Profitability in trailing-edge markets

While most companies slug it out to be the leader in the “next new thing,” or work to be fast followers, a few companies profit on the trailing edge. When products fade away, they rarely disappear. They just aren’t in the mainstream anymore. Transistors and integrated circuits long ago displaced vacuum tubes in virtually all electronics. However, vacuum tubes are still made and bought. Probably over $500 million per year. Not a huge market by most measures but large enough to make a few companies a lot of money because they are the last suppliers in this dying market. The price they can charge is truly “value-based.”

There are many examples like this of companies becoming the “last supplier” standing and making a good business doing this. This is common with government or military products, and one of my Teledyne divisions specialized in trailing-edge products … quite profitably.

The AP reported today about a group of engineers and enthusiasts who had leased an old Polaroid factory in the Netherlands with a plan to manufacture Polaroid film for older model Polaroid cameras such as the SX-70, as well as some of the “newer” Polaroid models that used 600-series film. Using online distribution the company expects to be able to reach their niche market efficiently.

The difficulty for them in producing this old film was not the market need, but rather the fact that some of the key materials used in the original film are no longer available, so they had to find a “work-around.” Their project was code-named the Impossible Project. Apparently not.


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