Business experience is key to doing things right the first time, avoiding predictable mistakes, and riding out storms. But some situations call more for guts. Three leading figures from the History of Wireless—Guglielmo Marconi, Paul Galvin, and David Sarnoff—are great examples.
Marconi was a courageous visionary. When others said that wireless wouldn’t work, and even if it did there was no need for it, he only became more determined. That story has been retold many times. Less well known is how Marconi built a reputable business using incredibly primitive and unreliable wireless technology.
Marconi’s wireless technology was a step above smoke signals. The receiver could only detect the presence of a signal. To send a coded message, the transmitter had to be turned on and off at specific intervals and the receiver had to record the signals on a moving tape. Plus, at the time there weren’t separate frequency channels, so competing users had to take turns.
Marconi hid his technology’s weaknesses by hiring and training his own operators and offering wireless strictly as a turnkey service. He carefully avoided competition with cable-based systems. Still, he understood that the only way to grow the market was to continuously extend the range of wireless communication. He claimed the first transatlantic wireless transmission and milked it for what it was worth—and then some. The first message consisted merely of the letter “S” sent over and over in Morse code. There was no independent confirmation of the achievement.
But so what? Marconi created an important niche market and quickly dominated it. He wasn't afraid of anything or anyone. In fact, he made a convincing argument for granting his company a monopoly: Competition would endanger the safety of existing maritime users by causing interference.
Paul Galvin was another gutsy entrepreneur. His original goal was to build a successful small business. However, he learned the hard way that you have to aim much higher just to survive. After a string of failures, he started yet another business during the Great Depression. His company, Motorola, manufactured and sold car radios. He proved that a successful business could be built even during the worst of times by offering a lower cost solution.
His son Robert turned Motorola into a corporate giant. But it was Paul Galvin who got the boulder rolling by refusing to give up. Failure simply wasn't an option.
David Sarnoff deserves much of the credit for building the broadcast industry. But he is often remembered as a hard-hearted businessman. That’s an unfair verdict. Sarnoff’s job was to achieve the best financial results for RCA’s employees and shareholders. Even critics acknowledge that amassing personal wealth was never his top priority. He has been accused of cheating Edwin Armstrong (who invented FM radio) and Philo Farnsworth (who invented one of the first television cameras). However, years earlier Sarnoff made Armstrong a rich man by acquiring patents from him for cash and stock. RCA eventually paid Farnsworth a modest sum.
Lost in all of the recriminations is the simple fact that Sarnoff built the consumer market for radio broadcasting based on instinct and guts. He understood that to ensure success he had to think and act big. He needed volume to drive down radio manufacturing costs and attract advertisers. Years later, he introduced television despite fears that it would cannibalize radio.
I’m not saying that the wireless pioneers relied exclusively on guts. They surrounded themselves with experienced people and acquired their own experience on the fly. But what really set them apart was their courage—the courage to look ahead, to never give up, and to act in a big way.