A couple of years ago, we were led through the deserted offices of the formerly hot hot hot Polaroid Corporation. Set in rolling hills amidst a pine forest west of Boston, the Polaroid headquarters was a mix of buildings rendered in 1950s modern architecture that you guess was probably at one time featured in Architectural Digest. On this day, however, the buildings were hollowed out cadavers of a once thriving corporation. Security guards and spotty maintenance personnel prowled the grounds in golf carts. We were led to an empty cafeteria. A hierarchy chart was fixed to the cafeteria wall that listed the chemists and engineers who had been awarded the most patents. In a small locked room stood racks and racks of brown bottles of chemical compounds that had been invented, designed, innovated and created by Polaroid scientists. Those compounds were worth millions of dollars in terms of time and investment spending, and could be useful in thousands of ways to industries like printing, health care, food science and elsewhere. And you had the feeling that they could all be swept away by an errant or overzealous cleaning crew. What? You mean we weren’t supposed to through those out?
Later we watched a sales team who looked at us with the thousand-yard stare of death camp internees. They shared a descending sales graph reminiscent of a New Yorker cartoon. These days Polaroid was only being in places without digital technologies. Places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and remote communities in India and Africa. And the digital world was closing in fast.
Edwin H. Land was an engineering student when he quit Harvard. Because he had come up with an idea. He thought of a way to make a film that developed itself within a matter of seconds. There were eight substrates to Polaroid film, and they had to be laid on the base in even layers. The only way to do that, Land discovered, was to gravity feed the chemical solutions, and to take his Polaroid film into mass production that meant first putting up a building eight stories high. (The chemical layers tended to pool when put on a traditional conveyor manufacturing.)
Imagine the size of Land’s cojones: “Yes, I have this terrific idea that we can take to market. But first we have to build an eight-story building.” A lot different than contemporaries Hewlett and Packard on the opposite coast who were making up parts in their garage.
Sure enough, promoted by advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, Land’s genius idea took off. People loved Polaroid film. Not only did they not have to take their film to the drugstore and wait a week to get their pictures developed, Polaroid made things like birthday parties, graduations, anniversaries, family reunions, and dates—all the things people like to capture on film, even more fun. Land’s invention was transformational.
Ordinary film scrambled to catch up. Hence the one-hour film processing centers that eventually popped up in every mall strip in America.
As the Polaroid picture grew more and more bleak, a holding company hijacked the brand to slap it on cheap T.V. sets manufactured in China. In 2009, Hilco Consumer Capital and Gordon Brothers Brands bought all the assets of Polaroid, including the Polaroid brand, intellectual property, inventory and other assets from the bankrupt Petters Group.
Let’s see how Polaroid develops from here.