The company was a giant in its industry. It began in 1886 as a symbol of ingenuity when an entrepreneur saw an “office writing” machine demonstrated at a Centennial Exhibition and decided that he could build a better one. So, Alexander Brown approached two brothers, Lyman and Willard Smith, to design and produce a “newfangled writing machine.” Thus, the “Smith Premier Typewriting Company” was born.
Smith Typewriters soon became one of the most popular pieces of office equipment because of the insight and innovation of the Smith Brothers. It’s because of them we have a standard keyboard today where keys can do double duty through a shift key. We can read text as we produce it thanks to the Smith brothers’ insight that the ribbon should face away from, not towards, the typist. After business losses due to the 1929 market crash, they recovered after introducing a portable machine to be used anywhere. In 1955, Smith Corona introduced the first electronic typewriter that accelerated production with less effort on the keys. It wasn’t done innovating yet. Smith Corona introduced one of the first Word Processors in the 1980’s, and led the word processing marketing in 1989. Its word processors introduced us to features we use today, such as spell checker and grammar checker.
In 1990, a Smith Corona marketing executive declared that the industry was in a transition between “word processors and typewriters.” Even though it launched a line of personal computers, Smith Corona believed there would be a strong role for typewriters and word processors as personal computers were too expensive and complicated to use. In hindsight, clinging to the typewriter and word processing market was a fatally bad bet. One hundred and nine years after Alexander Brown approached the Smith Brothers with his idea for a writing machine, Smith Corona stopped making typewriters and declared bankruptcy in 1995. It has re emerged as a thermal label maker.
When Success is an Obstacle to Change
In its prime, Smith Corona was a success by any measure. It dominated an industry that it began. It produced great products. It innovated. It was focused. It adjusted its business through a great depression and two World Wars; clearly it knew how to cope with crisis. While I don’t know the entire story of Smith Corona, I can’t help but wonder. Was its success a barrier to the changes it needed to survive?
Smith Corona imagined itself as late as 1990 as a typewriter company. And, it was a damn good typewriter company. From what’s written, the leaders of Smith Corona did not imagine that it could disappear because the need for typewriters would disappear. Smith Corona had to let go of its greatest success to keep itself successful. For whatever reason, it could not.
The White Sheet of Paper Exercise
In his book What To Ask the Person In the Mirror, Robert Kaplan challenges organizational leaders to regularly test alignment to its vision and purpose. He argues, “Crises have long roots.” It’s not only unnecessary, but also reckless, to wait until a crisis appears to make the adjustments an organization needs to survive.
One alternative Kaplan suggests is to test organizational strategy and alignment in the midst of success, not in imminent danger. Consider a white sheet of paper approach to your organization, starting with the fundamental question: If we started this business today, how would we do it?
What products or services would we offer? To whom? In what places or regions?
How would we be organized? Who would we hire? What partners would we develop?
What would we need to start doing or stop doing?
Why would people want to work for us and with us?
The white sheet of paper exercise demands deep introspection and perhaps difficult answers. These are the kinds of questions that are easy to avoid when everything is going well. However, success gives the cover to make any changes necessary while change is possible. The same questions are impossible to avoid in a crisis, when the options may be fewer and resources scarcer.
I can’t help but wonder about the eager entrepreneur who built an industry around a machine he saw at an exposition. How did Alexander Brown and the Smith Brothers think about their company at its start? Would the Smith Corona story have ended differently if its leaders had the courage to challenge what it meant to produce “a newfangled writing machine” at the height of its success? What can the rest of us learn from their story?
Kaplan, R.S. (2011). What to Ask The Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.