Chris Anderson's recent book, The Long Tail, has gotten a lot of press over the last few months. His main premise is that with modern technology it is now financially feasible, and even rewarding, to focus not on the center of the bell curve by offering a general product that will appeal to the largest group, but to focus on the many well-defined, micro markets that exist in the "tail" of the curve with specialized niche products. The purpose of this post is not to agree or disagree with Chris's book--others are already doing that. This post is about the original "long tail" entrepreneur: Eli Whitney and what we can learn from him.
Eli didn't want to be in the long tail of the curve, but he lived there along with all the rest of the world in the late 1700's. Everything was one-of-a-kind and custom made. Eli's dream was to go up the curve into the center of the bell by creating a system that could produce identical, interchangeable parts. Because we take that capability for granted now, it's difficult to comprehend what a significant thing it was.
One of Eli's greatest moments came in 1801 when he went to the new capital, Washington D.C., and demonstrated the power of interchangeability for several dignitaries including President-elect Thomas Jefferson. The demonstration? Eli disassembled several firing mechanisms and mixed the parts, then he had those attending choose a part from each pile and he put together a musket with the parts they picked. The fact each part was identical and not custom fit was amazing to those in attendance. Several federal and state contracts followed.
The impact that Eli's interchangeability invention, or the "American System of Production" as it came to be known, had on the course of history would be hard to overstate. It wasn't Eli's first "history-changing" invention either. He is best known for inventing the cotton gin. In the years following the revolutionary war the south had no cash crop and thus no economy. While staying at the plantation of a friend, Catherine Greene (widow of Nathanael Greene, General in the Revolutionary War), Eli met many locals who lamented the need for a machine that could remove seeds from the cotton.
By early 1793 Eli had a working model that was simply described as "wire teeth which worked thro' slats and a brush." The result: southern cotton production went from nearly nothing to 200 million pounds a year by the time Eli died in 1825.
George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." With that in mind, here are a few learnings from the life of Eli Whitney, the entrepreneur:
- Eli seemed to have a knack for staying in touch with the market and delivering what it wanted. As a fourteen year old during the revolution he talked his dad into installing a forge at the family farm. Then he made nails and knife blades (sold enough to have to hire a worker). When the war ended and English nails became available at prices he couldn't compete with Eli quickly shifted production to hat pins and walking sticks. He was only eighteen at the time. He did the same thing later in life when he shifted from the production of gins to the production of fire arms.
- He understood the importance of connections. At the age of twenty-three he decided to go to Yale--not because he wanted to go into law or theology which were the main courses of study at the time, but because he wanted to "become a gentleman, accepted by other gentlemen." The connections he made at Yale served him well throughout his entrepreneurial career. It was Oliver Wolcott, a Yale alumnus and Secretary of the Treasury, that helped Eli get his first contract with the government to put his interchangeability ideas to the test making firearms.
- He failed. Eli made very little off his cotton gin invention even though he secured a patent on it. He spent a lot of time in court rooms trying to enforce that patent, but in the end he had very little to show for it. At one point he wrote to a friend, "Bankruptcy & ruin were staring me in the face & disappointment trip'd me up every step I attempted to take. I was miserable...loaded with a debt of 3 or 4,000 dollars, without resources and without any business that would ever furnish me a support."
- He learned and succeeded. At about that time things were heating up in Europe and the Federal government was looking to become self-sufficient in arms production. With his knack for delivering what the market needed, and his connections, Eli got a contract to supply 10,000 muskets to the government in 28 months and got an advance of $5,000 to get things started. Having learned from his cotton gin experience that patents guaranteed nothing, he determined the road to success lay in producing more, at a faster rate and better price than any competitor could. So he set out to create a factory that could produce interchangeable parts. Success wasn't immediate. It took him 8 to 10 years to produce all 10,000 muskets but in the process he invented the milling machine. in 1811 he got another order for 15,000 muskets and produced them all in 2 years.