When Innovation Dies

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I awoke this morning to an interesting roundup of headlines. First, Clemson soundly defeated Alabama for the NCAA Division I Football National Championship. It is Clemson’s second national championship in the last three years and third overall. Clemson? Next, was news that a last ditch effort to save Sears had failed. Followed by an announcement that Amazon was now the most valuable company in the world.

So how did Clemson become a powerhouse in football? More on that later. But what happened to Sears. I spent a bit of time roaming around a website that lists the chronology of Sears attempting to find clues as to what happened and when. The irony of these two events - Sear’s failure and Amazon’s triumph - shouldn’t go unnoticed. Sears was once one of the most revered companies in the U.S. The company’s early founders managed to take advantage of every macro-trend to recreate the shopping experience. The Sears Catalog once carried everything anyone could want from clothing, to tools, to an entire house. That’s right, you could order a house out of the Sears Catalog. Sears was once the largest publisher in the U.S. It was one of the largest employers and at one point their workforce was 75% female. Noticing shifting demographics in the late 1940’s it opened the first Sears stores. It has a product lab where they tested and experimented with new products. Sears delivered groceries in the 30’s! Now get this, Sears and IBM spent more than $1 billion in the 80’s to help create one of the first online services, Prodigy. I actually saw it with my own eyes when I worked for IBM in the early 80’s. Then in ‘96 they sold it off. Whaaaaat? Just as the Internet boom was beginning.

So what happened? The company that made its name by capitalizing on trends and experimenting with products, services and delivery methods. Sears was Amazon long before Amazon. How could this same company totally miss the Internet when they had poll position in the race? Any signs of product and service innovation appear to die around the time of the company’s 100th Anniversary in 1986. By the late nineties through the two thousands the timeline of events resembles that of a fish flopping on a deck in the hot sun. In ‘05 Sears even purchased Kmart , which can best be described as two drunks holding each other up. From that point forward it was all financial moves. Jeff Bezos recently said that someday Amazon would die. Perhaps there becomes a point where companies just get too big and too focused on financial maneuvers to innovate. I’m sure this topic will get a lot of attention going forward.

Now, back to Clemson. Clemson? They crushed both ND and Bama. Two programs that like Sears have long and glorious histories. ND created the forward pass and Bama, well, they had Bear Bryant. Don’t get me wrong, unlike Sears I don’t think that either program is circling the bowl. That said Princeton and Rutgers played the first college football game in the 1860s and look at those programs now. I guess time will tell :)