The Genius and the Businessman

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It’s amazing how often I’m approached by someone with a great idea, or even an invention, who wants me to connect them with a businessperson. “All I need,” they often say, “is someone to sell this for me.” The sad thing is that most of them want to pay their businessperson a pittance and keep the vast majority of profit for themselves. They could learn a lot from James Watt.

Watt is arguably one of the greatest inventors of all time. After analyzing a Newcomen engine, Watt made only two significant changes. The result was the steam engine that made the Industrial Revolution possible.

Watt’s engine used a fraction of the fuel of previous engines and generated more power. Watt patented his steam engine in 1769. He realized that he had a great invention, but that he was not good at business. He went out and acquired a patron by the name of John Roebuck.

Genius Lesson Nr 1: You will probably be more successful if you bring on skills and resources that supplement your own.

Not all good ideas yield great results. The partnership did not work out very well. One problem was that Watt kept tinkering with his basic design.

Genius Lesson Nr 2: You can’t sell a product that you don’t finish. Steve Jobs put it bluntly: “Great artists ship.”

The other problem was that John Roebuck didn’t have enough money or the technical skill to help Watt move from his idea to a working steam engine. . He went bankrupt in 1773.

Among his creditors was Matthew Boulton, who took the rights to the steam engine patent in partial settlement of his claims. At the time, Boulton operated the largest manufacturing plant in Britain and employed ironworkers who could fashion a working steam engine from Watt’s design. Boulton immediately formed a new company, Boulton and Watt. He urged Watt to complete modifications to create a salable engine.

Businessman Lesson Nr 1: You may have to push the genius a little.

The results were spectacular. The firm developed steam-driven mine pumps that virtually saved the mining industries in Britain. The Watt engine saved the miners a ton of money on fuel, compared with other engines of the time. Boulton and Watt took a third of those savings as payment for their engines. Everybody won.

Boulton pushed Watt to come up with a reciprocating pump that they could sell. It was a huge success. Everybody made a lot of money.

Genius and the Businessman Summary Lesson: For the grandest success you need creative power, entrepreneurial spirit, business savvy, and discipline, but they don’t all have to be in one person.

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