In 1975, a young Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson developed the first digital camera.
The Kodak management’s reaction?
That’s cute. Don’t tell anyone about it.
Kodak’s entire business model had been based on film photography. Sasson’s invention would wipe out film, which in turn would wipe out Kodak’s existing business.
Instead of commercializing the digital camera, Kodak decided to suppress it. The company “developed antibodies against anything that might compete with film,” explained Bill Lloyd, who later became Kodak’s CTO.
Kodak eventually found itself being disrupted by the same technology it had first developed in-house—and then shelved. Although the company later entered the digital market, it was too little, too late—tantamount to rearranging deck chairs on a sinking Titanic.
In 2012, after producing cameras for more than 110 years, the company abandoned its camera business and declared bankruptcy. In the minds of corporate leaders everywhere, the “Kodak moment” went from a moment to be savored to a moment to be feared.
Across the Pacific, a very different story unfolded.
With the rise of digital cameras, Kodak’s primary film rival Fuji faced a similar problem. Its core photographic film market was shrinking dramatically. By 2003, two-thirds of Fujifilm’s core business was wiped out.
But unlike Kodak, Fujifilm’s management was willing to let go of its historical baggage and overcome the stubborn “This is who we are and what we do” mentality.
To reimagine the future, Fujifilm leaders asked, “What are our first principles—the core capabilities of our company that can be repurposed in new ways? What other industries could benefit from what we offer?”
The answer? Cosmetics.
Yes, you read that right.
In 2007, Fujifilm launched Astalift, which sells high-end skin products for—fittingly—“photogenic beauty.”
It might seem like there’s nothing in common between photography and skin care. But appearances deceive.
It turns out that the same antioxidants that protect photographic film from harmful UV rays can do the same for human skin. It also turns out that collagen—which makes up about half the materials in film—is also the most abundant protein in skin and a common ingredient in beauty products.
So the company applied its historical experience with collagen and antioxidants to manufacture a formula for skin care (The name Astalift is based on the antioxidant Astaxanthin). Departments at Fuji that had worked on film photography for decades were repurposed to develop cosmetic products.
In 2012, when its film competitor Kodak declared bankruptcy, Fujifilm’s diversified annual revenues exceeded $20 billion.
This is the power of first-principles thinking—of distilling a system into its core ingredients and building it back up in a different way.
This mindset applies far beyond the world of business. What are the first principles of you as a person? Once you tease out your own basic building blocks—the Lego blocks of your talents, interests, and preferences—you can recombine them in new ways to seek out potential new futures.
For example, one of my own basic building blocks is storytelling. As a child, from the moment I learned how to type on my grandfather’s Underwood typewriter, I wrote stories. Later in my adult life, I used storytelling as a lawyer to tell persuasive stories for my clients. Then, as a professor, I told stories to captivate and inspire my students. Now, as an author, I use storytelling to convey ideas in a memorable way. The recipe changes, but the core ingredient remains constant.
When you discover your first principles, you’ll realize that your own background may suit you for a much wider array of pursuits.
You’ll begin to see yourself in all your staggering richness and complexity.
P.S. Interested in bringing first-principles thinking to your organization? It’s one of the many topics I cover in my keynote presentations. You can learn more about my speaking and submit a booking request here.
P.P.S. I first read about the Fujifilm story in Aidan McCullen’s excellent book, Undisruptable.