- Published: 18 - 11 - 20
- Written by: John Toal
In 1869, the expansion hungry Midland Railway Company embarked on a project to connect the east and west coast railway lines together. This would allow passengers from the Midlands and Yorkshire to more easily access the west of Scotland. They called it the Settle–Carlisle Line.
Overseen by veteran engineer John Crossley, it was a gargantuan task. Laying the 73 miles of track needed, involved blasting 14 tunnels and building 22 viaducts across the undulating Yorkshire Dales and North Pennine landscape. A huge amount of engineering effort for a relatively short line. To give you a perspective, one of these viaducts alone, spans an incredible 402m, standing 32m high on piers sunk 8m into the marshy ground below. An impressive feat in itself. And that’s before you get to the other 21.
It wasn’t just the landscape against them either. The brutal winter weather halted progress for months on end throughout the build. The ground would literally freeze solid and illness would often sweep through the 6000 men employed on the job.
Undeterred, Crossley pressed on and the railway opened in 1875. He had pulled off the most technologically challenging project in the history of rail construction.
In 1975, an American high-flying General Motors exec named John DeLorean, quit his job to follow his dream of producing a car of his own design. And quite some design it was. A sleek mid-engined sports car with futuristic Stainless-Steel body panels and dramatic gull wing doors. There was much to be excited about.
DeLorean wasn’t a man to hang around. He set himself a gruellingly short time frame to get the car into production, and after securing funding from an unlikely quarter - the Northern Ireland Development Agency - achieved just that. The first cars rolled out of a purpose-built state of the art factory in 1981. A quite spectacular achievement given he didn’t have a prototype let alone a factory barely a few years earlier.
So, both good things, then?
In the case of the Settle-Carlisle line, the Midland Railway execs hadn’t troubled to find out whether anybody within the Midlands and Yorkshire actually wanted to travel to the West of Scotland. It became brutally apparent on opening that they didn’t. Over £300 million in today’s terms was lost and the business virtually ruined.
In DeLorean’s case he failed to spot that discerning sports car buyers weren’t going to buy a car that cost the same as Porsche’s iconic 911, but was much slower, nowhere near as well made and had a badge nobody had heard of. DeLorean went bust losing £100 million of UK tax payers’ money in the process.
So what are we trying to say here? Well, both projects failed for the same reason. Someone had an interesting idea. Realising the idea presented a huge technological challenge, the people around it got excited and started to attack that challenge. And everybody was so hell-bent on technical victory, nobody remembered to think through the money side of things. Neither project had a proper business plan.
And this is more common than you might think. Especially so in our sector, where in most heads, ideas seem to proliferate over hard outcomes. To give you a couple of real examples, who – other than its originator - would pay money for a toaster that can be controlled via the internet? Or a robot which wants to kickbox you all day?
At Tharsus we have delivered products to customers including Ocado, Safetykleen and BT which have delivered substantial ROI revenues back to them. This is because our starting point was to first of all prove, and then hone, a robust commercial strategy for each. And this is the way we start with all of our customers.
If you want your idea to make money rather than burn it, you know who to speak to.
John Toal is Business Development Director at Tharsus