Thomas Edison was a Terrible Product Manager

What words come to mind when you hear the name “Thomas Edison"?”

Brilliant inventor? A man that changed the world? Genius?

Thomas Edison was all of these things, but he wasn’t a product manager. He was actually a pretty sh*t product person - and that’s okay. He was still a brilliant engineer that invented groundbreaking technologies, but he didn’t have a lot of success at productizing his technologies.

Here are 3 product mistakes Thomas Edison made.


1 - Tommy didn’t do any user research

Let’s talk about the phonograph. Before Ol' Tommy was messing around with light bulbs, he invented the phonograph in 1877 and it made him a total celebrity.

However, Edison struggled to find a way to package this new technology into a product he could sell that solved a real problem for people.

Here are some of Edison’s product ideas/ customer problems to solve for the phonograph (they’re pretty funny):

  1. Teaching elocution - “Elocution” is teaching someone to speak clearly, like in My Fair Lady.

  2. Clocks to announce the time - Just… Why?

  3. Preserving the last words of the dying -  This is the funniest one. What customer is going to buy a really expensive machine for one-time use? A quick user survey could have eliminated this use case pretty quickly.

  4. Education - Think ‘Educational Podcasts of the 1800s',’ giving users the ability to record lessons. He’s actually on the right track here, but just needs to head in the direction of entertainment

Edison didn’t even think about the music use case. (Probably because he was always studying/ working and never partying… but I digress…)

2 - Edison assumed he could fix all the product problems himself.

Edison was the brilliant engineering mind behind the phonograph, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he had the right mindset to productize the new technology. Engineers can be brilliant product people, but they aren’t always brilliant product people.

12 years after Edison invented the phonograph, a guy named Edward Easton came along. Eddy Easton was an OG product manager. He looked at the phonograph and thought “what consumer problems can I solve with this technology?”

Easton knew that rich people in the 1890's wanted to listen to cool music at home without having to hire a band. The phonograph could solve that problem.

Thus, the phonograph as most people know it - for the purpose of playing music - was actually productized by Easton.

3 - Edison didn’t think about the CLV.

Acronomicon: CLV = Customer Lifetime Value

As clearly demonstrated by Edison’s idea to sell the phonograph to dying people to record their wills and last wishes, Thomas Edison did not have a good handle on monetization strategy.

Eddy Easton, on the other hand, had his eyes on reoccurring revenue. Easton understood he could sell the phonograph to make a profit, but selling records would increase customer lifetime value significantly. By producing new records at regular intervals, there was always something new for customers to buy. Everyone wanted to be the cool kid on the block that had the new Phillip De Souza record!