Caught in the Mousetrap

At the UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship, we built our Entrepreneurship Academies on a simple observation, that the myth of the better mousetrap was undermining innovation. 

Recall Emerson's famous line: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” People are obsessed with building better mousetraps. For scientists, this creates a mindset in which the hard work lies in coming up with the idea—usually culminating in publishing a paper.  For the engineer, this usually means developing a design, or a model. For the would-be entrepreneur, or corporate innovator, this usually means an extensive excel spreadsheet or polished powerpoint description of the next great idea.  And for managers managing for “innovation,” to revive or maintain their business’s growth, this usually means searching for better ideas from inside the company, from among its customers, or from the larger “idea” marketplace. 

If I have learned anything while traveling the country, talking to people in companies about their innovation process, and working with scientists from around the globe, it is this: There is no shortage of good ideas. We are waist-deep in ideas, good and bad. We’ve just lost the ability to recognize them, separate the good from the bad, and throw ourselves into building the best ones into real businesses.

Emerson’s advice is simply wrong—and for two reasons. First, because he never said it. In fact, he actually said, 

“I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles, or church organs, than any body else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”  

Emerson’s advice was not to the revolutionaries of the world, but rather to the more traditional businessman hoping to compete in the market. Seven years after his death, a journalist turned those relatively unremarkable lines into a siren song luring scientists and entrepreneurs to their death, endlessly pursuing the better idea. 

When all of the attention goes to coming up with new ideas, three bad things happen.

First, people think that if an idea succeeds, it’s because the idea was good and not because the people who made it happen made the difference.  As a result, credit for any successful innovation goes to those who claim paternity over the ideas and not those who turned the idea from a pink, wrinkly little thing into the ultimate reality it became.

Second, romanticizing the ideas makes people want to hold onto their own, endlessly tinkering with them rather than putting them out in the world where they will grow or die. Better to hold onto your idea and think one day it will take the world by storm than run the risk of investing your time, money and reputation on the hard work of selling it to others.

Finally, when ideas do ultimately fail, people fault the idea and not the process of making it real. The easiest way to kill an idea in a company, for example, is to point to when someone had already tried the same idea and failed. But the greatest products of our time were made from existing ideas that others had tried before: Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook all followed the ideas of others.

Misinterpreting Emerson’s advice creates the notion that the idea is the end of the innovation process. It’s not.  It’s not even the beginning of the end.  It is, as Churchill would say, the end of the beginning.  Of course, Churchill also said, “I never worry about action, but only about inaction.” 

It’s nice to have an idea, or to be able to buy one on the market, but ultimately success or failure will come from the time you spend building real things: a real prototype, a real relationship with a customer, a real contract with a supplier, a real commitment from co-founders or investors. This is innovation and it’s hard work. It’s also why we preach the Think-Do cycle (more on this later).

Perhaps that explains the second reason why the mousetrap myth is wrong.   Since the US patent and trademark office opened in 1828 it has issued over 4,400 new mousetrap patents. Jack Hope, writing "A better mousetrap," (in American Heritage, October, 1996) reveals that of some 400 new patent applications each year, the USPTO grants roughly 40 new ones. Yet only two dozen have made any money and only two designs have ever dominated the market. The most common mousetrap design is the snap trap. Victor, the largest manufacturer, still sells more mousetraps than the rest of the market combined and has been doing so since it first patented and introduced the snap-trap in 1897. The second design is the sticky trap, which hit the market in the 1970's and uses industrial adhesives to catch the mouse.  As the numbers show, better mousetraps don't amount to anything.

Making the entrepreneurial leap well depends on following ideas with the right actions—even if those actions kill an idea sooner. Ultimately, innovation is about turning an idea into a reality and this entails doing as much as thinking. As the management guru Peter Drucker recognized, “Ideas are cheap and abundant; what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.”