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How Solving a Common Problem Can Lead to Fame and Wealth
The late 19th century was a time of massive cultural, commercial and lifestyle change in the United States and Western Europe. Industrialization was in full swing. Railroads were fully formed and providing speedier movement of people, goods and foodstuffs to consumers and businesses. Men such as Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan were transforming commerce and innovation. This was a golden age of consumer product invention.
The opportunity to innovate in the areas of personal hygiene, comfort and safety were being aggressively addressed for the first time in history. The evolvement of a mass consumer marketplace was nascent. The confluence of this new mass market and a slew of new products to address perceived needs created a unique confluence of opportunities.
The daily chore of a man shaving facial hair was just such an opportunity. Today, when viewing the pictures and images of this age; we are amused by the highly stylized, gloriously cultivated facial hair seen on many male faces. The clean-shaven face is rarely seen. It would seem as if 1890’s men were striving to grow works of individualized art on their faces.
The reason so many men cultivated beards, moustaches and goatees was the difficulty inherent, at the time, in the process of shaving. Water was not always readily available to soften facial hair and lather soap. Warm water was even rarer. Most men, of even limited means, used the barber to trim facial hair. When shaving ones own beard a sharp, steel straight razor was essential. Straight razors needed to be regularly sharpened using a strop, and they had to be very sharp. Many men cut and infected themselves performing this simple act of personal hygiene. Shaving while travelling on a moving train was down right dangerous. The need to address this task was ready to be successfully commercialized.
Into this gaping void stumbled a socialist utopian dreamer named King Gillette. Gillette was considered an under achiever by his family. His father was a successful innovator and his mother wrote a famous cookbook, “The White House Cook Book”, which remained in print for almost 100 years. King Gillette had received several patents but failed in his efforts to commercialize any of them. He earned his sustenance from work as a travelling salesman. His failures embittered him and he became immersed in socialism and preached a type of anti-industrialism.
This most unlikely of capitalists, however, while working as a salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company was encouraged by his boss to continue to attempt to invent new products. Specifically, Gillette was encouraged to invent products that required subsequent, regular replacement purchases. His passion became the development of a shaving system that was safe, portable, efficient, cost effective and required the buyer to replace the implement on a regular basis.
King Gillette took his concept for a shaving device, which required an amalgam of metals and metallurgical technology, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Working with engineers at this honored school enabled Gillette to perfect the elements of the safety razor. His patents indicate an appliance of elegant simplicity.
Gillette formed the American Safety Razor Company to market his invention. Initially, owing to limited capital and a high cost of production, sales were slow. As he analyzed the product, sales potential and the virtual absence of competition, Gillette made an inspired decision: he would sell the razors at a loss to encourage sales, use of the portable implement and accelerate word of mouth about his amazing razor. Sales expanded exponentially almost immediately and the Gillette Safety Razor became one of history’s most revered brand names. The term “loss leader” or losing money on the first sale to cement subsequent profits was born.
Gillette quickly realized that his real business was not selling the razors, but selling the blades. Almost immediately he began to give the razors away. To this day, purchasing a new Gillette shaving system includes a free or deeply discounted razor, thus insuring years of consistent, highly profitable repeat purchases of the blades. Product loyalty was insured.
The term “planned obsolescence” classically fits products like Gillette blades. In the 1890’s people threw virtually nothing away. Everything was used until the useful life of a product was thoroughly exhausted. The concept of a product being used and discarded in favor of a replacement unit was novel. It also was key to the evolution of a dynamic consumer product market place. We owe much to King Gillette and the business model he created. It serves us well to this day.
King Gillette was an unlikely capitalist. Even after he had earned millions from his inventions he hypocritically preached a strange anti-capitalist philosophy. However, he possessed all of the essential characteristics so necessary to be a successful entrepreneur. He had vision, drive and courage. Failure did not deter him. He sought and found a need. He addressed that need, driving down costs and prices to make his razors and blades affordable to the masses. He provided a simple solution to a basic human problem: shaving.
King Gillette’s lesson for all striving entrepreneurs is obvious. Innovation that addresses everyday problems through simple product benefits will always be in demand. Look around your home, hobby or workplace. This is where you will find potentially lucrative and important commercial opportunities.
For assistance or consultation on commercializing your opportunity or invention contact the author, Geoff Ficke, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. at www.duquesamarketing.com or email email@example.com
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