The Mothers Of Reinvention
Originally published by Christopher Lochhead, host of the Legends and Losers Podcast, in his book, Niche Down: How To Become Legendary By Being Different.
Legendary category designers never stop reminding the world that they created the category. That they are the standard by which all others must be compared. And that they haven’t stopped looking at the original problem from new angles.
Take the story of GOJO Industries. You might not know this privately held company’s name, but you’ll recognize the name of its most famous product.
In 1997, GOJO, with its introduction of the consumer edition of Purell20, convinced millions of parents and germaphobes that we should use “hand sanitizer” before and after we touch anything. Refuse to do so at your own peril!
In 1996, none of us even knew we needed hand sanitizer.
Today, millions of people carry the stuff with them everywhere.
Hospitals and doctors’ offices worship it via dispensers hanging on the walls. You can find bottles scattered on hotel check-in counters and at the start of restaurant and cruise-ship buffet lines.
It’s even tough to make it through boot camp without being exposed to the brand: the military is a huge customer.
At its height, Purell owned21 an estimated 70 percent of the hand-sanitizer-market category. (There was a brief change in ownership, but that’s a story for another book.) Its name is the one to beat for mindshare22. The brand that all other hand sanitizers are compared to.
There’s a corollary: The bigger and more urgent the problem, the more time and money people will invest to solve it.
You don’t want to be walking around with unsanitary hands now, do you?
The “overnight” success story behind Purell maker GOJO actually began almost 40 years earlier, in World War II-era Akron, Ohio, with a simple problem identified by tire factory worker Goldie Lippman — it was super difficult to get carcinogenic substances like graphite, carbon and tar off her hands with regular bar soap after a production shift.
You had to use benzene, which was irritating. Women, in particular, were interested in an alternative23 because who wants red, smelly hands?
That problem inspired Goldie’s husband Jerry, who invented a formulation that was less harsh and that was delivered in liquid form. The two entrepreneurs mixed up the product using a washing machine and packaged the soap in pickle jars pilfered from local restaurants.
Yes friends, GOJO (the company’s name is a mash-up of the founders’ first names) was also the designer of the “liquid-hand-soap” category! Before GOJO, most individuals used “bar soap” to scrub their hands, faces, feet, clothes.
And the venture also came up with a way of controlling portions, so that it was more cost-effective for business owners to buy the product.
Today, more than 70 years later, GOJO’s identity is still synonymous with the hygienic benefits of keeping your hands clean.
That’s true in large part because it has never stopped thinking about the original problem and new ways of addressing it. “You don’t go up against the giants unless you have a category-defining brand,” GOJO’s current CEO, Joe Kanfer, (the Lippmans’s nephew) told The New Yorker24 for a corporate profile published in 2013.
Where do entrepreneurial epiphanies come from?
The corollary to the Einstein observation that opens this chapter is this second life lesson from the legendary physicist:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
For a sense of what that means, let’s peek inside the weird* (we love weird!) brain of Sara Blakely, the former fax-machine salesperson who founded Spanx and who became the youngest self-made billionaire25 of any gender in the United States at age 41.
All because she turned her personal clothing habit — cutting the feet out of her pantyhose — into a wildly successful new undergarment category.
Sara worked on her idea for two years (while still selling fax machines and spending more than $5,000 of her savings on research) before she would discuss it with anyone.
That’s partly because she was afraid her family and friends would try to talk her out of it and partly because she wanted to make sure she could defend it unequivocally and enthusiastically when she got around to blabbing about it.
It’s a superstitious habit she still embraces today.
And it’s not because she is afraid of failure.
As a child, Sara’s father would be disappointed if she and her brother couldn’t name at least one thing they had flopped at weekly. She would literally get a high five for falling flat on her face, literally or figuratively.
“Failure for me didn’t become about the outcome, it became about not trying,” Blakely told serial entrepreneur and angel investor James Altucher on his podcast.26 (A note from Heather: Run, don’t walk, to find headphones and listen to this interview. And then listen again. Actually, don’t bother with the headphones, everyone should hear it!)
Sara knew that she wasn’t the only woman frustrated with the problem of getting pants and skirts and dresses to hang “just so” without bulges or clings or whatever. She envisioned her new undergarment as the “invisible canvas” upon which great designs could be displayed.
She didn’t need fashion or retail or business experience to tell her that, which is good, because this former stand-up comedian and saleswoman didn’t have any.
“What you don’t know can be your greatest asset if you let it,” she observed during the podcast. “So if you’re sitting there right now in your life, and you have an idea or you imagine a different life for yourself, but you’re like ‘I didn’t go to school for it’ or ‘I don’t have any contacts in this’ or ‘I don’t have money to do this’ — those things, if you allow them to, could become your competitive edge. They could be what gives you the opportunity to do something amazing. If you don’t know how it’s supposed to be done, then it’s pretty likely you’re going to do it differently.”
What she did have, in spades, was persistence and an infectious enthusiasm for her idea. Sara’s a missionary, not a mercenary. Category designers are on a mission to solve a problem, to get the world out to be different and to make a difference. They are possessed. They would crawl through glass to make it happen.
And, they recruit others in their mission.
Sara’s enthusiasm stuck with the mill operator who handed Sara her first big production deal. It also won over the skeptical Neiman-Marcus buyer who followed the eager entrepreneur into the ladies’ restroom for an impromptu, visual demonstration of how Spanx works. Won over in 10 minutes, that buyer subsequently placed orders enough for a trial in seven stores.
Almost 18 years later, Sara spends an hour every weekday letting her mind wander during her morning commute. Even though she lives just five minutes away from the Spanx headquarters, she leaves an hour early. Behind the wheel, she records random thoughts and questions that pop into her head. Her running list of ideas is more than 50 pages long.
Here’s Blakely’s view on perpetual ideation, as told to James Altucher:
“As far as products go, I look at everything, and I like to ask why. You could look at the table sitting in between us and ask, ‘Who invented the table? How interesting. And, who is the first person who did that? What were they thinking? Is that that right way it should still be created? When’s the last time tables changed? And, Is there a better way?’
“I find things really interesting. Like the men’s undershirt. The undershirt is part of the reason I went into men’s Spanx,” Blakely told Altucher.
The men’s line wasn’t the result of some overwrought business plan or months of focus groups. Blakely just wondered: When was the last time someone actually thought to redesign the simple cotton T-shirt hiding under a men’s dress shirt? And then she empowered her team to answer that question. “I operate very much from gut and very much from product. If I can create a product that is going to change lives or make your life better or be a better option, that is where I get my energy. And, I let the rest work itself out.”
Do you have the courage to stand out? Learn more about category creation in Christopher Lochhead’s book: Niche Down: How To Become Legendary By Being Different.