When John Fitch saw a picture of James Watt's steam engine in an encyclopedia, he got a crazy idea. If he could successfully create a steam engine of his own, he could revolutionize how people traveled in the newly formed United States. We may take it for granted today, but travel around and over bodies of water in the 1780s was slow, treacherous. A steam-powered boat could save countless hours, dollars, and lives.
After securing private funding for his idea, Fitch worked vigorously to invent his steamboat. By 1787, he had created a working model that could transport passengers across the Delaware River between Trenton, N.J., and Philadelphia. The boat was ugly, slow and unrefined ... but it worked. Delegates from the Constitutional Convention celebrated Perseverance’s maiden voyage, but Fitch knew that if his invention were to be taken seriously as a widely adopted transportation option, he would have to improve its design.
For the next several years he tweaked the design, made dramatic improvements, and tested an updated version of his steamboat. By 1790 Fitch's new steamboat logged thousands of miles back and forth across the Delaware. Still, people laughed at his invention. It was a gimmick, they thought. A circus ride. No way would consumers ever take this invention seriously.
He was right and wrong all at the same time. Funding dried up for Fitch, and despite creating a more efficient way to travel he was never able to build a sustainable business model for his steamboat's operation. It ended up being too much for Fitch to deal with. He would end up a penniless drunk in Bardstown, Ken., known as "Crazy Fitch."
Nearly 20 years later, Robert Fulton became famous for being the inventor of the steamboat. It wasn't true, of course. Fulton did not invent the steamboat, he tweaked it. He made it commercially successful. He made a fortune. Most importantly, he didn't give up on the idea.
New ideas fail for many reasons. The timing may not be right. The research may be flawed. The audience may be mismatched. The marketing, messaging, pricing, or business model may be broken. When credit union decision-makers are lucky, these defects are clear. Most of the time, however, they are unwelcomed surprises that drain precious resources of time, energy, and capital.
The truth is, even good ideas fail. More often than we would all like to admit, bad ideas succeed all the time (at least temporarily ... remember the pet rock?). So how can a credit union decision-maker determine which ideas will pan out, and which ones won't?
From our experience with the Filene Research Institute's i3 program, a successful idea usually boils down to the person, or people, behind it. Is she willing to put in the work necessary to go from concept to implementation? Is he willing to hear a hundred people tell him no just to hear one yes? Is she relentless in trying to solve a problem, but flexible in how to approach it? Does he have grit?
It turns out that "grit" is an important quality. Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania found that there is a high correlation between a person's grit, or one's perseverance and passion for long-term goals, and educational attainment, the predictability that she will successfully complete strenuous training programs, and the likelihood she will achieve those goals.
Fitch was gritty. He was undaunted by the naysayers, difficulty of fundraising, reputation risk, and countless hours needed to see his idea through. At least for a while. He simply wasn't gritty enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor. While in the end the years of blood, sweat and tears were too much for him, Fulton's ultimate success owes much to Fitch's work.
As we begin recruiting for our next crop of i3ers the Filene Research Institute, we will be looking for Fultons and Fitches. Who has the grit to make something out of nothing? Who has the gift for tweaking good ideas to make them great? Who can improve processes, business models, and flawed designs to improve the lives of consumers, the viability of credit unions, and the overall health of the credit union system? Who has grit?
i3 applications are being accepted until May 31 and are available online.