iPhone, television, and many more are commonly cited successful innovation examples. But what are innovations, and why are a few of them qualified as successful innovation examples? Ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services are innovations. The human race is after an endless innovation journey to get jobs done better. Hence, the world is blessed with thousands of innovations, and the number has been growing. But some of them are far more successful than others.
Furthermore, more than 75 percent of innovative products retire without generating profitable revenue. On the other hand, smartphone innovation has succeeded in creating dozens of large firms, generating more than USD 457.18 billion in revenue in 2021. Surprisingly, the first emergence of the smartphone achieved the sale of only 50,000 units, causing a loss. Moreover, many more successful innovation examples started the journey in a similar form.
Most of the innovations do not scale up and remain stunted. They have little implications for improving quality of life, creating jobs, and driving prosperity. But a few of them are set apart, being highly scalable. Hence, often, we are after finding successful innovation examples to draw lessons. In addition to knowing names, we are also interested in figuring out what it takes for successful innovation. Therefore, this article presents successful innovation examples with insights to draw lessons as reoccurring patterns.
Selected Successful Innovation Examples
To get the jobs of having light in the darkness, human beings are after finding a light source, a better light source. The long journey led to the electric light bulb innovation by Edison in 1879. Despite its immense success, Thomas Alva Edison came up with a rudimentary filament light bulb—lasting only as less as three hours. Virtually, there were no paying customers for it—let alone generating profitable revenue. As a result, despite a considerable buzz, light bulb innovation did not show up successful innovation example. The first tangible advancement came with replacing carbon filament with metal one—tungsten. Unlike carbon, tungsten filament was amenable to incremental progression, extending life span, and improving efficiency. Hence, systematic R&D effort kept gathering additional knowledge and generating as well as implementing ideas showing steady progression over 50 years—turning a humble beginning into highly successful innovation.
To mitigate as high as 85 percent energy wastage of filament light bulbs, innovators succeeded in recreating it in the 1960s—by changing filament with fluorescence technology core. As a result, the success of light bulb innovation expanded further—making it more energy efficient. The continued endeavor of advancement has led to finding LED technology’s core. LED light bulbs are far more energy efficient than incandescent and CFL light bulbs. Furthermore, this technology core is highly suitable for innovating all kinds of light bulbs—from very small to large ones. In retrospect, for scalability due to incremental progression and recreation, the light bulb is a good candidate for successful innovation examples. Hence, although there was hardly any customer for the initial emergence of light bulb innovation, during three months of 2020 alone, 221.24 million Americans bought light bulbs.
While working on Telegraph and Telephone, Thomas Alva Edison came up with the music player innovation in 1877. By recording and playing back “Marry had a little lamb,” Edison created a sensation with his recent creation—the phonograph. But it was primitive—creating little willingness to pay among a small group of enthusiastic customers. Hence, it kept gathering dust on the shelf. After ten years of demonstration, the race of incremental progression began leading to profitable commercialization. But the acoustic technology core was not highly amenable to incremental progression—offering limited scalability. The change of acoustic technology core by electric by Wester electric led to the next wave of growth—growing customer base, revenue, and profit.
The invention of the transistor and means of recording music on magnetic film formed a new technology to recreate the electric music player. Unlike in the past, Japanese companies like Sony led the process. As a result, music players found another wave of growth—far more significant than in the past. This success was accentuated by Sony in the 1970s, releasing the Walkman. As of the end of 1998, according to Sony, the cassette tape Walkman accounted for a sale of 186 million units, followed by the sale of 46 million units for the CD Walkman. To take the success of the music player to a new height, Apple brought iPod—a remarkable example of recreation of an innovation. As of May 2022, Apple succeeded in selling 450 units of iPod—making the music player an outstanding member of successful innovation examples.
In 1957, IBM released hard disk innovation in the data storage market. It emerged as a 5MB disk weighing 1 ton. Despite its immense success over the following decades, there were few customers for that primitive innovation in the beginning. But the technology core, the technique of writing data on a magnetic disk, was highly amenable to incremental progression. Hence, the race started in gathering knowledge and generating ideas for increasing data density. As a result, data density grew from 2,000 bits/sq-inch in 1957 (IBM RAMAC) to 1 trillion in 2015 (Toshiba). Such reality is at the core of making hard disks increasingly better and cheaper—making it a candidate for successful innovation.
Due to continued incremental progression, hard disk sales reached 650 million units in 2010. However, due to the technology core’s saturation, its incremental progression rate started slowing down. On the other hand, its recreation as a solid-state disk drive (SSD), through the change of magnetic technology core with electronic flash memory, the sale started slowing down, leading to 260.3 million units in 2022. On the contrary, the sale of SSD reached close to 400 million in 2021.
Modern word processor innovation emerged as Vydec’s dedicated computer with the video display unit, printer, and floppy disk drive. In comparison to modern PC-based word processors, it was highly primitive. Only a few corporations were customers of this $12,000 machine. Soon after, Toshiba also introduced a similar machine for the Japanese language in 1979. Its recreation as a PC-based application opened a high-growth path. Hence, competitors started adding and improving features of the word processor, turning it into a great example of successful innovation.
Other successful innovation examples: Portable Storage, Television, Computer, Wheel, Smartphone, Microwave Oven, and Automobile
The above four successful innovation examples show that successful innovations tend to emerge as primitive products. Such a pattern seems to have reoccurred in the emergence of other successful innovation examples such as portable storage, television, and many more. For instance, Carl Benz’s three-wheeler automobile, Raytheon’s Microwave Oven weighing 700 lbs, and ENIAC computers were highly primitive compared to their current generations.
Hence, it’s fair to say that none of the successful innovation examples emerged as a great success story—forming a Eureka moment. But, invariably, their technology cores were amenable to progression through incremental steps—creating the scale effect. On the other hand, at the maturity of incremental advancement of the current wave, innovators found emerging technology core suitable for recreation, forming the next wave of growth. For example, the success of television innovation benefited from changing the technology core multiple times, from mechanical scanning to digital transmission. As a result, all successful innovation examples have been experiencing an evolution path of episodic form. Hence, it could be reasoned that the amenability of experiencing episodic evolution through incremental innovation and recreation is the essential underlying force for being a member of successful innovation examples.
Reoccurring Patterns in Successful Innovation Examples
In many write-ups, successful innovation examples are cited. But are their reoccurring patterns filtering out successful innovation? Irrespective of the success level, invariably, successful innovation examples get birth in an embryonic form—creating no Eureka moment. Often, they begin the journey with loss-making revenue. But unlike many other innovations, successful innovations are amenable to progression. As a result, quality keeps improving, and the cost keeps falling due to incremental advancement, expanding market, and growing revenue. Their willingness to pay also depends on externalities and the competition’s response. Hence, successful innovation examples had a track record of growing through the release of successive better versions, often at less cost.
Furthermore, they mature; but at maturity, they find the opportunity of recreation through self-destruction—finding a new path of growth. Hence, through incremental advancement and recreation, successful innovation examples keep growing, increasing utility from decreasing resource consumption. As a result, successful innovation examples have characteristics of evolving to keep diffusing deeper into society. As the progression takes place through incremental advancement and recreation, the path of evolution often takes the shape of episodic form.