Take Samuel Insull. This “starched English bean-counter” who took care of finances, personnel, mergers and day-to-day business for Thomas Edison, was one of the few people who saw what electric power could do.
People thought he was nuts when he left Edison’s shop in 1892 to take over a measly power plant in Chicago with three little generators and 5,000 customers. Even his richest customers found electricity so expensive that they cut the lights when their dinner guests went home.
Nobody saw any other way to use power ... except Insull. Because he understood both the technology and the economics, he realized that electricity could become a cheap, mass-market product.
So, at huge risk, Insull built an enormous 5,000-kilowatt turbine. On pricing, he discerned that residential customers needed to pay less than businesses but would turn on the juice during nonbusiness hours. Since his costs were fixed, every cent he could glean from residential customers would be gravy. So, he slashed the price for home users and offered to wire houses for free. Each new customer helped offset his fixed costs.
The experiment paid handsomely. By 1898, Insull had bought out all the power plants in downtown Chicago. Within 15 years, Commonwealth Edison had become the Midwest’s dominant utility.
Lesson: The greatest breakthroughs come from people with the broadest perspective and the deepest knowledge, people just as likely to be analysts and controllers as inventors and marketers, people who understand production and distribution as well as function and design.
— Adapted from “Suits to the Rescue,” Nicholas G. Carr, strategy+business.