Take any great idea and you can find no shortage of people who think they had it first. And it’s quite possible they did. History is full of examples of nearly simultaneous discovery. David Hilbert discovered general relativity at about the same time Einstein did. Alexander Graham Bell only narrowly beat Elisha Gray to the patent office.
Yet the debate over who had an idea first is often beside the point. The truth is that innovation is never a single event. So a moment of epiphany matters far less than the work that comes after, which is often as uncertain as it is thankless. That’s what makes the difference between great innovators and “coulda-beens.”
We’re often told that innovation is about ideas, but that’s only partly true. If your idea is revolutionary enough, your biggest problem won’t be having it stolen, but getting anyone to take it seriously at all. That’s why hardest part of innovation is not coming up with an idea, but getting it adopted. Talent will only take you so far; you also need the grit to stick with it.
Chester Carlson’s Long Road
Self taught and brilliant, Chester Carlson worked for years tinkering with his invention even while holding down a day job and going to law school at night. When his wife grew tired of the explosions he made mixing chemicals in the kitchen, he moved his work to a second floor room in a house his mother-in-law owned.
After working on it for over a decade, Carlson teamed up with the Haloid corporation in 1946. Together, they refined his product further, but it still cost nearly ten times more than competitive machines. They tried to interest the great companies of the day — Kodak, IBM and GE — but all demurred. There just didn’t seem to be a value proposition that would justify the cost.
Yet Joe Wilson, the President of Haloid, still saw potential. He figured that once companies had the product, they would use it more than they ever thought. So instead of trying to sell the machines, he planned lease them at minimal cost and charge for usage. Haloid also figured that the process needed a name and, after some deliberation, settled on xerography.
And that’s how the Xerox Corporation was born. When it launched its 914 copier in 1959 — nearly three decades after Carlson began his work — it became an overnight success and the company took its place as one of America’s most dominant businesses.
A Firing Offense
When Gary Starkweather received his masters degree in Optics at the University of Rochester, he went to work as a researcher at the company that originated with Chester Carlson. His job was to help improve a process called “long distance xerography,” which was basically like a big industrial version of a fax machine.
At the time, Xerox was using a cathode ray tube (the same technology used in old fashioned TV’s), but Starkweather thought he saw a better way — lasers. Unfortunately, lasers were considered an untested technology at the time and his boss didn’t want him working with them. Nevertheless, he persevered and vastly improved long distance xerography machines.
Emboldened by his success, he started to look for other applications for lasers. This time, he met with more than just resistance, his boss actually threatened to fire anyone who worked with Starkweather on the project. Incensed, he marched into the Vice President’s office and asked, “Do you want me to do this for you or for someone else?”
In Xerox’s stuffy culture, this was considered unheard of behavior and Starkweather’s job was in serious jeopardy. Luckily, fate soon intervened. Word of Starkweather’s work had reached PARC, Xerox’s research center in California, who invited him to continue his work out on the west coast. He happily accepted.
Starkweather’s invention of the laser printer likely saved the company and today he is revered as a pathbreaking inventor, but he almost got fired for even trying.
An Idea That Had Already Been Tried And Failed
For most of his career, Jim Allison had been content to be a research scientist and had earned some renown in his field of immunology. But in the mid-1990s, he had a breakthrough idea that would change his path. His research suggested that there might be a way to unleash the human immune system to fight cancer.
It was more than just a vague concept. He had done studies on mice that had shown incredible results. They were so impressive, in fact, that he felt he simply had to get the research translated into an effective treatment. So he began flying around the country to sell his idea to pharmaceutical companies, but all of them refused.
“It was depressing,” Allison told me. “I knew this discovery could make a difference, but nobody wanted to invest in it.” Unlike Starkweather and Carlson, the problem wasn’t that the ideas was too new and radical, but that it had been tried so many times before and failed. After being burned so many times, no one was willing to take another plunge.
It took three years and tons of heartache, but eventually Allison got a small biotech firm, Medarex, to invest in his idea. Today, Cancer Immunotherapy is considered a miracle cure and many believe that Allison is on the shortest of short lists to win a Nobel Prize. Medarex was acquired in 2009 by Bristol Myers Squibb for $2.4 billion.
The Next Big Thing Always Starts Out Looking Like Nothing At All
We often see innovation as being solely about the “big idea,” but that’s never the whole story. As the computer pioneer Howard Aiken, once put it, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”
The truth, as I explain in my book, Mapping Innovation, is that innovation always involves combination. You need the right idea to meet the right problems and combine with other ideas to create something worthwhile. That never happens right away. A moment of epiphany doesn’t signal the end of a journey, but the beginning. The next big thing always starts out looking like nothing at all.
Chester Carlson came up with a truly breakthrough invention and still had to wait decades for it to become a commercial success. Gary Starkweather proved himself at a major company and still almost got fired in his quest to invent the laser printer. Jim Allison had spent an entire career becoming prominent in his field when all those pharmaceutical companies turned him away.
And that’s what nobody ever tells you about innovation. These men — and many others — didn’t achieve what they did just by being smart, hardworking and creative, although they were certainly all of those things. What made them special is that they had the courage to grind it out long after many others would have given up.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com