Akio Morita was born in Nagoya, Japan in 1921. His father owned a business brewing sake. It had been in the family for 14 generations and it was expected that Akio, the oldest son, would step into the business but the boy was more interested in electronics than in brewing.
Morita studied Physics at Osaka Imperial University and served as a naval lieutenant during World War II. While in the Japanese Navy he met an electrical engineer, Masru Ibuka, and in 1946 the two men decided to form a business together. They founded Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering, Corporation and their first product was an automatic rice cooker which failed to sell well. There was little consumer demand in a society impoverished by the war so Morita decided to focus on export markets. At that time Japanese companies had a reputation for producing cheap, low-quality products which were often copies of Western merchandise. Morita and his partner wanted to break away from this approach and offer high-quality innovative electronic goods.
In 1950 they developed Japan’s first magnetic tape recorder. It was their first real success. Five years later Morita designed a pocket-sized transistor radio for the American market but it was just a little too large to fit in a shirt pocket. Morita came up with an innovative marketing idea. He gave all his salesmen shirts with larger pockets so that during demonstrations they could slip the radio in and out of their pockets. This became the first commercially successful transistor radio and sold well around the world.
Morita grasped the importance of brands and saw that the name Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corp was an impediment to success. His colleagues in Japan all liked it but he wanted to find something easily memorable in global markets. In 1958, he changed the company name to Sony because it was short and friendly. In 1960 he founded Sony Corporation of America and in 1961 it became the first Japanese company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
In the 1970s portable tape players became popular for serious recording but Morita thought that most products were big and unwieldy. He wanted to create a small battery-powered tape player for the consumer market. He designed a cassette product with headphones instead of speakers and with no record function – just playback. Most experts, including those at Sony, thought that a tape recorder which could not record was a ridiculous idea. But Morita was convinced that he could make something so portable and convenient that people would want it. In 1979 he created the Sony Walkman which went on to be the most successful personal electronics product ever with sales of over 250 million units.
Under Morita Sony set new standards in product innovation. The company introduced the first commercial battery-powered portable TV, the first colour home video recorder, the 3 ½ inch floppy drive, 8mm video tape and the audio CD in a joint effort with Phillips. Sony set a new standard in TV picture quality with the Trinitron tube. In the 1980s Sony extended the Walkman brand with the launch of the Discman portable CD player.
Akio Morita was not only a brilliant engineer. He was also a shrewd businessman, a creative marketer and a people person. He was naturally friendly and outgoing. He was able to understand Western consumers and to bridge the communication gap between Japan and the West. He died of pneumonia in 1999, at the age of 78. At the time of his death, Akio Morita was the most famous Japanese citizen in the world and Sony was the leading electronics consumer brand in the United States.
Insights for Innovators
Try innovation by elimination. Morita took the traditional tape recorder and eliminated speakers and the record function. He made something similar, smaller, cheaper and easier to use. What can you eliminate from your product or service to make it simpler for users?
Ignore the doubters. Believe in yourself. Innovators always provoke a reaction from doubters. Many people doubted the concept of the Walkman but Morita persisted and proved them wrong. Most commentators thought that transistor radios could not compete with traditional valve radios because valve radios offered higher quality. But Sony transistor radios were lighter and cheaper. Their quality improved over time and they came to dominate the market.
Ignore focus groups and instead anticipate the needs of customers. There was no market research indicating the need for a Walkman-type product. Like Steve Jobs, Morita trusted his intuition. Routine marketers analyse the past. True innovators anticipate the future.
Based on a chapter in Think like an Innovator by Paul Sloane published by Pearson.