From Invention to Innovation: Our Succession Planning Journey

Ideas are ten a penny:  the real challenge is can you take your great idea and turn it into a profitable product or service that can drive the growth of your company?

My historical hero is James Watt, the engineer who in the late 1700s invented the condensing chamber to the steam engine.  It meant steam engines (invented 100 years before by Thomas Newcomen with his beam engine) could become much more efficient, as they needed less coal and could be smaller.

The idea that would lead to the creation of the world’s best steam engine company came to Watt as he crossed the square at Glasgow University where he was engaged as an instrument maker.

It would take Watt 20 years to develop and effectively market and sell his new improved steam engine.  As with all inventors he needed great fortitude and resilience.  He also needed a brilliant marketer and businessman, who he found in Birmingham when he met the entrepreneur and famous industrialist, Matthew Boulton.  Boulton had a factory employing 500 men making shoe buckles and other fancy goods as they were then called.  Boulton’s factory was powered by wind and he could immediately see the utility of Watt’s invention.

But then came the marketing and sales challenge of getting the new product into the market.  Everyone who thought they needed a steam engine already had one!

Who cared about an engine that inefficiently used coal when its owner was working a mine which had unlimited, free, supplies of coal?

For Boulton and Watt their lucky break came in Cornwall where tin and copper were being mined.   The price of copper dropped dramatically and suddenly the Cornish mine owners cared about the cost of their coal which they had to import by ship.

But the mine owner had no money and had sunk their capital into their Newcomen Beam Engines.

Boulton had the answer:  he devised a royalty basis for the acquisition of the Boulton & Watt Limited steam engines.  The mine owners would pay a price based on their savings in coal.

Unhappily when the time came to pay the royalties the owners had other ideas.  They challenged the patents filed by Boulton and Watt to protect their new improved steam engine.  £9m of unpaid royalties (equivalent to £500m in today’s money!) clocked up.  Two lengthy court battles ensued until Boulton and Watt were victorious.

The unsung hero of this story is one William Murdoch; himself a brilliant engineer but also a skilled project manager.  It was Murdoch who ensured Watt’s steam engines were properly built in Cornwall and then throughout Europe as the industrial revolution transformed the world.

The Boulton and Watt company was successfully passed to the sons of its two founders before steam power was overtaken by petrol and diesel 100 years later.

What does this extraordinary story of innovation and enterprise have to do with the succession planning journey of Everyman Legal? Six years later our own legal services are, we hope and expect, ready to drive our growth.