So I just came across a book from 1959 called Ideas That Became Big Business, by Clinton Woods.
It was a buck. How could I not buy it?
I finally finished it today. And it might be the most fascinating book on creativity I’ve ever read.
Among Woods’ 100+ examples, eight stories stood out in my mind.
Each had several valuable lessons within. Let’s take a look…
The Soil is Too Rich!
In the late 1830’s, a master mechanic and blacksmith relocated from the rocky-soils of New England to the rich farms of Grand Detour, Illinois. Once he set up shop, he noticed his business primarily repaired the plows of discouraged farmers. After interviewing a score of his customers, he discovered the problem: overly fertile farmland. While it was easy to cultivate, it was not so easy to stop the soil from clinging to the plow.
One day that mechanic visited a local sawmill. The reflection from a shiny broken saw blade caught his attention. Mindful of his frustrated farmers, he wondered: ‘If I can somehow reshape the blade and form it to the plow, I wonder if it would clean itself as it cut the sod?’
Shortly thereafter, he formed his first – and the world’s first – steel plow.
That mechanic’s name was John Deere.
1. Listen to the complaints of your customers.
2. Find their pain, be their Tylenol.
3. Consider reshaping your design for alternate uses.
Iron Mine or Bust
Swedish miner Carl Wickman faced a problem. Between his mining town of Hibbing and the nearby iron range was a four-mile stretch of unpaved highway. Unable to make ends meet, he started using his own car to haul miners on short trips for fifteen cents a pop.
Soon, word spread throughout the mining town about this new transportation system. Business became so overwhelming that Carl invited a friend to help out. They worked day and night. Eventually, competition arose. And soon, other entrepreneurs began to haul groups of people for up to 90 miles, which, in 1915, was a long way. Then, in 1921, intercity busses were created. Painted gray and appearing slim and trim, they were forever dubbed ‘The Greyhounds.’
1. Choose a name that’s so obvious and memorable, customers could figure it out by simply looking at your product.
2. Ideas that spread win.
3. If people are copying you, you’re doing something right.
In 1882, John Patterson’s retail store was losing money. Unfortunately he couldn’t handle all the transactions himself. There was no way to stop money from leaking. He was headed for bankruptcy.
Then he heard about a strange device being used in Dayton Ohio. It actually enforced the correct recording of daily sales! After incorporating one of these crude machines into his order process, his store began to show a profit. Patterson then wondered, ‘If this machine is good for a little store in Ohio, wouldn’t it be equally good for stores everywhere?’
Damn right it would. Ever heard of the ‘cash register’ before?
1. Ask yourself, ‘What if everybody had my product?’
2. You can’t control every part of your business
3. Ohio is the birthplace of, like, everything.
Hey, Nice Mustache
Gail was 54 years old when he received his patent for condensed milk. However, the way he came to invent the product was more out of frustration than creativity.
In 1851 he was heading back home from a trip to London. Several of the train’s compartments stored cows in the back to provide fresh milk for the many infants on board. However, the rough terrain made many cows sick. The result: they gave no milk.
Naturally, the babies on board started crying. A lot. Borden because so upset that he walked straight up to the captain and declared, ‘I promise you this. Someday I will develop a milk that can be carried anywhere in the world!’
Over 150 years later, Borden’s produces billions of food packages a year to over 200 countries worldwide.
1. Pissed off people are good at changing things.
2. Ask what other medium your product could be delivered in.
3. Cows are people too.
Virginia. 1880’s. The characters were: 1) A mischievous young employee at the neighborhood soda fountain, 2) The local doctor who owned the soda fountain, and 3) His beautiful young daughter who drove that boy crazy.
Seeing little future in the lives of the two lovebirds, Doc fired the boy.
Heartbroken, he moved to Texas. But he took with him a unique skill of discovering new fountain drinks by mixing shots of several existing flavors. One afternoon, he found one he liked. Actually, it was one that EVERYONE liked. Including a famous beverage chemist who just so happened to sit down at his counter that very day.
For lack of a better name, patrons dubbed his drink ‘Dr. Pepper,’ teasing the young fountaineer about his long distance girlfriend.
I’m sure he was laughing too. All the way to the bank!
1. There’s no better creative inspiration than a broken heart.
2. You never know who’s sitting at your counter.
3. Whatever people make fun of you for, find out how to use that to make money.
A Lot Riding on You
Charlie was a curious and inventive 21 year old. Early in his career, he received a government grant to make rubber mailbags. But he found little success. The material melted in hot temperatures.
He worked long and hard to make ends meet. He was imprisoned for non-payment of debts. People called him a crazy man. Living in squalor, Charlie barely could afford to feed his family. Unhappy with their living conditions, his wife finally forbade him from any further experimentation.
Like a typical man, Charlie didn’t listen. And on a February morning in 1839 when his wife had gone to the market, he began kneading a batch of rubber over the kitchen stove. Upon her unexpected return, he hastily heaved the batch into the hot stove.
A few moments later he retrieved the charred rubber from the burning pot.
And the rest was history.
It felt like leather. It looked black like sulphur. And it appeared to have the strength to withstand cold and hot temperatures.
On that day, the rubber tire was born. And for Charlie and his family, you could say it was definitely a ‘good year.’
1. Listen to everybody or listen to nobody.
2. Haste doesn’t always create waste.
3. If everybody says you’re out of your mind, you just might be onto something.
Frank Mars was a candy salesman. But he needed something new. Something nobody had ever tasted before.
At the time (1923), the chocolate malted milk was the most popular drink in the nation. So he wondered, ‘Why not put that flavor into a candy bar?’
Then he did something no other candy maker ever attempted: he ran consumer taste tests. ‘In order to be a national success, it would have to suit public taste everywhere,’ claimed Mars.
And it did! After all, who doesn’t love a delicious, creamy Milky Way?
1. Test the market first.
2. Capitalize on popular trends.
3. Everything tastes better as a candy bar.
They Don’t Need to Try Harder
Most 22 year olds don’t revolutionize the automobile industry. But Walter Jacobs had other plans. Pondering the effectiveness of renting horses and buggies, he then thought, ‘Hmm. If people rented horses, why wouldn’t they rent cars, too?’
At the time he worked as an auto salesman. Eventually he raised enough capital to quit his job, buy 12 used Model T’s and begin renting the cars. After 8 months, he had 20. A few years later his fleet was up to 565 and annual revenues exceeded $1,000,000.
Not bad for a kid in the 1920’s!
Jacobs’ thriving rental business attracted the interest of Chicago Yellow Cab owner John Hertz. He eventually bought the young man’s business and created what is now the #1 rental car company in the world.
1. Find a verb that sells, then change the noun.
2. When you’re successful, they come to you.
3. Never buy the rental car insurance. It’s a total scam.
LET ME ASK YA THIS…
How did you get your start?