Stanford d.school
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Guest Post — John Cassidy: The Big Idea that Got Away

Years ago, I was the parent of a young child and a children’s book author. Both of those led me to fall in love with Klutz Press, co-founded by John Cassidy. Klutz was the only publisher whose books my son asked for by name since each book came along with a manipulative, including magnifying glasses, art supplies, or bean bags for juggling to learn the skills described in the books.

Years later, I got to know John as a fellow educator at Stanford d.school where he teaches a course called From Play to Innovation. In one of our discussions he told me the following story and I urged him to share it more broadly.

John’s story highlights how it is really hard to know if an idea is good or bad in the early stages, and that the best ideas often look like the worst ideas when they are initially conceived. As someone who teaches creative problem solving, this is critically important:

Brilliant, breakthrough ideas are often hidden inside ideas that look terrible on the surface.

Please enjoy John’s story below, and the lessons that he learned by the big one that got away.

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In the spring of 1981 and I was a 31-year old unmarried, unparental, slightly unwilling entrepreneur who had written and published a book called Juggling for the Complete Klutz a few years beforehand. Along with two college pals, we printed a few thousand copies, packaged them with three bean bags (the tools of the trade) and distributed the books in Palo Alto using the bicycle-and-backpack system.

Our original business plan was based on the recently-established Pet Rock model. In other words, spend a crazy few months selling millions of books and then with the fabulous proceeds move to a tropical island somewhere and retire to a lifestyle of indulgence and excess.

We understood, of course, that an alternative reality existed. One in which we sold six books to our parents, stored the rest in a closet, and promptly went back to our Volkswagens and summer jobs leading trips and tourists down California whitewater rivers.

We also understood that this second reality was infinitely more likely, but in any event, we knew for certain that whatever happened, it would be over quickly. And we were fine with that; thrilled in fact.

What actually did happen was unexpected and distressing.

The books sold in a stately, gradually improving, but still very uncrazy pace. This went on for two years while we subjected the whole business to a fairly aggressive degree of neglect. All three of us were committed to our river-running lifestyles and the operational details of a publishing business were not seen as a helpful part of that.

It was at this juncture that an enormous event did not take place. A massive opportunity came knocking. I opened the door, took one look at it, and….

Wait. Let me slow down and provide a little background.

In 1978, Erno Rubik, a Hungarian designer invented a mechanical puzzle which appeared to be perfectly designed to fit into a hole in the human brain that no one else had ever discovered before. The Rubik’s cube first hit the shelves in Europe in the fall of 1979 and in the U.S. in the winter of 1980. Sales were massive and instantaneous.

One of the first to buy one, apparently, was a structural chemist by the name of James Nourse who worked at Stanford. He became intrigued by the puzzle to the point where he wrote a small booklet describing the algorithm that could be used to solve it ‑ “simply” as he said.

He printed a few and sold them at the university bookstore. He also sent one to P.O.Box 2992 at the Stanford post office along with a note.

And now I can go back to my story because P.O.Box 2992 was MY post office box, or more accurately, the post office box belonging to Klutz Press, the name of our little publishing enterprise. I didn’t go there every day (a part of the aggressive neglect I mentioned earlier) but I did go there from time to time and it was there, of course, that I got James Nourse’s booklet and note.

If there is ever a movie made about Klutz and its early days, this will be A Moment. The background music will soften and become hesitant.

Here is how I see it going: At the post office… I open the note and look at the booklet. (This will be shot in slo-mo). In the note, James was offering the booklet to us to publish. The Rubik’s cube, he explained, was getting very popular and he had figured out “A Simple Solution”, herewith enclosed. Were we interested?

I read the note, glanced at the booklet, thought for a moment, and then tossed them both away…at the post office!! A few months later, James Nourse published “The Simple Solution to the Rubik’s Cube” with Bantam Books in New York where it still holds the single season record for sales: more than 6 million were sold in 6 months.

No one had ever seen anything like it! Still haven’t for that matter.

I blame my education more than anything for missing this huge opportunity. Here’s how my thinking went.

(a) Why would anyone buy a puzzle so difficult it required a book to solve?

(b) Even if they did buy the puzzle, who would ever “solve” it by simply following a printed set of instructions? It would be like “solving” a crossword puzzle, I thought, by looking at the solution and filling in the blanks.

So I tossed the submission, bought a Popsicle, and bicycled back home, quite content with my morning’s work.

Over the years I have told this story many times to many people and they all enjoy it in the way people always enjoy stories about others who are even dumber than they are. But I’ve noticed one thing as they all slap their knees and wipe their eyes.

Nobody ever pokes a hole in my thinking. It’s logical.

That’s my education at work and that’s a problem here — Logic is a useful tool when it’s used appropriately. When you use it to describe human behavior, it’s not useless, but you need to be very cautious about where you apply it.

If Mr. Nourse had sent that note to me five years later, when I’d had a little more experience in the book business and seen the eccentric path that people and games follow, I think I would have suspended all questions about why the puzzle was successful and simply jumped on a wave whose driving force I had no clue about… As a relative newcomer to the human race, I believed in logic way too much.

As a postscript, Klutz did eventually find its path and we pioneered a packaging format that the industry eventually called “Book+plus”. Over the course of 20 years, we published more than 100 titles with combined sales of more than 100 million copies.

But I still never tire of telling the story of the one that got away. The biggest one of all.

Written by John Cassidy, founder of Klutz Press, and one of my creativity superheroes!

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Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig

Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Stanford. Author, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, inGenius, Creativity Rules http://www.tinaseelig.com/

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