(Draft of John's new book: Your comments are welcome)
Elisha Otis invented the safe elevator. It made skyscrapers a success. He did not plan to do that. But he did it, through entrepreneurial agility.
During the industrial boom of the 1800s, industrial buildings rose to multiple stories. Lifts were invented to move heavy goods quicker up and down. But they were dangerous. Too often the cable broke and people were maimed.
Otis saw an opportunity. He found the existing safety devices had to be operated by hand by a lift operator. After such a safety brake failed and nearly killed people in the lift, Otis designed and perfected an automatic safety brake. A wagon leaf spring attached to the cable would flatten if the cable severed and the brake would drive stops into the vertical guide rails after a drop of mere inches. He immediately began sales to factory owners.
When the first skyscrapers arrived in New York City, Otis saw the larger market. He took a demonstration to the 1854 World’s Fair. Promoter P. T. Barnum paid Otis $100 ($3,000 today) to cut the cable on the hour each day and show the gasping crowd how his safety elevator worked. After the Fair his sales soared. His business became a success. Today the name Otis is the respected name in elevators.
More details about the man and his motivation are in Jason Goodwin’s book, “Otis: Giving Rise to the Modern City.” Reading it shows how a self-taught entrepreneur used agility to dominate a new market segment.
Sometimes your first target market leads you to a better one. Agile entrepreneurs move quickly to capture the leader’s position. That is how agility works to build unfair competitive advantage.