover.
"You don't have to look far for cases of second and third movers that let pioneers beat a path, only to come in and blow them away," notes Inc contributor Adam Bluestein. The examples are numerous: Nintendo vs. Atari. Amazon vs. Book.com. Google vs. Yahoo.
Then there's Rocket Internet, an incubator based in Berlin. As Mark Scott points out in a New York Times profile of the company, Rocket Internet's entire premise is borrowing business models that have already proven effective.
"Rocket Internet has turned the usual business model for technology companies on its head, compiling a team of high-flying finance and management specialists and arming them with the money they need to mimic already successful Internet companies--applying these proven ideas in other countries, often in emerging markets," he writes.
But wait, there's more.
Apple did not invent MP3s or the MP3 player; but their products were the ones consumers liked best. Amazon did not invent the e-reader; but theirs is the most popular. Like the Beastie Boys, they sampled the originals, picked the best parts to please customers, and put the proper sheen on them.
They figured out how to move the crowd. And today, they are more widely known (and they have sold more records) than most of the artists they've sampled.
Protect Your Intellectual Property
While the Minolta 7000 story is a classic first-mover parable, there's more to it than that. There are ironies galore.
For example: Though Minolta was indeed the first mover, it was not, strictly speaking, the inventor. In fact, it was the Leica camera company that invented the autofocus lens, back in the 1970s. But Leica "sold the patent to Japanese rival Minolta, reasoning that its customers knew how to focus," notes the Wall Street Journal in a 2008 Leica profile.
And while Minolta was wise to acquire Leica's autofocus intellectual property, years later Minolta lost a major lawsuit to Honeywell over--you guessed it--autofocus intellectual property.
"In 1991, Minolta was ordered to pay Honeywell $127.5 million after a court ruled it had infringed on the latter's autofocus camera patent," explains an HBR story from 2000 called "Discovering New Value in Intellectual Property." The lawsuit severely weakened the company.
Years later, Minolta missed a chance to recover. Instead of innovating around the advent of digital photography, it "bet the farm" on something called the "Advanced Photo System," observes Herbert Keppler in a Popular Photography requiem for Minolta. "I don't believe Minolta has ever recovered financially," Keppler writes.
In 2003, a reeling Minolta merged with Konica to form the combined Konica Minolta company. In 2006, the company stopped making cameras all together--providing Popular Photography with the occasion for its requiem.
Consider all this, especially if you're a founder at work on a game-changing innovation.
Your product may rock your industry. But the goal is to be a consistent hit-maker. There's money--and history--at stake on it.