Monday Manna

Taking Advantage of Proprietary Knowledge

By jmathis
• April 15, 2013

In the 1970s the photo processing and printing company my wife and I owned was one of the first to buy a Kodak Royalprint print processor. Since copying and restoring old photos was a big part of our business even then, I quickly figured out how to sepia-tone (brown-tinted) photos using the processor.

A few years later I was at a Kodak seminar when somebody asked about sepia toning using the Royalprint machine. The Kodak technical representative apologized and said that was not possible. 

Then I had somewhat of a dilemma. Did I tell the Kodak people they were wrong, or should I proceed knowing I knew something that nobody else knew? I chose the latter, aware I had no legal or ethical obligation to inform Kodak about capabilities they did not know their processor had. As a result, I was able to earn thousands of dollars doing something the then- Fortune 500 company said was impossible.

I had uncovered “proprietary knowledge” that no one at Kodak realized they possessed. Since I was not an employee of Kodak or in any way affiliated with the company other than being a customer, it was not my responsibility to inform them of something they should have discovered on their own.

This brings up a couple of questions. Did Kodak not try it, and why did not the people in the audience experiment with the machine on their own? The lessons I learned were that the “experts” are often wrong, and you can’t believe everything you hear or read. Sometimes it pays off to check things out on your own. 

I now know that many small businesses become successful simply because they are doing something that a large company cannot or will not do.

That old processor has since been junked with the advancement of technology, and Kodak has gone into bankruptcy, for a variety of reasons declining into an afterthought in the photographic industry. But in my current photography business I am still restoring old and damaged photographs. Eastman Kodak was once my biggest supplier; now the only Kodak products I have are in an antiques display case. Life and work sometimes take strange and unexpected twists and turns.

I think there is a simple but profound moral of this story. It applies to anyone in business, no matter which field of endeavor you happen to be working n: Keep trying new things, new directions, and do not believe the naysayers that say something cannot be done or the people who are afraid to step out, take a risk and follow their passion.

Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” If I had not experimented and discovered the additional capabilities of the photographic print processor, I might not have “perished.” However, I would have missed out on significant income – along with the satisfaction of knowing I had learned to do something even the manufacturer was not aware could be done. That in itself is part of the satisfaction of being engaged in an entrepreneurial venture.

Jim Mathis is the owner of a photography studio in Overland Park, Kansas, specializing in executive, commercial and theatrical portraits, and operates a school of photography. Jim is the author of High Performance Cameras for Ordinary People, a book on digital photography. He formerly was a coffee shop manager, and executive director of CBMC in Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri. 

Reflection/Discussion Questions

1.  Are you the type of person that likes to explore, to experiment to discover new things about a machine, a process, or even business philosophy? Explain your answer.

2.  How open are you to people that are always offering different perspectives or approaches to a problem? If someone came to you and proposed a revolutionary or radically different way of doing something, would you be willing to give it serious consideration? Why or why not?

3.  How do you relate to Mr. Mathis’s statement that he had no obligation to inform Kodak that their machine could do more than they realized it could?

4.  What do you believe is the importance of “vision” in the success of an enterprise, or simply for the fulfillment of one’s personal and professional calling?

If you would like to look at or discuss other portions of the Bible that relate to this topic, consider the following brief sampling of passages:

Genesis 1:1,26-27; Proverbs 20:24, 24:5; Jeremiah 33:3; Matthew 7:7; Ephesians 3:20