On a whim, I was just reading an article on MSN.com, and it got me thinking. The writer, Tamim Ansary, was discussing history’s top 9 most underrated inventions. He made the following rather interesting statement about the rotary printing press (emphasis mine):
Johannes Gutenberg invented the flatbed printing press in 1450. His invention remained basically unchanged until 1827. That year the steam-powered rotary printing press was invented, which printed from a single continuous roll of paper. The best flatbed press could print about 125 pages an hour; the new device could do about 18,000. At the time, no one needed that many copies of anything that fast, but invention is the mother of necessity. In 1833, a New Yorker named Benjamin Day decided to print a newspaper so cheap that at least 10,000 people a day could afford it: He would profit on volume. But what could he possibly put in a newspaper that 10,000 people a day would want to read? That’s when Day’s newspaper, the Daily Sun (and soon a host of imitators), invented … news.
I really like how he put that: invention is the mother of neccessity.
A lot of poor business decisions and practices have been made during the history of the development of commercial space. It shouldn’t be too surprising, especially since many of the people running commercial space programs are typically brilliant engineers with little practical business experience. One of the most common marketing errors that gets harped on is what is called the “if you build it, they will come” mentality. Basically, some people use that kind of thinking as an excuse to avoid actually trying to identify potential customers.
However, Tamim had a very valid point (one that was also made in The Rocket Company): new inventions lead to new needs. While we can sometimes predict how people might use a new capability, and thus get at least a starting guess at what the demand might be, you can never really tell in advance what will really happen when that new capability hits the market. The guy who invented the rotary printing press probably had no idea about the concept of mass market newspapers. He was just trying to make a more efficient press. The market he received was probably more than an order of magnitude more business than would have been predicted based upon previous models of printing demand. Could he have predicted that exact response in advance? Probably not. Did he need to try and justify the investment using more predictable demand? Probably.
The point here isn’t that trying to find out potential customers is a waste of time. Far from it. The point here is that any sufficiently improved capability will create demand that didn’t exist before. The key trick here seems to be to find a way to predict at least some of that new demand, and then find ways to bring that new demand it into existance fast enough that you can benefit from it. So, basic market research is still quite important in a new market like the commercial space transportation market, however actively trying to create new markets that use those new capabilities may be the real critical difference between a succesful space transportation venture, and a repeat of the failures of the past.