For an established business, the patronage of its customers is everything.
For a startup or an R&D firm, patronage is much more difficult.
My first corporate experience spoiled me. I found myself in a skunkworks – a isolated bit of a company, sheltered from the tyranny of the rest of the corporation, free to pursue its well-defined mission. Somebody had already fought the political fight to win financial support for the group, and the rest of us could glory in a sense of elite efficiency, because we were small and effective, unlike the elephantine corporate structure that surrounded us.
Ultimately, we were a success! No surprise when given such a clear open path. And then all the managers were rewarded with corporate promotions, our group was merged with an existing, historic division, and our patronage sadly vanished. Dupont bought my life work from Eastman (as it turned out, to silence competition), and they had no interest in being my patron, so I worked on half a dozen different things – with no patronage, so fine technical success, but a business no-shows. I believe Eastman R&D took a beating when management began playing musical chairs so fast that none of their careers was linked to actual success of any project. When none of them had any idea what they wanted me to work on, my job was done there, and I left.
Patronage for R&D at Fiber Innovation Technology was present for such a small, specialty fiber innovator, because it was part of the Cha corporate empire, and FIT made a lot of sense as the R&D group for the rest of it. But then, when Mr. Cha passed away, his daughter insisted that FIT become a profit center that stood alone, and so R&D was a luxury they could not afford, our patronage was lost, and I was “let go for lack of work”, despite a track record of successful product innovation.
At the same time, I had partnered with Color and Additive Technologies. We were to supply the know-how to make flame retardants and polyester additives, they were to supply the patronage in the form of fiscal and manufacturing support. I realized that the first year with them had been wasted when they enthusiastically told me that they had actually decided to invest the capital in the equipment my projects needed. Great. After that, we began to grow a portfolio of products until the owner was rewarded by being bought out by Americhem (also acting to silence competition). End of that story.
We took our flame retardant technology around to a lot of conferences, and always got the technical people excited about the promise of our work. But never could we get the patronage of the money men back home, who did not see or understand what we were bringing.
We benefited from the patronage of Oak Ridge National Labs and the Natick Army R&D Center on a few short projects, but these are always of limited scope and uncertain future. Looks like we have another project for federal dollars coming in renewable energy and solar, so I can’t knock it, but always the goal is for establishing RELIABLE patronage.
My buddy Jim Rock built a plastic-lumber extrusion plant but had to let everybody there go when 2007 hit and the banks pulled everybody’s lines of credits. A million dollars of orders, and no way to buy the raw materials.
We did wonderful things with lignin during this period, but 4 grant proposals for Obama stimulus money later, no patronage, and the project had to be back-burnered.
Jim built a flame-retardant cotton pilot line (with a little help from me), making 200 lbs a day, and found mattress makers who would buy it if we built the factory. But, we couldn’t find investors, so no game.
Paul Orentas found us the W2Fuel opportunity and I was recruited to do R&D. Patronage again, I thought, but no! It took over 2 years to play out, but it turned out the chairman of the board, who wanted the R&D, was not communicating with the principal investor, who just wanted an energy plant. So, after a brief spurt of productive innovation, the patronage was again gone.
We fished for patronage with a Kickstarter program, appealing to people’s better nature to support development of green technologies, but that never got off the ground. Now we’re looking to the next thing…. I would so love to get back in the lab…..
So, if you are thinking of starting a business, or doing ANYTHING on a grand scale, ask yourself – who are going to be your patrons, and can you count on them?
p.s. Just remembered, my Dad was burned by flakey patrons in some of his entrepreneurial activities when I was a kid. Never got the details – must look into that….