So, it’s now official. What’s been rumored for some time has come to pass. Kodak has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This is indeed a sad day and not just for nostalgic 35mm film fans (remember those big SLRs we used to carry around our necks?), nor for Paul Simon music fans. Kodak was a rock solid megalith that no one ever would have thought could fall so far, although the writing has been on the wall for some time.
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. Over the past decade, most of Kodak’s markets changed drastically. But Kodak followed the path of many tech companies before it like Xerox, Digital Equipment, Sun, etc. It had many great scientists and engineers that invented many things (think Xerox PARC) but never got out of the mode of protecting its current business (film). It never saw the train coming or how fast it was moving until late in the game. And its digital camera offerings were never leading edge, but focused on consumers (an area it could never compete in given the competition from Samsung, LG, and other far east suppliers). Kodak never really differentiated itself in the new markets it entered, such as printers. Once its mainline businesses fell off the cliff, it had not established itself in a new age business that could take up the slack.
Over the years, Kodak did play with entering peripheral markets in which it had expertise — battery making, optical disk creation, and magnetic media for floppy drives — but it never made more than a half-hearted attempt to be a major player, exiting these businesses after a short run. So while its primary old line business (film) was declining, its attempts at new business (not surprisingly) never took off.
That said, it now faces a daunting challenge. Kodak is still a highly recognized worldwide brand. But how does it leverage this in consumers’ minds when credible companies like Canon, Nikon, Samsung, Olympus, and Epson are already winning hearts and minds of consumers worldwide? Kodak now says it wants to be a force in printers and digital cameras. If it tries to compete in commodity markets, it likely will lose. If it competes at the high end, what products can it bring to market that will outshine its competition? It’s going to be a tough recovery for Kodak, if it’s even possible. And if it sells off its patents, as some have suggested in order to raise funds, what does it have to work with? If it survives, Kodak will likely be a smaller, nimbler company, but a shadow of its former self.
This is a major lesson for companies, perhaps including yours. When times are good and products are selling well at high margins, that’s the time to start investing in new product areas and betting on new markets. Not all will be successful investments. But you can pretty much rest assured that the current products your company is working on will be outdated in the next few years by the rapid and relentless march of technological discovery. Companies that don’t reinvent themselves every decade or so will not long survive. Companies that do — IBM and Microsoft, for example — will be around for the long haul. Which kind of company are you working for?
Jack Gold is the founder and principal analyst at J.Gold Associates, based in Northborough, Mass. He covers the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies. He submitted this story to VentureBeat as part of a series leading up to our Mobile Summit later this month.