Great stuff by Kenny Suleimanagich. A few things of note. First:
At its peak, in 1996, Kodak was rated the fourth-most-valuable global brand. That year, the company had about two-thirds of the global photo market, annual revenues of $16 billion, and a market capitalization of $31 billion. At the time of its peak local employment, in 1982, the company had over 60,000 workers in Rochester, most of whom worked in Kodak Park, as it’s known to employees and locals. The campus, a private city within the city, sprawled over 120 acres with its own power plant and fire department, once stood as a monument of imaging and innovation. Today it still stands, but vastly scaled back from the days when film production was at the core of Kodak’s work.
Today, Kodak trades around twelve cents a share. It’s market cap is roughly $32 million. Yes, “million” with an “m”.
How will it be saved going forward?:
Among other things, Kodak CEO Antonio M. Perez is betting his commercial-printing business on high-volume customers who need a lot of ink, like product-packaging manufacturers. Even if this latest “pivot” is successful — and a lot of people think it’s a stretch — the company would be reduced to helping other people make the boxes used to ship the devices that will take the photographs of the future.
In the 1980s, one Kodak engineer, impressed by the then-new Macintosh II computer, began making proposals for Kodak to move into the digital realm. By the late 80s, the company had already made a four megapixel sensor — and did nothing with it. Why? As former Wired editor Chris Anderson puts it:
“Who could afford that?” Anderson fired back, unimpressed. “Macs were really expensive. Computing technology couldn’t have kept up until much later.”
Finally, as a reminder that some of the most transformative things start as pure gimmicks, consider the original George Eastman patent from the late 1800s:
In his original patent, he wrote that his improvements applied to “that class of photographic apparatus known as ‘detective cameras,’ ” — concealed and disguised devices, made possible by a new wave of miniaturization, that were used mostly for a lowbrow entertainment: snapping pictures of people unaware. Cameras equipped with single-use chemical plates were hidden in opera glasses, umbrellas, and other everyday objects, and sharing the surreptitious, random, and sometimes compromising photos that resulted became a popular fad. Eastman, in other words, was obsessively tinkering with what many people at the time would have considered a cheap novelty or a toy. Like Netflix in its early days, Kodak relied on the U.S. Postal Service: Customers sent their spent cameras to Rochester, where the film was removed, processed, and cut into frames; the resulting negatives and prints, along with the camera, reloaded with a fresh roll of film, were returned to the sender. Suddenly it was easy for anyone to take lots of pictures, and Eastman’s new business became a juggernaut almost overnight.
Everyone out there: keep tinkering.