Never Criticize Little, Trivial Faults

Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoons Charles M Schwab and Andrew Carnegie

The American steel magnate Charles M Schwab (1862–1939,) was a protege of the steel baron-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919.) During the course of a long and successful career, Schwab built his Bethlehem Steel Corporation into America’s second largest steel producer and one of the world’s most prominent businesses.

'Be hearty in approbation and lavish in your praise' - Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoon Charles M Schwab

Don’t be “bothered with the finicky little things that trouble so many people.”

Charles M Schwab started his career as a laborer in Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works. Thanks to his exceptional ability to cozy up to people and facilitate congenial working relationships, Schwab rapidly rose up the ranks of the Carnegie steel empire.

By the age of 19, Schwab was assistant manager of the steel factory. When an accident killed the factory superintendent in 1887, Andrew Carnegie appointed the 25-year-old Schwab as the manager of the Thomson Works. At 35, Schwab became president of the Carnegie Steel Company at an annual compensation exceeding $1 million (worth $30 million today.)

In an essay titled “My 20,000 Partners” in the 19-Dec-1916 issue of The American Magazine, Schwab shared a management lesson he learned from his mentor Andrew Carnegie:

Mr. Carnegie’s personality would enthuse anybody who worked for him. He had the broad views of a really big man. He was not bothered with the finicky little things that trouble so many people. When he made me manager, Mr. Carnegie said, “Now, boy, you will see a good many things which you mustn’t notice. Don’t blame your men for little, trivial faults. If you do you will dishearten them.

When I want to find fault with my men I say nothing when I go through their departments. If I were satisfied I would praise them. My silence hurts them more than anything else in the world, and it doesn’t give offense. It makes them think and work harder. Many men fail because they do not see the importance of being kind and courteous to the men under them. Kindness to everybody always pays for itself. And, besides, it is a pleasure to be kind. I have seen men lose important positions, or their reputations—which are more important than any position—by little careless discourtesies to men whom they did not think it was worthwhile to be kind to.

'Don't blame your men for little, trivial faults' - Lessons from the Renowned People Skills of Steel Tycoon Andrew Carnegie

“Be hearty in approbation and lavish in your praise”

Schwab’s excellent people skills and management methods are extolled in How to Win Friends & Influence People, Dale Carnegie‘s masterful guidebook on people skills. Dale Carnegie quotes Schwab:

I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among my people, the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement.

There is nothing else that so kills the ambitions of a person as criticisms from superiors.I never criticize any-one. I believe in giving a person incentive to work. So I am anxious to praise but loath to find fault. If I like anything, I am hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.

I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.

Idea for Impact: People who cannot tolerate others’ shortcomings are at a marked disadvantage in life.

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) The older you’ll get, the more you’ll appreciate the wisdom of enduring the negative emotions— skepticism, disapproval, anger, contempt, and hostility—that stem from others’ behaviors.

One of the keys to effective interpersonal skills is to know when and how to give feedback. Commend whenever you can, criticize when you absolutely must.

Remember, criticism can swiftly erode away positive feelings. Don’t nit-pick. Don’t get caught up in trivial peculiarities.

How Starbucks Brewed Success / Book Summary of Founder Howard Schultz’s “Pour Your Heart Into It”

I recently finished reading Pour Your Heart Into It, the personal story of how Starbucks founder, Chairman, and ex-CEO Howard Schultz built a major consumer brand and a stellar business model anchored in passion and values. He proclaims, “Success should not be measured in dollars … It’s about how you conduct the journey, and how big your heart is at the end of it.”

An Iconic Leader Built a Coffee Empire with Unyielding Attention to Customer Experience

'Pour Your Heart Into It' by Howard Schultz (ISBN 0786883561) Howard Schultz’s Pour Your Heart Into It (1997) begins with his formative years as a poor German-Jewish boy in Brooklyn and ends with Starbucks’ post-IPO journey to becoming a well-respected and recognized global consumer brand.

In 2000, three years after Pour Your Heart Into It was published, Schultz assigned Jim Donald as CEO and became Starbucks’ meddling chairman. In 2008, following quarter-after-quarter of disappointing sales figures during the Great Recession and a “watering down of the Starbucks experience,” Schultz returned as CEO in 2008 and led the company to commendable growth and profitability. His turnaround memoir (my summary here,) Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul (2012,) discusses how he restored the essence of the Starbucks experience during his second stint as CEO.

Earlier this month, Schultz entrusted a deputy with CEO responsibility, but remains chairman. In the same way as in 2000, he hasn’t left the company and focuses on developing Starbucks’ premium Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room stores.

Starbucks Created an Industry through High-profile Cafés That Promise a Lifestyle Experience

'Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul' by Howard Schultz, Joanne Gordon (ISBN 1609613821) In fact, Schultz did not start ‘Starbucks.’ When working as a plastics salesperson in 1981, he happened into Starbucks—then, a chain of six high-quality coffee retail stores based in Seattle. He immediately fell in love with his experience at their Pike Place Market store. Schultz recalls, “A heady aroma of coffee reached out and drew me in. I stepped inside and saw what looked like a temple for the worship of coffee. It was my Mecca. I had arrived.”

In 1982, he joined Starbucks as head of marketing and retailing. On a business trip to Italy, he witnessed the allure of Milan’s café culture. He was specifically fascinated by the passionate connection that the Italians had not only with their coffee, but also with their coffee bars—an integral part of their country’s social life.

After returning to Seattle, he could not persuade the original Starbucks’ proprietors to open similar “coffee bar experiences.” Schultz then quit Starbucks and opened his own Il Giornale chain of coffee bars. Three years later, when Schultz was all of 34, Il Giornale purchased Starbucks and adopted its name.

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz

From Rags to Riches: Starbucks Became A “Company with a Conscience” While it Brewed Worldwide Success

The rags-to-riches account of Howard Schultz is one great American entrepreneur success story. Schultz grew up poor in Brooklyn’s subsidized housing projects. At age seven, Schultz was deeply upset when his father suffered after breaking an ankle. With no health insurance or other benefits, the senior Schultz (a blue-collar “beaten man”) worked very hard at dead-end jobs to atone for medical expenses and offset his lost pay. That incident left a profound impression on Howard. “As a kid I never had any idea that I would one day head a company. But I knew in my heart that if I was ever in a position where I could make a difference, I wouldn’t leave people behind,” he avows.

CEO Howard Schultz: From Rags to Riches Starbucks Brews Success Subsequently, Howard Schultz wanted to create an enterprise that treated staff with respect and nurtured them. He writes, “If you treat your employees as interchangeable cogs in a wheel, they will view you with the same affection.” Starbucks offered health benefits and stock options to all staff (called “partners”)—including part-timers—to demonstrate “that a company can lead with its heart and nurture its soul and still make money.”

The essence of Pour Your Heart Into It is that the Starbucks marvel is not only about economic growth and brand success, but also about its socially conscious corporate ethos: “We never set out to build a brand. Our goal was to build a great company, one that stood for something, one that valued the authenticity of its product and the passion of its people.”

A Well-respected Global Brand and A Grande-sized Ego

Schultz’s gracious and inspiring account in Pour Your Heart Into It, however, is speckled with lofty assertions and self-congratulatory superlatives. For instance, when recounting his epiphany of discovering the allure of Milan’s café culture, Schultz states, “it was so immediate and physical that I was shaking.” He labels a prospective joint venture with Pepsi an “earth-jolting paradigm shift.”

Schultz takes credit for turning coffee into a “national obsession” in North America and declares that his founding purpose was to give North Americans the opportunity to savor the “romance and mystery” of Italian espresso bars. When featured on the cover of Fortune magazine for an article titled “Howard Schultz’s Starbucks Grinds Coffee Into Gold,” Schultz writes that he felt “proud but, frankly, a little embarrassed at all the attention. It’s always been hard for me to celebrate success.”

Like I wrote in my summary for Onward, Schultz’s account of his 2008 return as CEO, his flamboyant tone is demonstrative of a fiercely passionate entrepreneur and a brilliant corporate cheerleader. Under his leadership, Starbucks has used its narrative of being a noble torchbearer of altruistic capitalism to brew global success. Schultz writes,

Starbucks was attempting to accomplish something more ambitious than just grow a profitable enterprise. We had a mission, to educate consumers everywhere about fine coffee. We had a vision, to create an atmosphere in our stores that drew people in and gave them a sense of wonder and romance in the midst of their harried lives. We had an idealistic dream, that our company could be far more than the paradigm defined by corporate America in the past.

CEO Howard Schultz and Starbucks's Race Together Campaign Over the last few years, Schultz has been increasingly politically active and has used the platform of his office at Starbucks to share views on matters that are peripheral to Starbucks’ business and operations. In 2015, for instance, Starbucks got into hot water after launching a bold “Race Together” campaign in the aftermath of the Ferguson racial unrests. With his characteristic flair, Schultz encouraged baristas to discuss race with customers at Starbucks stores “under the belief that it’s a critical first step toward confronting—and solving—race-related issues as a nation” according to this USA Today article. Alas, Schultz’s idea backfired and Starbucks called off the initiative.

More recently, after President Trump’s executive order excluding refugees from specific countries, Starbucks announced its intention to lead a global effort and hire 10,000 refugees globally by 2022. Trump supporters promptly boycotted Starbucks.

Schultz is speculated to be considering running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Lessons on Employee Engagement from Howard Schultz's 'Pour Your Heart Into It'

Recommendation: Read Howard Schultz’s “Pour Your Heart Into It”

Howard Schultz’s description of how Starbucks transformed an entrenched commodity into a value-laden brand and a differentiated experience makes Pour Your Heart Into It an absorbing story of entrepreneurial success. Schultz portrays himself as a passionate, dedicated, and visionary entrepreneur. But then again, he appears impulsive as a manager and brash as a capitalist—often in little doubt that his own preferences for the Starbucks experience will reflect of those of its customers.

The significant take away lessons from Pour Your Heart Into It are,

  • Develop a close relationship with your customers through the quality of your product and your customer service.
  • Continually reinvent your product and your business, even when you are experiencing success.
  • When you start a business, work hard to instill values and beliefs. Set the standards and build the culture.
  • Any consumer business is only as good as its customer-facing employees. When an organization’s employees sincerely believe in its product, service, and business, they will care about the customer, perform at higher levels, and eventually increase the company’s value of the organization.

Coffee snobs—especially Starbucksaholics—will love Schultz’s impassioned portrayal of “the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community people get in Starbucks stores. That tone is set by our baristas, who custom-make each espresso drink and explain the origins of different coffees.”

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Soichiro Honda [They Beat the Odds #2]

Soichiro Honda - Founder of Honda Motor Company Successful people don’t expect or wait around for the perfect conditions; instead they stay focused on their hopes and dreams. They persist in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances. They don’t achieve greatness because of their optimal surroundings; they achieve it in spite of all of the challenges they face.

Grit and entrepreneurial mindset are lessons from the life of Soichiro Honda (1906–91,) the iconic founder of the Honda Motor Company.

Early Influences Can Open up the Future

Soichiro was born in 1906, just as Japan’s pre-war agricultural economy was shifting towards manufacturing. He inherited from his blacksmith-father an inborn manual dexterity and curiosity about machineries. Even in childhood, Soichiro developed a keen interest in the new engines, pumps, airplanes, and machines that were creating Japan’s nascent industrial base. A Ford Model T motor car that had visited his village when he was a toddler enthused him to no end; in later life he often recalled running behind the car in excitement and never forgot the smell of oil that had dripped from the engine.

Like his lifelong hero, American inventor Thomas Edison, Soichiro had barely any formal education and even less interest in conventional wisdom. He developed a carefree, disobedient personality: once, when a teacher berated him for not finishing a school assignment, Honda angrily retorted that the school’s diploma had less value than a ticket to the movies.

Honda A-Type Auxiliary Bicycle Engine

Obsessive Attention to Detail

With no interest in book learning, Soichiro plunged into hands-on work with cars and engines. He abandoned school at age 15 to seek work as an automotive mechanic in Tokyo. His first job was scarcely promising: for a year, he cared for an infant baby of his boss’s family. With the baby in tow, he often meandered the garage, observed the mechanics at work, and gave suggestions. Soichiro also tinkered with engines in between diaper changes and bottle feedings. He developed a passion for rebuilding engines, and just six years later, opened his own repair shop in his native Hamamatsu. At the same time, he began building and driving racecars. He also developed a fondness for reckless behavior especially with racing cars and sporadically overindulged in sake.

By 1937, Soichiro had more than 100 patents to his name and perfected a technique for making piston rings for Toyota. He started his own company called Tokai Seiki, but was forced to switch to building engines for the Imperial Navy’s boats and planes to support the growing Japanese military.

During World War II, the Allies bombed and leveled his factory; Honda adroitly built his own alcohol-distilling stills and ran a brewery.

It’s Important to Do What You Love

Soichiro Honda Riding the Honda Dream C70 In 1948, Soichiro returned to his true love: building engines. He started Honda Motor Company in a wooden shack. He focused on engineering and production. He found the administrative aspects of running the company boring and delegated them to his partner, Honda Motor Company’s co-founder Takeo Fujisawa.

Honda’s first motorized bicycle, Bata-Bata, became a huge hit in impoverished Japan. The ever-popular Dream motorcycle followed it. By 1959, Honda had become the world’s leading maker of motorcycles.

Soichiro spent long hours in the shop with engineers and focused on superior handling, fuel efficiency, and reliability. In 1957, Honda introduced its first car, the N360. Honda’s big hit came with the revolutionary CVCC engine that burned a leaner mix of gasoline. The Japanese government unsuccessfully tried to restrain his startup and coerced Honda into merging his company with one of Japan’s stronger, bigger automakers.

In 1972, Honda introduced Civic, a compact car with a clean-burning engine that fit the miles-per-gallon mood of the time. The Civic took the U.S. by storm and created as much resentment in Tokyo as it did in Detroit. When the Big Three lobbied to get limitations on imports, Honda started building cars in the U.S. Within a few years, Honda’s Civic and Accord models became the cars of choice for millions of middle-class Americans.

Honda Motor Company Founders Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa

Entrepreneurs Are Non-Conformists

'Japan's Emergence as a Global Power' by James I. Matray (ISBN 0313299722) The nonconformist Soichiro eschewed conventional Japanese managerial traditions by promoting “the Honda Way,” which relied on personal initiative coupled with a close relationship between workers and management. Soichiro’s obsessive attention to detail prompted him to personally test new car and motorcycle models.

Even after retirement from the company presidency in 1973, Soichiro took the title of “supreme adviser.” He made an 18-month driving tour of Japan, visited Honda’s 700 production factories and car dealerships, and reported his findings to the corporate headquarters.

Soichiro Honda died of liver failure in 1991. In building a company that epitomizes Japan’s Emergence as a Global Power as a leader in automobile production, Soichiro was a radical freethinker in a nation that valued conformity. He is renowned for his defiant spirit as an entrepreneur and fabulous creativity as an engineer.

Idea for Impact: Stop waiting for the perfect conditions and get to work. Maintain optimism during difficult times; take action that moves you closer to your goals, day after day after day.

Reference: Soichiro Honda and His Philosophy of Entrepreneurship, Koshi Oizumi’s 2003 Ph.D. dissertation at California State University

Silicon Valley’s Founding Fathers / Book Summary of David Packard’s “HP Way”

Bill Hewlett and David Packard: Silicon Valley's Founding Fathers

'The HP Way' by David Packard (ISBN 0060845791) David Packard’s The HP Way recalls how he and Bill Hewlett started one of the world’s most successful corporations in 1937 with just $538 (today’s $8,850 when adjusted for inflation) and a rented one-car garage in Palo Alto, California. That garage is recognized today as the birthplace not only of Silicon Valley, but also of a new management approach.

Bill and David first met as electrical engineering students at Stanford University. Despite their different dispositions, they shared a passion for the outdoors and, with a professor’s encouragement, started Hewlett-Packard (HP) to commercialize the latest “radio engineering” theories. Over the decades, HP invented many groundbreaking electrical gadgets that were crucial to the development of radars, instrumentation devices, computers, and other technological revolutions.

In addition to their technical innovations, Bill and David established many progressive management practices that prevail even today. Starting in the initial days at the garage, the culture that Bill and David engendered at HP was unlike the hierarchical and egalitarian management practices that existed at other corporations of their day.

HP Garage: Birthplace Silicon Valley & New Management Style The essence of the “HP Way” was openness and respect for the individual. (Bill Hewlett once sawed a lock off a tool-room cabinet and left a note, “HP trusts its employees.”)

Management by objectives, managing by wandering about, nursing-mother facilities, flextime, decentralization, intrapreneurship, catastrophic medical insurance, profit sharing, employee stock ownership, tuition assistance, and many other management principles that dominate human resources practices today were all pioneered—if not invented—at HP.

Recommendation: Read. The HP Way tells the story how Bill and David built a company based on a framework of principles and the simplicity of their management methods. Good to Great author Jim Collins once wrote in commending David Packard’s The HP Way, “The greatest lesson to be divined from this book isn’t so much how to create a similar company but how creating a company based on a strong and clear set of values can lead to outstanding success.”

Postscript: Notes from ‘The HP Way’

  • Like Sam Walton, the other illustrious entrepreneur of their generation, Bill and David grew up witnessing Americans’ hardships during the Great Depression. This made them risk-averse; they vowed never to incur long-term debt to expand their fledgling company.
  • On the day Hewlett-Packard went public in 1961, David Packard took a subway instead of a taxi to Wall Street, lost his way, and reached the New York Stock Exchange late.
  • The foundations that Bill Hewlett and David Packard established individually with 95% of their stakes in HP are today two of the most prominent philanthropies in America.

Lessons from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works: Autonomy Can Create Innovative Workplaces

Lockheed Skunk Works

Lockheed Corporation's Skunk Works: A top-secret research and production facility In 1943, Lockheed Corporation established a top-secret research and production facility informally called Skunk Works. It was explicitly tasked with developing a high-speed fighter aircraft within 180 days. This new aircraft was to compete with aircraft produced by the German aircraft manufacturing company Messerschmitt.

Skunk Works consisted of Lockheed’s best design engineers and technicians who occupied a rented circus shelter adjacent to a foul-smelling plastic factory (hence the Skunk Works moniker.) More significantly, Skunk Works was isolated from corporate bureaucracy, granted much autonomy over decision-making, and encouraged to disregard standard procedures in the interest of expediency. In a record 143 days, Skunk Works designed, developed, and delivered the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star aircraft, the first jet fighter operated by the United States Army Air Forces.

The Skunk Works framework of innovation was so successful that Lockheed has continued to operate this division for decades. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, team leader of the first Lockheed Skunk Works project, codified 14 rules for all Skunk Works projects. Over the years, Lockheed’s Skunk Works designed and developed many aircraft, including the famous U-2 reconnaissance plane.

Disentangled from Bureaucracy and Management Constraints

Other companies borrowed this innovation idea from Lockheed to develop advanced products or discover product/service/business ideas that are entirely new to their parent organizations. Many businesses and engineering companies started their own “skunkworks” divisions consisting of self-directing teams of highly talented individuals who were seconded from their regular work environments. Unconstrained by executive interference, they operated under the radar. They were given a high degree of autonomy, access to R&D funds, and exceptional freedom from the parent organization’s bureaucracy and management constraints. Here are some examples of skunkworks projects.

  • At IBM, a skunkworks project in 1981 pioneered industry standards to adapt personal computers for business needs and released the IBM PC. This helped IBM break away from its lynchpin mainframe business and launch its celebrated personal computers division. IBM has since continued the skunkworks tradition. In the 2000s, IBM established many “emerging-business opportunities” or EBO teams and assigned its best and brightest people in charge of risky startup ideas that could germinate new business lines in five to seven years.
  • At Motorola in the mid-2000s, a team of designers and engineers defied the company’s own rules to develop the best-selling RAZR mobile phone. This skunkworks team was isolated from Motorola’s main R&D facility. Fortune magazine noted that this “tight-knit team repeatedly flouted Motorola’s own rules for developing new products. They kept the project top-secret, even from their colleagues. They used materials and techniques Motorola had never tried before. After contentious internal battles, they threw out accepted models of what a mobile telephone should look and feel like. In short, the team that created the RAZR broke the mold, and in the process rejuvenated the company.”
  • Google's Collaborative Office Spaces Encourage Innovation Google’s famous 20% rule and innovative workspaces lets employees collaborate across the company and work on their dream projects, but bring those projects to the larger collective for further funding and development. Many of Google’s innovative products and features in Gmail, Google News, Google Talk, Google Suggest, Transit Directions, etc. originated as 20% projects.
  • Microsoft’s skunkworks located in Studio B facility on its Redmond campus developed Kinect, Surface tablets and computers, and other recent products.
  • Apple has the most celebrated of skunkworks teams. Apple Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive’s design laboratory consists of a few handpicked designers who work on “very experimental material that the world is not quite ready for.” Working in an area separate from Apple’s main Cupertino campus, Ive’s team maintains a culture of incredible secrecy.

Skunkworks Innovation Model and Startup Cultures

In the 1960s and 1970s, the skunkworks concept fell out of favor, as many companies started to see skunkworks teams as distractions and as cost centers “with an attitude.” However, with a renewed emphasis on teamwork and a focus on setting up startup-like innovative workplaces where teams can flourish, the skunkworks model of innovation has been renewed and revived in the last two decades.

Inertia, internal politics, bureaucracy, layers upon layers of management questioning risk and rewards, and the fear of failure weigh heavily on many a company’s pursuit of new products and services. The skunkworks innovation model and the startup culture offer frameworks for organizations to pursue growth ideas separate from current lines of business.

In 2013, General Electric instituted a program called FastWorks to mimic Silicon Valley’s startup culture in a company-wide effort to foster innovation and develop products quickly and cost-effectively. Boeing’s Phantom Works, Nike’s Innovation Kitchen and Sports Research Lab, Amazon’s Lab126 and A9 laboratories, Google X, and Walmart Labs are some of today’s prominent skunkworks organizations.

Idea for Impact: Autonomy Fosters a Creative Environment

Employee Autonomy Can Create Innovative Workplaces For managers, the key take-away from the skunkworks concept is that giving autonomy to employees and teams not only engenders a happier and satisfied workforce, but also fosters a creative environment. Some ideas to consider:

  • Give much autonomy to those employees and teams who have demonstrated the promise of being self-directed and maintaining alignment with the larger organizational goals. Direct them, oversee their progress, and follow-up when necessary. Micromanage when you must.
  • Give employees discretion over their tasks and resources. Create a favorable environment in which people are encouraged to discover, use, and grow their unique skills.
  • Don’t second-guess employees’ and teams’ ideas and decisions unless necessary. Judging or criticizing not only undermines their confidence, but also keeps them from sharing their ideas with you in the future.
  • Allow employees and teams to experiment, iterate their ideas, gather data and develop performance metrics, and quickly discard less promising ideas in favor of stronger ones.
  • Support risk-taking and failure. Celebrate failure as it can provide valuable technical and organizational insights. Encourage employees to be confident enough to try to fail and learn lessons without being apprehensive about being rebuked.

Find out What Your Customers Want and Give It to Them

“Nobody asked the dogs what they wanted”

Dog Food Product Once upon a time, a pet-foods company struggled to sell a new dog food product they’d recently introduced to the market.

The company’s CEO called the department heads together to discuss why the new product wouldn’t sell.

The head of production said he’d done everything right; it wasn’t his department’s fault.

The heads of the sales, advertising, finance, packaging, shipping, and distribution departments had done everything right. None of them were to blame.

The CEO demanded, “Darn! What happened? Why won’t our new product sell?”

A junior staffer shouted from the back of the room, “Sir, it’s just that the dogs simply won’t eat our doggone food. You see, nobody asked the dogs what they wanted.”

Idea for Impact: Customer Focus Drives Company Success

Your research and development efforts will be successful only if they’re driven by a thorough understanding of what your customers want. Engage your customers. Pay close attention to their needs in every phase of product/service design including idea generation, product design, prototyping, production, distribution, and service. Remember Peter Drucker’s dictum that “the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.”

Serendipity and Entrepreneurship in the Invention of Corn Flakes

In previous articles about Johnson’s Baby Powder and Picasso’s Blue Period, I discussed serendipity as a rich phenomenon that is central to entrepreneurial and artistic processes. In this article, I will discuss another case study of ideas born by chance and reinforced by casual observation and customer input.

One of America’s Favorite Cereals was Invented by Fortuitous Accident

Will Keith Kellogg invented corn flakes in 1894 at a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan Will Keith Kellogg invented corn flakes in 1894 at a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Will worked there as an assistant to his brother Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and helped research patients’ diets.

One day, while making bread dough at the sanitarium, Will accidentally left boiled wheat sitting out overnight unattended. When he returned to roll the wheat into dough, he discovered that it had dried out and was flaky. Interested to see what would happen, Will passed the flaky dough through the bread rollers and baked them to create a crunchy snack. He seasoned the flakes with salt and fed them with milk to the sanitarium’s patients. The wheat flakes were an immediate hit. Indeed, after some patients left the sanitarium, they ordered Kellogg’s flakes by post.

Will Kellogg’s Entrepreneurial Ingenuity

Serendipity and Entrepreneurship in the Invention of Kellogg Corn flakes Will Kellogg then tinkered his recipe for wheat flakes and ultimately settled on using corn in place of wheat as the flakes’ main ingredient.

In 1906, Will Kellogg launched “The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company.” In addition to inventing corn flakes, Kellogg had a genius for business and marketing. He was a pioneer in testing markets, sampling products, using multi-color print advertisements, and developing innovative marketing campaigns.

Kellogg was keen on using slogans to promote his company’s products. In 1907, he introduced a marketing campaign that declared, “Wednesday is Wink Day in New York.” Every woman who winked at her grocer on a Wednesday received a free packet of corn flakes. Corn flakes sales skyrocketed.

Will Kellogg was also a prominent philanthropist and, in 1934, started the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

The company Will Kellogg founded eventually became Kellogg Company, a prominent cereal and convenience foods multinational.

Picasso’s Blue Period: A Serendipitous Invention

The Soup, 1902 by Pablo Picasso (from his Blue Period)

In October 1900, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) moved to Paris and opened a studio there at age 19. Shortly thereafter, Picasso was deeply affected by a close friend and fellow artist’s suicide. Art historians believe this event marked the onset of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901–1904,) during which he produced many stoic and sentimental paintings in mostly monochromatic shades of blue and blue-green. The Art Institute of Chicago remarks,

Picasso’s Blue Period … was triggered in part by the suicide of his close friend Carlos Casagemas in 1901. The works of this period are characterized by their blue palette, somber subject matter, and destitute characters. His paintings feature begging mothers and fathers with small children and haggard old men and women with arms outstretched or huddled in despair.

Perhaps Picasso’s Blue Period is an instance of serendipity. Legend has it that one day Picasso had only blue paint to work with. When he started toying with the effects of painting with one color, he discovered the potential to produce interesting paintings that conveyed a sense of melancholy.

In what would become the hallmark of this greatest artist of the 20th century, thanks to serendipity, Picasso leveraged an apparent constraint into an unintended creative outcome. As such serendipity goes, the confluence of many factors helped Picasso initiate a new art genre showcasing themes of alienation, poverty, and psychological depression that, though now considered marvelous, then kept potential patrons away.

How Johnson’s Baby Powder Got Started: Serendipity and Entrepreneurship

1921 Advertisement: Johnson's Toilet and Baby Powder - Antiseptic Borated Talcum Powder

Making Fortunate Discoveries Accidentally

Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist famous for his 1922 discovery of penicillin, once said, “Have you ever given it a thought how decisively hazard—chance, fate, destiny, call it what you please—governs our lives?”

Serendipity is the accidental discovery of something that, post hoc, turns out to be valuable.

'Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science' by Royston M. Roberts (ISBN 0471602035) The history of science is replete with such serendipitous discoveries. “Happy findings” made when scientists accidentally discovered something they were not explicitly looking for led to the discovery or invention of the urea, dynamite, saccharin, penicillin, nylon, microwave ovens, DNA, implantable cardiac pacemaker, and much more … even the ruins of Pompeii and Newton’s law of universal gravitation. (I recommend reading Royston Roberts’s Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science)

In each of these instances, the crucial role of discovery or insight occurred in accidental circumstances. Therefore, we must understand serendipity’s role in terms of the circumstances that surround it.

Serendipity has also played a pivotal role in establishing many successful businesses. In fact, serendipity is a rich idea that is very central to the entrepreneurial process. As the following case study will demonstrate, many experimental ideas are born by chance and are often reinforced by casual observation and customer input.

Johnson & Johnson Got into the Baby Powder Business by Accident

Johnson & Johnson Got into the Baby Powder Business by Accident In 1885, entrepreneur Robert Wood Johnson was deeply inspired by a lecture of Joseph Lister, a British surgeon well known for his advocacy of antiseptic surgery. Johnson started tinkering with several different ideas in an effort to make sterile surgery products.

A year later, Johnson joined his two brothers to establish Johnson & Johnson (J&J) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Their first commercial product was a sterile, ready-to-use, medicated plaster-bandage that promised to reduce the rate of infections after surgical procedures. As business developed, the Johnson brothers compiled the latest medical opinions about surgical infections and distributed a booklet called Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment as part of their marketing efforts.

Within a few years, a doctor complained to J&J that their bandages caused skin irritation in his patients. In response, J&J’s scientific director Dr. Frederick Kilmer sent the doctor a packet of scented Italian talcum powder to help soothe the irritation. Since the doctor liked it, J&J started to include a small sample of talc powder with every package of medicated bandages.

By 1891, consumers discovered that the talc also helped alleviate diaper rash. They asked to buy it separately. The astounded J&J’s leadership quickly introduced Johnson’s Baby Powder “for toilet and nursery.” Over the years, J&J built on that huge initial success and created the dominant Johnson’s Baby product line with creams, shampoos, soaps, body lotions, oils, gels, and wipes.

J&J Got into the Sanitary Protection Products Business Too by Accident

Serendipity also played the key role in establishing J&J’s sanitary napkin business. In 1894, J&J launched midwife’s maternity kits to make childbirth safer for mothers and babies. These kits included twelve “Lister’s Towels,” sanitary napkins to staunch post-birth bleeding. Before long, J&J received hundreds of letters from women who wanted to know where they could buy just the sanitary napkins. In response, J&J introduced disposable sanitary napkins as part of its consumer products line. J&J thus became the first company in the United States to mass-produce sanitary protection products for women.

Lessons from the Biography of Tesla’s Elon Musk

I recently finished reading Ashlee Vance’s riveting portrait of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, CEO of SpaceX, chairman of SolarCity, and previously the founder of PayPal and other companies.

Musk has emerged as the foremost superstar/visionary-entrepreneur of Silicon Valley since Apple’s Steve Jobs passed away in 2011.

'Elon Musk' by Ashlee Vance (ISBN 0062301233) Vance’s biography reveals how Musk’s “willingness to tackle impossible things” has “turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley.”

Vance’s biography portrays Musk as an obsessively focused and a remarkably driven entrepreneur, but one who is almost unbearably difficult to work with. Musk is tirelessly demanding of employees, has low tolerance for underperformers, and does not like to share credit for successful ventures.

The book’s key takeaway is actually an admonitory lesson: Elon Musk may well be one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time—if your characterization of success is rather narrow. However, having an extreme personality and attaining great success come at the cost of many other things. In his drive to win, Musk sacrifices friends, business associates, and even his family to get what he wants. The story of Elon Musk exemplifies what happens when an overachieving leader regards individuals as tools and attaches more importance to his projects than to his people.

Complement Ashlee Vance’s “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” with biographies of two other entrepreneur-visionaries with aggressively competitive personalities: Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” and Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store” Like Elon Musk, both Jobs and Bezos are reputed for their personal influence on every aspect of Apple and Amazon’s products and services. They are described as being demanding and demeaning to people who helped them realize their visionary aspirations.