By know I’m sure you’ve heard of Malcolm Gladwell, the pioneering journalist whose unlikely best sellers, Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers, have turned so much conventional thinking on its ear and defied us to take a second look at accepted wisdom and countless things we take for granted.
Well, Gladwell’s at it again, having just released his latest book, David and Goliath, which critics say parses a number of what experts have always considered shocking victories and analyzes how a number of underdogs throughout history were able to achieve victory in the face of overwhelming odds. And while I’ve not read the book yet, I did recently pick it up and plan on plowing through it over the next few days.
After all, when you’re a small manufacturer competing against some of the biggest corporations in the world, often from countries that channel millions of taxpayer money directly into the workings of those same corporations, a little understanding of how other Goliaths have been brought to their knees might not only be informative and inspiring, it might just turn out to be life-sustaining.
And I bring this up today because a few weeks back I read the obituary of a small manufacturer the New York Times described as a “serial entrepreneur,” and I wanted to share with you in today’s blog post one of the most remarkable decisions he ever made.
Also because in reading his obit, I was reminded once again how manufacturers like me – relatively small guys with a limited number of resources – are often given no alternative but to try to out-smart, out-quick and, perhaps most of all, out-think the big guys we’re trying to compete against.
Here’s the story: Robert R. Taylor was a soap salesman for Johnson & Johnson in the 1960s who found himself frustrated by the limitations and drudgery of corporate life. In time he branched out on his own and started his own soap and cosmetics manufacturing firm, a decision that compelled him to constantly experiment and tinker with many of the very same products he used to schlep around the country for a giant he was now trying to go after with a slingshot.
For years he had obsessed over how to make everyday bar soap better, since at the time soap used in the shower, sink or workplace always got smaller, softer and less useful with each usage. Eventually, the bar and all that still-useful soap would simply have to be thrown away.
So Taylor invented a liquid version of everyday hand soap that he planned to sell not in bars, but in small plastic containers with pump dispensers. The problem was, he realized, it would only be a matter of time until Colgate-Palmolive, Lever Brothers, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and the rest of the big boys started producing their own variation of his invention, patent or not, and that his product would soon be swallowed whole by his competitors’ almost unlimited resources – in either the courts or in the marketplace.
So what did he do? He made a strategic decision in which he bet everything he had on his understanding of what it would take to bring liquefied bar soap to market. And it turned out to be a classic bet-the-company strategy.
Taylor borrowed against his company’s few assets, put together as much cash as he could get his hands on, targeted the two manufacturers of plastic bottles in the country, and then split his order between them – an unprecedented total order that amounted to some 100 million small plastic bottles, or what he projected to be a year’s supply of liquefied soap containers for his company.
Taylor gambled, correctly so, that by tying up the capabilities of his competitors’ potential vendors for a full year, he’d give himself a twelve-month head start with which to hit the market, relentlessly brand his radical new product and establish it as a breakthrough alternative to the messy and wasteful bar soap his competitors were going to spend the year trying to pass off as hand soap.
Which is exactly what happened, and for the duration of 1972, Softsoap – and Softsoap alone – set about the process of changing forever how America washed its hands.
The lesson? When you’re a small manufacturer, industriousness, smarts, blood, sweat and long-hours will only take you so far. So, frankly, will even the greatest idea. At some point, it is probably also going to require a level of intestinal fortitude on the manufacturer’s part, or something our friends south of the border might call, “cojones.”
And even as I write this, I promise myself to finish Gladwell’s book right away. I promise too to never lose sight of the role that guts and courage have to play in the process of waking up each morning and realizing that, as a small manufacturer, right outside my door is yet one more giant laughing at me, my smarts, my experience, my staff, and most of all, my slingshot.