10 Great Ideas That Were Originally Rejected

by Gijs van Wulfen

History has shown us that a lot of wise people haven’t been able to recognize the potential of a great idea.

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Western Union internal memo dated 1876.

“I do not believe the introduction of motor-cars will ever affect the riding of horses” Mr. Scott-Montague, MP, in the United Kingdom in 1903.

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” David Sarnoff’s Associates rejecting a proposal for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” H.M. Warner (Warner Brothers) before rejecting a proposal for movies with sound in 1927.

“This is typical Berlin hot air. The product is worthless.” Letter sent by Heinrich Dreser, head of Bayer’s Pharmacological Institute, rejecting Felix Hoffmann’s invention of aspirin. At that point, Bayer was standing by its ‘star’ painkiller diacetylmorphine. This alternative drug reportedly made factory workers feel animated and ‘heroic’, which is why Bayer decided to aptly name it ‘heroin’. Later on, due to its ‘funny’ side effects, it was decided to take heroin off the market. Bayer’s chairman eventually intervened to overrule Dreser’s decision and accept aspirin as Bayer’s main painkiller. More than 10 billion tablets of aspirin are swallowed annually.

“Who the hell wants to copy a document on plain paper???!!!” Rejection letter in 1940 to Chester Carlson, inventor of the XEROX machine. In fact, over 20 companies rejected his “useless” idea between 1939 and 1944. Even the National Inventors Council dismissed it. Today, the Rank Xerox Corporation has an annual revenue in the range of one billion dollars.

“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.” A Yale university professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. Smith went on to found Federal Express.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”  Ken Olsen (President, Chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corp) in 1977.

“You want to have consistent and uniform muscle development across all of your muscles? It can’t be done. It’s just a fact of life. You just have to accept inconsistent muscle development as an unalterable condition of weight training.” Rejection letter to Arthur Jones, who invented the Nautilus Fitness Machine.

“So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.” Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer.

Even when it’s the top management of your company or your client who ask you to be innovative and expects you to break patterns, it is still wise to keep in mind that they are as conservative as ever. So the question is; how will you be able to help your colleague, your top manager, your shareholder or your venture capitalist to support your idea and fund the development and execution of it? As you’re proposing an innovation to them, you have to be aware that these decision makers who are assessing your new concept might know very little about the new target market, the new product and business model or the new technology. They would like as much tangible proof as they can get before making a decision. As long as they haven’t decided anything they don’t run any risk. Once they say yes, they will be in it up to their necks.

The essential question is, “Why should we fund the development of this new product or service”?

Jennifer Mueller of the University of San Diego, Jeff Loewenstein of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Jennifer Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership studied a company that was considering dozens of new product ideas. The researchers asked middle managers, C-suite executives, idea generators, and other stakeholders to rate each idea on its creativity, feasibility, and profitability. Then they asked customers how desirable each idea was. The team found that the customers wanted the most creative ideas, but not the ideas that people in the firm thought would be most profitable or feasible.[i] Jennifer Mueller states, “We believe that the major reason novelty and feasibility are thought to be at odds is that new ideas involve more unknowns. CEOs want to see metrics, such as ROI, to determine the viability of ideas, but for the newest ideas, such metrics are hard to produce, if not impossible. If decision makers are more tolerant of uncertainty—if they focus on the ‘why’ or consider that there are many possible solutions—it may mitigate their tendency to reject creative ideas.”

In a new business case, it is your challenge to be convincing. The more radical your innovation is, the bigger the challenge as there will be more uncertainties. In the boardroom your idea will be evaluated from at least five perspectives:

1.    The Customer: will they buy it?

2.    The Technology: can we deliver it?

3.    The Business model: will it pay off?

4.    The Risk: what do we risk? What if it’s a failure? What if it’s a huge success?

5.    The Fit: Why should we do it? What’s the strategic perspective?

Be sure, when presenting your idea, to address all perspectives. Now don’t base a new business case only on assumptions. That’s not convincing enough. Use concrete results from experiments, like f.e. Tesla did.

Wishing you lot’s of success on your innovation journeys.

Did you like this post? Then, check out Gijs van Wulfen’s new book ‘The Innovation Maze’ at: Amazon UK or Amazon US.

[i] Jennifer Mueller, Harvard Business Review, July 2014.

Source rejected ideas: Greekchat.com. http://www.greekchat.com/gcforums/showthread.php?t=45503

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Gijs van WulfenGijs van Wulfen helps organizations to structure the chaotic start of innovation as author, speaker, and facilitator. He is the founder of the FORTH innovation method and author of the innovation bestseller The Innovation Expedition. He was chosen by LinkedIn as one of their first 150 Influencers. Are you looking for an inspiring innovation speaker? Check out the movies and great reviews at gijsvanwulfen.com. Follow Gijs @gijsvanwulfen