return to homepage

Archive for October 22nd, 2008

Ancient Egyptian Lessons Learned Then Forgotten

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

Any visitor to modern Egypt, or viewer of a travelogue on this amazing country is awed by the antiquities visible everywhere. The Sphinx, hundreds of pyramids and mausoleums, temples and statuary are testament to the brilliance of this 4000 year old culture. These relics have survived the ravages of time, weather, wars and invasions.

Almost entirely forgotten, however, is the ancient Egyptian fetish for personal health and cleanliness. We know from written records and paintings that they were very keen to promote health, wellness and hygiene in ways that were amazingly advanced for the time, and would be considered modern today. Unfortunately, after the glory of the pharaoh’s faded, these habits were forgotten for centuries and, particularly in Western Europe, people lived in filth for ages.

An example of ancient Egyptians interest in cleanliness is their oral hygiene regimen. Egypt is an arid, windy, sandy country. Dust was omnipresent and was often blown into their foodstuffs. Grains were ground for flour between stone wheels and bits of the stone would become mixed into the final product. We know from examining mummies that their teeth were ground down almost to the gum line from a lifetime of chewing this gritty diet. The pain must have been unbearable.

Halitosis is most prevalent when tooth and gum disease is present. The Egyptians perfected the art of perfumery. For treatment of halitosis they would chew fragrant herbs and rinse with a concoction of warm water, a drop of perfume and an herb cocktail. They also practiced a form of dentistry, using needles to pierce and bleed abscesses. Priests acted as doctors and dentists.

More than half of all ancient Egyptian babies died before the age of five. Women were very protective of their bodies as soon as they became aware of their imminent pregnancy. We know that they utilized a very clever pregnancy test, thousands of years before the red/blue urine test modern women buy at pharmacies. Wheat or oat grains were collected, and the ancient Egyptian woman would urinate on the seeds. If the seeds sprouted, the woman knew she was pregnant and would adjust her personal regimen to prepare for the precious moment of childbirth.

There are many more examples of practical, but advanced hygienic procedures that were used 4000 years ago to pamper and protect the human body. And yet, a millennium later, virtually none were in wide use in most of the world. What happened?

Climate, demographics, social mores and superstitions are a few of the reasons historians and anthropologist’s offer as evidence for the loss of ancient healthcare techniques. Today, we believe that living in advanced modern societies we will improve and perfect new care techniques and each subsequent generation will live better, healthier lives than previous generations. Unless we learn the lessons of history there is no guarantee that we might not revert to a Dark Age lifestyle.

Currently there is a world economic crisis. If we had studied and learned from past economic calamities much of the pain being suffered by the worlds economy could have been mitigated. The fact is we often ignore or forget the lessons of the past. The bubonic plague of the middle-ages would most assuredly have been mitigated if society had utilized hygienic procedures perfected by the ancient Egyptians and Romans. Manias like Holland’s 17th century tulip-mania, South Africa’s milk culture scheme, Ponzi schemes, and countless modern recessions and the great depression all germinate from the same seeds: greed, fear and a lack of historical perspective.

Societies do forget. Governments do forget. Groups and individuals do forget. The ancient Egyptians gifted the world with many advances in engineering, construction, science, health care and art. These lessons were largely lost in subsequent centuries. Some, such as the mystery of the erection of the pyramids, have never been rediscovered. It behooves us all today to rekindle an interest in history and ancient creativity.

The “Intermittent Wiper” Lesson For Creating Convergent Inventions

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

This weekend my wife and I took in a movie. The film was preceded by a movie trailer touting a soon to be released production based on the invention of the “intermittent windshield wiper”. Such a topic for a big budget Hollywood movie would seem to be awfully mundane. However, the trailer was a very interesting glimpse of a subject that has deep meaning for every entrepreneur, inventor or dreamer.

Robert Kearns was a university professor and an engineer with a passion for tinkering. He had lost the sight in one eye when a champagne cork had popped squarely into his eye. In 1963, while driving in a heavy rainstorm he noticed that the steady, constant pace of the wiper blades sweeping water from the windshield caused his sight to lose focus.

At that time windshield wipers only worked at a single rate of speed. As mist, or light rain occurred the driver had to manually tune off and on the unit to control the speed of the blades. Kearns had stumbled into an opportunity to address a fairly basic, but needed improvement to an already existing automobile safety feature.

At home in his workshop, Mr. Kearns created a prototype of his “intermittent windshield wiper” system. Once perfected, he filed for patents and began to approach the major American car companies seeking to license his invention. He demonstrated the unit for Chrysler and Ford, and provided each with proprietary data on his device. After internal discussion both advised Robert Kearns that his device was of no interest and they would pass on the opportunity to license.

Much to Mr. Kearns shock and chagrin, he was amazed to discover that in 1969 the Ford Motor Company began to sell an “intermittent windshield wiper” as a featured accessory on their new models. The technology was remarkably similar to his prior art. Thus began a legal odyssey that would consume Robert Kearns life, his fortune and his health.

This is where this tale has ongoing importance to anyone seeking to commercialize a new product or invention. The invention of the original mechanized windshield wiper was the birth of a “divergent product”. The invention of the telephone, the television, the radio, or the internal combustion engine gave birth to “divergent products”. They created alpha opportunities. The addition of color to televisions, answering machines to telephones and clocks to radios are examples of “convergent products”. “Convergent products” are simple product enhancements that are often extremely valuable as wealth generators. Robert Kearns “intermittent windshield wiper” is a wonderful example of a “convergent product’.

He had not invented the windshield wiper but had created simple performance elements that motorists found would add safety, comfort and simplicity to driving in varied climatic conditions. Unfortunately, he had not fully insulated his invention from predatory commercial vultures.

Patent law is an extremely specific practice. There is a reason patent attorney’s typically handle no other categories of legal work. The Kearns vs. Ford Motor Company patent suit was arduous and tortured. The patent law principal of “obviousness” was the center of the dispute. Ford claimed that the Kearns invention was “obvious”, a device made up of pre-existing components. Simply put, Kearns argued that it was his organization of these elements that was truly novel and that his unit was not “obvious” until he invented it.

It took until 1995 for Robert Kearns to prevail. The case is considered a landmark. The instance of a single person taking on a huge, international corporate behemoth, and winning, was amazing, exciting and myth shattering. Ford paid Mr. Kearns $30 million. Robert Kearns spent $10 million on legal fees to fight the case to successful conclusion.

There are many lessons here for inventors seeking to commercialize their ideas and products.

  • Protect your intellectual property

              Utilize Non-Disclosure Agreements

              Seek professional legal assistance to file patents, trademarks, copyright

              File Trade Secrets

  • Lay down a paper trail

             Detail every meeting and phone call with a written re-cap to each person attending

Save every dated receipt for FedEx, phone log, etc.

  • Build a production quality, working prototype of the invention-DO NOT CUT CORNERS HERE!
  • Include 3D Computer Assisted Design Art (CAD) with all legal filings
  • Always assume that others are working on similar inventions and protect your interests

We look at hundreds of inventions and new product submissions each year in our consulting business. A fair percentage of these presentations have real commercial value and could be successfully marketed. Most however, will never see a store shelf because the creator will not take appropriate steps to protect and commercialize their opportunity.

Robert Kearns did. He had a simple idea for a “convergent product”. He took appropriate steps to protect his invention. When he was ripped off, he took up the fight. Because of his success and courage, it is now much easier to fight and win against the “big guys”.

Each of us sees or experiences opportunities almost everyday, in our work or personal environment. Most of us aren’t paying attention or do not recognize opportunity when it appears. For the few that do, and have the courage to act, will be rewarded by a marketplace that craves new products and concepts.

I can not wait to see the movie.

Water Lessons Learned, Lost and Re-learned today

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

I recently visited the exciting, ancient city of Rome, Italy with my family. Of course, we all know that this city by the Tiber River is basically an open-air museum, with stunning historic relics every where one looks. The Forum, the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Borghese Gardens, Hadrians Arch, the catacombs, the Vatican and Sistine Chapel are only a few of the popular tourist destinations that all visitors feel compelled to visit.

We did visit these and many more beautiful, famously important spots. These antiquities are so completely inter-mingled with the modern metropolitan features of Rome that it seems as if the city of Romulus and Remus, Caesar and Nero, Mussolini and Berlusconi, is the result of some celestial urban planner’s mad genius. Streets, sewers, neighborhoods, electric grid and traffic swirl madly around ancient churches, villas, monuments and fountains. The result, especially at night, is an almost surreal, Felini-like aura.

In this maelstrom the city government is attempting to improve the transit infrastructure by building a subway. However, the effort is constantly being delayed. As digging progresses, the contractors are regularly running into more ancient artifacts and sites that have been built over many centuries ago. These places by law are excavated by the countries historic trust agency. Each site must be fully researched, cataloged, and blocked off from the subway construction. As a result the city has no idea when the system will be finished, or at what price.

This constant push/pull of the ancient versus the modern, of history versus contemporary society’s needs is a daily feature of life in all of Italy. However, one of ancient Rome’s greatest achievements, and there were many that still benefit Italy and much of Europe to this day, still works and is essential to contemporary daily Roman life: the aqueduct.

At the height of its power in the 1st century A.D., Rome supported a population of over one million people. Despite it’s setting on the banks of the Tiber River, the city was woefully dry. The Tiber is shallow, silted and often salty. The water is not potable. A growing, powerful city needs a dependable, constant source of water to support the population and the animals that such a society depended upon.

The Romans were the world’s greatest engineers at that time, and possibly of all time. Their success in war and conquest depended greatly on their ability to build roads, siege engines and extend supply lines by creatively engineering solutions to fit every situation they confronted. This craft is fully on display, still today, in the fully operational water Aqueduct that supplies fresh water to the metropolitan city of Rome in 2008.

For over 20 centuries the Roman Aqueduct has brought fresh water from the Appenine Mountains several hundred kilometers east to the city. The constant, uninterrupted flow of pure, fresh water enabled the city to prosper. The Romans were diligent bathers. They created a fully functional sewage system. Fountains, both public and privately built inside villas were a tribute to the creative might of the city. In the ancient world running water was considered miraculous.

Roman dedication to water and its hygienic importance can be seen in every conquered territory that they occupied and governed. North Africa, Gaul, Spain and England all benefited hugely from Roman water system engineering. The Roman Baths in Bath, England, over 2000 years old still function perfectly to this day. Millions of visitors annually marvel at the engineering that provided hot, tepid and cool running water to bathers in this ancient Roman market town in Southern England.

Nevertheless, despite the accumulated knowledge of Roman engineering and the acknowledged importance of fresh water to healthy living the world went dark. After the fall of Rome in the 5th century the world entered into a Dark Age. Plague, disease, famine and drought became regularly visitors to places that only generations earlier had been fertile, productive, and creative.

Hygiene became virtually non-existent. Human waste was simply thrown into streets and alleys. People lived in the same dwellings as farm animals. The world cooled slightly and this drove people and animals even closer together as they sought warmth and comfort. Of course, this became a perfect environment for rats to thrive. People died from the Black Death by the millions. Bodies were not properly disposed of, thus creating more opportunity for the grim reaper to plunder whole towns of their citizenry.

The loss of access to the most basic of commodities, fresh water, is one of history’s riddles. The Romans provided the wherewithal, aqueducts, pumps, wells and lead piping. And yet, for centuries, the civilized world lived without this most basic of elements.

Today we are fixated on a looming energy crisis. Energy powers our modern world in its many forms. Modern technology will be deployed to seek and perfect answers that satisfy the modern worlds thirst for energy in many new and old forms. The rewards for supplying abundant and cleaner energy are simply too huge for the marketplace of ideas not too respond.

The loss or lack of understanding, of the importance of water to life in the Dark Ages is a potentially sobering prospect for we moderns to consider. The Romans harvested water ingeniously 2000 years ago. Then, inexplicably, for many centuries this knowledge was lost. Along with energy, water availability is a real, intractable, worldwide problem. We need to apply modern technologies and Roman sensibilities to discovering, transporting and conserving the world’s most important resource.

Antiquities and transport seem to be colliding in modern Rome. Similarly, the form and function of the Roman Aqueduct would seem to offer perspective today as we seek to more fully hydrate a world that requires vast new sources of water.

Willis Carrier Enabled Arizona to Develop, Expand and Prosper

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

In 1902, Willis H. Carrier, a recent Cornell University graduate began work in a New York print shop for the princely salary of $10.00 per week. Bright, eager, ambitious and curious, Mr. Carrier fully immersed himself in all aspects of the burgeoning American printing industry. His interest in printing, and solving problems endemic to the industry, inadvertently have resulted in the population boom in states like Florida and Arizona.

Mr. Carrier's boss, the owner of the printing shop, was constantly lamenting the difficulty he experienced with stabilizing ink, paper formatting and application of typeface to paper based on temperature and humidity swings. The printing factory of the day was innately a warm, muggy environment as the machines were large, dirty and generated immense amounts of heat. Humid summer days further extrapolated the difficulties of the printing process. The result was inconsistent print quality and many jobs had to be redone at loss of profit.

Mr. Carrier was vexed by these problems and began to reflect on potential solutions. One evening, while waiting in the fog for the train to commute home, he had, as he described, “a mental vision” of how to solve the problem of heavy, moist, humid air which hampered the printing process and made life miserable for people during humid, torpid summer days.

Mr. Carrier's solution was based on a simple realization and study of weather patterns: cool, wind, water, fog and seasonal adjustments that Mother Nature seemed to make on cue. His theorem, which was presented to the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1906 in his patent filing, narrative and art, contained the first description of a workable prototype for a spatial air conditioner.

The original “centrifugal chiller” was not called air conditioning for several years. Mr. Carrier worked for several more years to commercialize his invention, and in 1915, with several investors having contributed $35,000, he started the Carrier Corporation. 2007 sales were in excess of $5 billion.

Willis H. Carrier created the air conditioning system with intended applications for wide industrial placement and usage. Medical products, food preparation, cosmetics, transport of spoilable products and finely calibrated machinery were a few of the markets and industries that Carrier initially targeted. The idea of using the new air conditioning system for personal comfort did not take hold until 1924. In that year, the original J.L. Hudson Department Store in Detroit installed the system and shoppers flocked to the store.

In the early 20th century Henry Flagler was building the first railroad system through Florida. At the time Florida was a relative backwater, sparsely populated, remote, with little industry other than citrus groves. The heat and humidity in most of the state was oppressive for most of each year. Mosquito's and insects were oppressive. Windows had to be kept open to circulate the vapid, humid air.

Mr. Flager dreamt that some day Florida, Palm Beach, the Keys and Naples, would become world class resort destinations. He just needed to be able to safely; and comfortably transport visitors to the resorts he was building, and have them enjoy the wonders of Florida sunshine while the rest of the country was suffering from the winter blues. What to do about the bugs and humidity?

Arizona, much of Texas, New Mexico and Nevada were climatically challenged in different ways than Florida. Oppressive heat, no or little humidity and vast arid plains and desert made these states very difficult places to comfortably live for all but the heartiest few. Industry, technology, population growth and tourism were not likely to occur in such uninviting environments.

Henry Flager saw his opportunity to pioneer the rapid development of Florida immensely enhanced by the invention of the “centrifugal chiller”.

Finally, his vacationers could spend their days in his tourist palaces in splendor and total comfort. The air conditioner enabled people to visit and enjoy Florida, and, upon returning home, spread the word about the beaches and opportunities to live in such a place. The stampede to relocate to such a suddenly inviting locale would have been unthinkable without the invention, commercialization and mass availability of air conditioning.

Arizona and much of the southwest would still be Indian reservations, cactus and scrub ranches without Mr. Carrier's invention. The mass migration of population to these states in the second half of the 20th century would have never been possible. Can you imaging Las Vegas without air conditioning.

Willis H. Carrier invented his air conditioning system to enable industry and manufacturers to function more efficiently. As so often happens, however, the device was adapted in ways that benefited the population in many alternative uses. Cars, planes, and trains were air-conditioned and the result was that long distance travel could be comfortably enjoyed for the first time in history. Arid and tropical environments around the world became hospitable.

Industries that we take for granted today could never have evolved without the ability to control excessive heat and climate. A silicon computer chip manufacturing facility creates huge amounts of heat that must be controlled. There could be no modern computer industry without air conditioning. The bio-technology, nano-technology, pharmaceutical and laser industries would not exist with Willis Carrier's invention.

My marketing, consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, reviews hundreds of new product and invention submissions each year. Most of course, do not possess the wonderful utility of a product such as air conditioning. Nevertheless there are wonderful lessons for product developers to learn from stories such as Willis Carrier's. The road first taken is usually not the route we wind up taking to success. Many products meander to successful mass-market commercialization.

The next time you walk inside on a hot summer day, remember that the blast of comforting cool air you feel was originally meant to enable printers to more productively place ink on paper. Keep your mind open and eyes focused for alternative, hidden opportunities to commercialize and maximum your ideas, concepts and inventions. They are all around you.

How to Invent a Billion Dollar Product and Personally Gain Very Little

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

In 1930, a young engineer was sent by his supervisor to spend time working on the floor of a Minneapolis auto body shop. The reason for the working visit was to review the performance of his employer's principal product, industrial grade sandpaper, in actual use as a car door was being sanded. The young mans name was Richard Drew.

While in the repair shop, young Mr. Drew was exposed to a rougher work environment than he was used to. The floor of the shop was loud, dirty, and, well, quite profane. A good deal of the profanity was related to the difficulty the repairmen experienced while attempting to perfectly match paint panels and striping to auto bodies. They quite simply had no rudimentary tool, other than a steady hand and line of sight to make perfectly smooth straight lines that did not overlap.

Richard Drew was curious and began to consider options to simplify the process of crisply painting multiple color paint to auto bodies. His invention was ingenious, elegantly simple, and is a standard in every “do-it-yourselfer's” toolbox to this day. He created “masking tape”. There is almost no paint job done in a home or business that does not employ masking tape to protect and finish edges.

Arthur Fry was also seeking a simple answer to a personally vexing problem. Mr. Fry was continually losing his place in his church hymnal when he attended Sunday services at his church. He hated bending, or “dog earing” pages. He did not want to mark or damage the hymnal in any way. Book-mark's would simply fall out of the hymnal.

He was also, a Minneapolis area resident, and decided to seek a solution in his place of employment. Mr. Fry went to a colleague, Spencer Silver, who was working on a type of new glue with minimal adhesion properties. He borrowed a bit of Spencer's prototype glue and applied a bit to the edge of a small square of paper. When applied to paper, the glued square attached snuggly, but was easily removed without damaging the host paper.

In the 1970's, Fry and Spencer's employer, trademarked their invention and began attempting to market the product. At first there was little consumer interest. Then in 1979, almost ready to give up, the Company decided to widely sample the product in office supply stores. The response was overwhelming. The Post It Note was born.

Masking tape and Post It Note were commercialized internationally by the giant (today) 3M Company of Minneapolis. Employees Richard Drew, Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver had invented much needed and valued consumer products that have generated billions of sales and profits for 3M. However, all three were all simply employees of 3M.

In most Company's, certainly mature ones, employees sign releases that assign all rights to their work product to the employing Company. Drew, Fry and Silver had signed such releases and were rewarded accordingly by 3M. However, they were rewarded as employees, not entrepreneurial inventors. A bonus and a raise will always be appreciated, but there was no profit participation available for their great advances.

These men were working and creating on the Company's time, using Company resources and had released all rights to their work to 3M. They had good jobs, working for a great Company – but – had no further claim on the profits generated by their creativity.

Imagine the wealth and fame that these inventors might have enjoyed if they had commercialized these products themselves. Not every one has an entrepreneurial constitution. In fact, most people should not leave gainful employment to pursuit the chimera of launching a product or business. However, the opportunity to create the next masking tape, or Post It Note is seized everyday, here in America, by someone.

As an entrepreneur you totally expose yourself to the vagaries of the market. As an employee you enjoy a corporate cocoon with protective layers of resources and assets readily at hand. But think about it. If you could invent the next new product advance, with hope of commercial success, would you be pleased with a bonus and a raise – or – seek the opportunity to fully harvest and control your product and your destiny? I know what I would do.

Adapt to Changing Business Climate and Prosper Or Get Left Behing and Perish

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke,

Two business announcements this week reconfirm the unbelievable pace of change the world business climate is undergoing. Visionary fashion designer Liz Claiborne died and her Company announced that it would sell or close 16 divisions. And, pioneering retailer Leslie Wexner announced that his firm, Limited Brands, Inc. would put up for sale the Limited and Limited Express chains.

The nature of retail, like most other industries, has undergone radical change. Big box category killers like Staples and Best Buy have evolved into dominating international success stories. Tesco, WalMart and Carrefours offer enormous scale, one stop shopping unimaginable a generation ago. Specialty retailers such as Wet Seal, Aeropostiale, Abercrombie and Fitch, L’Occitaine and Talbots attack specific niches.

Consolidation, bankruptcy and liquidation have allowed fewer and fewer national department store and supermarket chains. Macy’s has consolidated nationally after absorbing numerous regional department store chains such as Lazarus, Bullocks, Burdines and Marchall Field. W.T. Grant, Montgomery Ward, AyrWay, Venture and Gold Circle are only a few examples of once strong groups that no longer exist.

The Limited began in 1963 as a single clothing store in Columbus, Ohio. Leslie Wexner saw an opportunity to create an amazing retail growth story by replicating designer clothing designs, mass producing offshore and selling tailored business clothing to the rapidly emerging population of female businesswoman. He became a billionaire by leveraging and extending The Limited to numerous additional store brands including Limited Too, Victoria’s Secret, Henri Bendel and Bath and Body Works.

Despite the huge past success of the ready to wear concept pioneered by The Limited stores, times change and Mr. Wexner reacted accordingly. Work patterns have changed, women’s fashion taste, always fickle and subject to unexpected trends, have become even more unpredictable. His decision to sell the chain is prudent and will result in a stronger Company with redeployment of assets and full concentration applied to faster growing divisions. The decision to spin off his alpha divisions may have been difficult from an emotional standpoint, but future success requires staying ahead of the curve and Leslie Wexner will always strive for maximum success.

Ms. Claiborne built her eponymous fashion house by creating high quality, suits and ready to wear that women loved for their cut, tailoring and detail, all the while keeping prices affordable. Though she had retired some years ago from active management, she and her husband remained involved in consulting on fashion direction for the Company.

Nevertheless, as always, things never remain the same in retail. Department store consolidation has enabled groups like Macy’s to create in house private label brands that produce much more profit than designer brands like Claiborne, Polo and Nautica can offer. As more store space is dedicated to private label store brands the designer labels have to reinvent themselves. In the case of Liz Claiborne, 16 divisions will be jettisoned and total focus applied to the namesake men’s and women’s brands, accessories, shoes and fragrances.

These are only two examples of successful, well managed, mature Companies adjusting to the business realities they confront. W.T. Grant did not react to change and died. Thousands of independent stores have not reacted to change and they no longer exist. Local and regional chains that did not adjust to market realities are gone.

Ice houses, barrel makers and bicycle manufacturers are non-existent today, though they thrived in the 19th and early 20th century. Dozens of auto manufacturers folded in the past century and the remaining “Big 3″ are in real trouble because they have not adjusted to market realities. Numerous airlines have failed, been through bankruptcy or been purchased by stronger, better-managed lines. Change is inevitable and is best confronted and embraced, not fought.

Every day in my consulting business we are introduced to people offering products, services and business opportunities seeking a way to successfully commercialize their offerings. Invariably, the dream of the entrepreneur is to secure placement in WalMart. Yes, the same WalMart so scorned by so many as a small business and small town killer. I often think that the people so opposed to WalMart would be proponents of home delivered ice instead of refrigeration if alive a century ago.

These Luddites can not recognize that WalMart is only the latest, most significant, agent of change. Does WalMart put mom and pop stores out of business. I contend they do not. Business owners that do not recognize the change that WalMart represents, adjust accordingly and create new services that offer real value for their customers do close. Failure is never pretty, but is usually accompanied by solid reasons and an unwillingness to change.

WalMart has spent billions of dollars trying to perfect a ready to wear clothing business. They have failed to date miserably. WalMart has grown a huge food business, however, traditional chains such a Kroger and Safeway are more profitable and growing faster. They have added organic food departments, exciting bakeries and deli’s and a much broader range of products than WalMart. They evolved, changed and keep a step ahead of WalMart.

Thousands of small, independent clothiers, florists, grocers, butchers, pharmacies and auto repair shops do compete successfully with neighboring big box retailers. They do so by offering goods and services that are highly targeted, providing better customer service, a faster shopping experience, customizing offerings, home delivery and personalizing the buyer/seller relationship. These successful small retailers do not like the big bullies, but they recognize reality, confront the changes they face and compete. They do not whine, sit idly awaiting disaster or quit. They work smarter and compete.

Change is coming, always. It is good. We all live better lives because of change. Our children will as well. If we do not embrace change we will be left behind to perish. This is true for people, companies, organizations and societies.

Aztec Technology That Still Sweetens Our Taste-Buds and Outlasted the Conquistadors

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

Chocolate was first harvested and converted into a consumable drink by the Aztec’s in Mexico. Before the Aztec’s, the cacao bean was considered a nuisance plant that neither animals or humans would eat. Tough, bitter, hard, and inedible, cacao was the plant seemingly least likely to have an upside commercial destiny.

The Aztec’s took the cacao bean and blended the meat of the plant with peppers, cane and various liquids to form a drink that was consumed vigorously as a luxury tonic. The cultivation of cacao became a significant industry in Mexico and the beans actually represented a type of currency that facilitated trade.

When Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico, he and his Spanish conquistador’s were repulsed by the taste of the cacao spirit drink that the Aztec’s consumed in such large quantities. They spit it out and written accounts refer to their disgust at the drinks harsh, bitter taste. However, through experimentation, they found that by removing the pablano peppers and other Mexican herbs and substituting pure sugar the combination produced a sweet, savory foodstuff that was consumable as a drink or a candy.

The undesirable cacao bean had found it’s initial commercial niche. Plant specimens were transported back to Spain and soon the popularity of chocolate spread across Europe. Planting of cacao trees spread across parts of Africa and Asia as demand increased and plantations were required to produce cacao in huge quantities.

The Aztec’s likewise are central to the discovery and commercialization of chewing gum. In remote parts of southern Mexico, trees release a type of sap called chicle. The Aztec’s harvested this chicle resin and developed a chewable paste that could be imbued with herbs, sweets and flavors. For hundreds of years the use of chicle as a forerunner of modern chewing gum was common throughout Mexico and parts of Central America.

Hernando Cortes however did not just conquer the Aztec’s. He obliterated their society and culture. The southern source of chicle was unknown to the Spanish and thus lost for centuries. In 1870, Thomas Adams, exploring in Mexico’s southern-most jungle rediscovered the ancient chicle resin. Soon after, William Wrigley found the source and the first chewing gum war soon commenced.

Adam’s most famous brand of chewing gum was Chiclettes. Wrigley launched the Juicy Fruit and Spearmint brands. Both were very successful, though Wrigley came to be a towering beacon of Chicago commercial and social life. The Company he founded, in addition to the eponymous Wrigley Building and Wrigley Field, has seared the name Wrigley as one of America’s great brands.

Inadvertently, the search for new sources of chicle in Southern Mexico has lead to the discovery of many ancient Aztec and Mayan cities that the jungle had devoured. To this day archaeologists are diligently working, and discovering lost tombs, pyramids and ruins that might have never been brought from beneath the jungle’s grasp without the commercial desirability of chicle acting as the apex prod for exploration.

The Conquistador’s were not interested in foodstuffs. They were lustily seeking gold, silver, jewels and mineral wealth. However, after plundering Mexico and Central and South America of all the booty they could pilfer and transferring this haul to Spain they never recognized the real treasures they had discovered.

Many types of grains, vegetables and fruits were introduced to Europe and the world as a result of the rapaciousness of the Spanish Conquistador’s. These unintended side effects of the Spanish invasion of the New World were, at that time, considered tertiary benefits of the conquests. Certainly, the exportation of chocolate and chewing gum has provided the modern world with several of life’s most appreciated and satisfying products.

Cadbury, Nestle, Mars and Hershey are international behemoth brands that provide sinful delicacy and enjoyment to humankind at amazingly affordable pricing. Hundreds of enterprises, large and small, all over the world produce amazing confections based on the Aztec discoveries of chicle and chocolate. Today, we are the beneficiaries of the Aztec genius for taking unwanted forest by-products and converting them to wondrous concoctions that make our mouths salivate and tongue’s quiver with delight.

The Aztec legacy would be great even without the treasured gifts of chewing gum and chocolate. But when I watch a child eat chocolate ice cream, or a Snickers bar, or blow bubble gum bubbles, I know the world is a happier place as a result of this ancient genius.

Any reflective student of history is often amazed at the products and processes invented and discovered in the ancient world that we take for granted today. Paint, gunpowder, weaponry, cement, the arch, beer, silk, papyrus, champagne, and so many others remain at the center of modern society and commerce in one form or another. Two of the most interesting ancient inventions are among the most popular consumer products of modern times, chewing gum and chocolate.

Adding Features to Products Can Create Blockbuster Opportunities

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

I have written in the past about the huge commercial opportunities afforded divergent products and inventions, as opposed to convergent features added to existing products. Divergent products are truly groundbreaking, destructive, disruptive breakthroughs. However, very few truly innovative divergent technologies are invented and make it successfully into the marketplace.

The original light bulb, the phonograph, the radio and the steam engine are examples of innovations that set the standards in their respective product categories and are still in use today. The inventors of these needed items enjoyed great riches and fame. We know the names of Edison, Fulton, Sarnoff, Marconi and many others because of the total market penetration that their inventions achieved.

Convergent products build on the already formed base of existing technologies. Adding a clock to a radio is a useful improvement. This type of embellishment can be extremely valuable. Typically, however, the convergent inventor is not rewarded, or as greatly revered as the initial inventor of the divergent platform product. Nevertheless, there are exponentially more opportunities for entrepreneurs and inventors to capitalize on their convergent creativity.

Consider the ubiquitous lead pencil. The original lead pencil was first created in England in 1564. Actually, the pencil was made possible by the discovery of graphite in Northern England. The pencil utilized graphite, not lead. Over many years, mined graphite was manipulated to varying thickness and hardness, allowing pencils to be sold offering degrees of performance.

This was the state of the pencil for almost three centuries. In 1858, Hyman Lipman of Philadelphia perfected and patented the eraser pencil. Lipman’s novel feature was to add a groove in the top of the wood barrel of the pencil and glue on a piece of soft rubber. Until his invention, erasers were blocks of unrefined gum rubber. The simple convenience of combining the eraser with the pencil made the new eraser pencil commercially interesting.

Hyman Lipman sold his patent and technology for $100,000. In 1858 this was a fortune. Lipman had taken a 300-year old commodity product and simply mated it with a pre-cut, glued gum eraser. The combination made him rich and is still used worldwide to this day. Inventors should keep Hyman Lipman and convergent product features in mind as they create their product improvements.

My product development firm reviews hundreds of new product and invention submissions every year. Like everyone, we are most keen to discover the next divergent product: paper clip, lead pencil or light bulb. After thousands of submissions we have seen only a few truly divergent offerings.

Product features that improve existing technologies, offer fresh benefits or fill unanswered needs are always needed. We counsel entrepreneurs to build their ideas around the following: a Unique Selling Proposition. Another way to say this is to build your product to fill an identifiable niche in the marketplace. In every huge product category there are small, under served niches. Attack these holes with creativity and convergent ideas will be hugely rewarded. Remember Hyman Lipman as you continue your endeavours.

Bootstrapping Your Way to Success

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

There is no more accurate American descriptive phrase of the rags to riches success then: “He pulled himself up by his bootstraps”. The pioneers, backwoodsmen, cowboys, whalers and other prototypical American hero classes all possessed an air of courage, self-reliance, and belief that they could beat the odds. They are wonderful samples of entrepreneurs at the most elemental level.

My favorite method of starting a business, launching a product or service is the old fashioned, do it myself, Bootstrapping. The ability to bootstrap a startup eliminates so many of the hurdles normally confronting the entrepreneur. Raising money, building inventory, dependence on support from others and assembling fixed overheads is mitigated when you bootstrap your new venture.

My first two startups were both completely bootstrapped. I had no outside investors, no on hand inventory: my home was my office, factory and warehouse. I made a product prototype, only one. That was all I could afford, but I made sure it was production quality.

Then I hit the road. I made presentations to department store buyers, non-stop in geographic loops from my home in Cincinnati. After four weeks of presentations and living in cheap motels, and a few nights sleeping in the car, I returned with a fist full of purchase orders. I then took the orders to New York, along with my business plan: everything buttoned down and detailed, for presentation to factors.

A factor is a financial firm that extends working capital to companies based on history, experience and assets. I had none of these. But I did have a unique product, a polished plan and strategy, passion and PURCHASE ORDERS from major department stores. MY first appointment was with Walter Heller, Inc. I walked away with a contract from Walter Heller, Inc. that day.

They agreed to advance me 85% of the face amount of my purchase orders.

The balance would be remitted to me, less factoring fees, when the invoices were paid. Basically Walter Heller, Inc. became my investment bank. I immediately had the monies to build inventory, organize fulfillment and business systems. I had pre-arranged for contract filling of the product so I was able to comfortably fulfill my obligations as per the purchase orders. My association with Walter Heller, Inc. continued until I sold the business. After selling my company, I went right back to Walter Heller, Inc. with my next venture.

Bootstrapping allowed me to avoid so many of the pitfalls faced by entrepreneurs, but the gamble had a price. I was on my own, totally self reliant, having no safety net and free to succeed or fail based on my efforts alone. I was afraid. My wife was a basket case. I had resigned from an executive position with a great salary, bonus, company car and expense account. We were blessed with a second child at the time. We were building a new home. Nevertheless, I was driven and would never have forgiven myself if I had not tried.

As I looked at all options for launching my product, I kept seeing potholes and hurdles that I wanted to avoid. I did not want a partner. I did not want to give up much, if any equity. I needed to build inventory and did not have the necessary funds without taking a partner or investor. Speed was essential, as I had a strong first to market advantage, if I got to market quickly. Just the due diligence process in securing investment monies, with no guarantee of successfully being funded, would jeopardize my first mover edge.

I took stock of my limited assets, my excellent, well-vetted product, and the usual chorus of NO and “Prove It’”, and decided that my only course was to bootstrap. I am amazed that more entrepreneurs do not take this eminently doable path. The reason I believe this is not more common is fear. Fear of selling. Fear of being out on a limb alone. A more traditional fund raising approach involves collaboration: team decisions and the ability to layoff blame if failure occurs.

Here is another example of bootstrapping and a unique Business Model applied to an old style, very low margin retail category.

Sam Pack is a Chinese immigrant to America. English is his second language, self-taught. He worked as a repairman and became an avid student of the American lifestyle, consumer desires and tastes. Sam saved every dollar possible hoping to achieve his dream of opening his own business.

When he had a small amount of capital, he rented a small shop in a Florida strip center, the kind of old, tired venue endemic to every city in the country.

He then bought used, second-hand appliances and reconditioned the small inventory he assembled. He was the salesman, he had no sales experience and his English was dicey, technician, deliveryman and installer. But Sam was a student of the market and had recognized an opportunity: at once delivery and installation. After a purchase was made, Sam would load his truck, make the delivery and install the unit. While gone from his shop he would leave humorous signs detailing his whereabouts and his unique policy. After the job was complete he rushed back to his shop and was ready to go again, 7days a week, 12 hours a day.

Appliance Direct, Sam Pack’s store name, provided an answer to one of the appliance industry’s most vexing problems: scheduling delivery times and charges. Industry studies show that consumers hate not being certain of a reasonable delivery window. Working people typically have to schedule Saturday delivery and there are a lot better things to do on a Saturday than wait for the truck to arrive. Stores have light weekday delivery with heavy Saturday demand. Sam found a niche and leveraged it into a classic American success.

People loved Sam’s service and low-ball delivery charges. Sam began to add staff, and grew. Today Appliances Direct is the largest seller of appliances in the state of Florida with 22 stores. Maytag, GE, Whirlpool and Amana are among the brands selling to Sam on a direct basis, no more used units. In addition, Sam Pack has become famous as an entrepreneur, and for starring in very funny commercials making fun of himself and detailing his love of appliances and America.

This Chinese immigrant in less than one generation has become a multi-millionaire, providing people a service they appreciate and pricing that the big box stores can not touch. If Sam Pack could do it, anyone should be able to give it a go.

Eric Hoffer – The Obstacles We Face Daily Present Our Greatest Opportunities

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

As a young, struggling college student in the 1960’s I became entranced with the life, philosophy and writings of the great American thinker Eric Hoffer. Hoffer’s life story was almost mystical, his thinking so lucid and the concepts he presented were so fresh that I could not get enough of this great mans ideas. Only now do I fully realize how my adherence, to the thoughts of Mr. Hoffer have positively affected my professional life to this very day.

Eric Hoffer was born in Germany. His family immigrated to America when he was a toddler. He could read English and German fluently by the age of five. His earliest years were spent in poverty, living in tenements in New York City. He lost his sight at the age of seven after a fall that ultimately took the life of his mother. Inexplicably, at the age of 15 his sight returned.

This gift of the return of his eyesight stoked a voracious desire in Hoffer to read everything he could lay his hands on. He was completely without formal education and yet he was one of the most studied, learned men of the 2oth century.

Hoffer spent most of his life living in farm camps in California, working as a longshoreman and finally in a one room flat in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. His first book, “The True Believer”, was an immediate classic and stamped him as a most original thinker. “The True Believer” is Hoffer’s observations on mass movements and fanaticism. Nazism, Communism, socialism, and early religious movements were topics that this classic book examined and critiqued with scrupulous research and poignant observations.

Owing to a life lived mostly in poverty; Hoffer’s comments on the human condition are particularly astute. Hoffer’s life was full of obstacles: blindness, loss of his parents at an early age, growing up in a new country without access to education, a lifetime of manual labor and subsistence wages. And yet, this self-educated man has left an indelible mark on all that have read his writings and consider his brilliant thoughts on a wide range of cultural, philosophical and political topics.

As a student reading “The True Believer”, I did not realize the lasting effect it would have on my life. Hoffer observed that the struggle to survive, at its most elemental, offered the best promise of a lifetime of fulfillment. The man who must work, must harvest, must create is most satisfied. Man with plenty has too much time too reflect, regret and criticize.

I have been a serial entrepreneur all of my working life. Currently I work with small businesses, inventors, and entrepreneur’s to commercialize new product ideas. Each of these individuals and company’s possess an unintended compliance with one of Eric Hoffer’s most prescient observations: “It still holds true that man is most uniquely human when he turns obstacles into opportunities”.

Every time a new technology, product or service is commercially successful an opportunity has overcome an obstacle that the inventor has identified, analyzed and conquered. The world becomes a bit more comfortable, more beautiful, healthier, or a bit safer as a result. It is hard wired into all successful entrepreneur’s that there are answers to problems that others can not identify or address.

For the last 40 years, I have read and re-read “The True Believer” more times than I can count. I don’t think there is another book that I have ever fully re-read. Each time I pick up this amazing work I learn something new, fresh perspectives and concepts that I can apply to my personal and professional life.

Obstacles represent opportunity. Identifying problems and needs is the first step necessary to providing answers that commercially benefit consumers. As Eric Hoffer so correctly observed, we are “most uniquely human when we turn obstacles into opportunities”.