Pre-Internet Entrepreneurs: Nikola Tesla

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The rivalry between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison during the rapid advance of technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is widely known. How that rivalry started is less well known, though, and it can teach today’s technology innovators and entrepreneurs something remarkably simple and important.

The Lesson: Know Your Price, and Stick To It

Tesla was a genius when it came to electronics and employing electricity in mechanical devices—of that, there’s no question. Edison was a smart inventor, but an even more savvy businessman. While Tesla was working for Edison, the former’s technological brilliance came into conflict with the latter’s financial tight-fistedness, and thus one of the greatest rivalries of the business and technology worlds was born.

As the fairly well-documented story goes, Tesla insisted he could make significant improvements to Edison’s direct current generators and electric motors. Edison said, “There’s fifty thousand dollars in it for you—if you can do it.” Tesla did it, but when he approached Edison for the massive payout (especially in 1885 dollars), he was told it had only been a joke, and instead was offered a salary bump amount to $520 a year—a nice raise back on those days. but hardly the instant fortune Tesla felt he had been promised.

Tesla immediately left and found investors to back his own company, and though he never met with the same financial success as Edison he made far more for himself, in money and in fame, than he would have had he settled for being a cog in Edison’s machine.

The Action: Find the Right Money, Not the Easy Money

The offer on the table in the here-and-now is always attractive, but taking the good might mean you miss out on the great. Don’t sell yourself, your ideas, or your company short. If you have something you know is valuable, including your ideas and new technologies, find people who truly believe in your vision to provide your financial backing. Don’t settle for second fiddle to someone else’s bottom line.


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