Well, sort of, the race to the moon! Way back in the last millennium the U.S. wanted to put a man on the moon. And we did! But, what to do when they got there? Besides uttering memorable quotes and taking photos, the astronauts collected samples for the scientists back home. The samples had to be drilled out of the moon’s surface, but where to plug in the drill? Up until that time the cordless drill didn’t exist. So Black and Decker’s designers were assigned the task of creating a cordless drill, starting with battery technology developed by GE. The first moon drill was used in 1971 on the Apollo 15 mission.
In true entrepreneurial fashion, the leaders at Black and Decker wanted to expand the research to build new products, particularly consumer products that they could sell a lot of, so they experimented with a few different types of tools, but most of them didn’t catch on. But. There was one tool developed for use in a workshop, a multi tool with a ‘spot vac’ component. The tool was soon appropriated for use in everyday small cleanups in the main house, and the light bulb went off! The design team got to work inventing the Dustbuster®.
It was such a good idea that they filed two patents on it, a design patent for the look of the vacuum, and a utility patent for the charging system. Did they ever use their patents to keep out the competition? Yes! Before their design, vacuums were round with hoses. Their design was meant to fit neatly in the kitchen and was original at the time. The design patent, filed December 23, 1980, helped keep competitors off the market for 14 years; no one else could make a vacuum that looked like the Dustbuster® until the patent expired. They filed a utility patent on September 30, 1980, for the storing and recharging system, so no one else could use that technology for a portable vacuum for 20 years.
So why does this matter to you? Black and Decker did a few things that entrepreneurs should do: they identified an unmet need and invented something to solve it, protected their inventions with intellectual property (patents and trademarks), expanded a technology into different product types and pivoted when an invention didn’t sell. Some of their products were low sellers; one thing they may have done better was to run focus groups to test the market before they developed products the consumer didn’t want.