Did you every wonder about where all of those ubiquitous disposable cameras came from? In the days before we each carried a camera in our cell phones, many of us used these little plastic wonders to document our lives. They were incredibly convenient and easy to use and we had no need to worry about what happened to them after we received our 27 pictures from the local drug store. In fact, the cameras were not disposable at all. They were fully recycled, part of a massive and sophisticated industrial system that produced over 250 million cameras per year, sold across the globe. That’s over 6.5 billion photos per year.
The single use camera was, in fact, one of the last major innovations in the long and glorious history of traditional film-based photography. The photo industry was invented and grown by the creative genius of the Eastman Kodak Company. Over decades, the company produced a stunning series of breakthrough products that made photography an integral part of people’s lives.
By the early 1990′s, however, Kodak was struggling. Some of its new products were not successful and they had even lost a patent lawsuit to Polaroid. Worse, a capable rival had arisen in Japan, Fujifilm, that was challenging Kodak’s near-monopoly in the market. Fuji had invented a new product line called ‘film with lens’. Though Kodak countered with its own line of single use cameras, they were uncompetitive and Fuji dominated the market.
In 1993, Kodak management responded to the new threat by creating a highly focused business team to turn the single use camera business around. For a staid and traditional company, it was a radical move that inevitably created waves. The team’s first project was to design and market an entirely new product line that they code-named Falcon. It was to become an enormous success.
The Falcon story sheds light on the last days of a fascinating industry and the iconic company that led it. It is a story of innovation, leadership, focus, and intense dedication to excellence, lessons that can and should be applied to businesses today. It takes place during a time when the great Kodak company began to experience the forces that would eventually lead to collapse and bankruptcy and offers an inside glimpse into how that all played out.
I was the General Manager of Worldwide Manufacturing for the single use business from its beginning until the end of 1999. My colleagues and I are in the process of assembling the single use camera story and hope to publish within the next few months. I think that you will find it to be a fascinating look at how a small band of rebels fared inside of a unique and incredibly capable company.