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 Sam Walton: Cost and Price as a Competitive Advantage

I recently finished reading “Made in America”, the bestseller autobiography of Sam Walton (1918–1992.) The book is very educational, insightful, and stimulating.

Walton, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, was arguably the most successful entrepreneur of his generation. From 1985 until his death, he was the richest man in the world. On the 2015 list of the world’s richest individuals, his descendants ranked at #8, #9, #11, and #12.

Despite his immense fortune, Walton lived a humble life right up until his death. He as an enthusiastic outdoorsman and lived in a modest home in Bentonville, Arkansas, for 33 years. On quail hunting trips, he slept in smelly, old beat-up trailers and ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He even drove a red 1985 Ford pickup and famously said, “What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?”

Sam Walton's Red 1985 Ford Pickup Truck

Cost and Price Control

One of the book’s key takeaways is to “control your expenses better than your competition.” Walton says that this focus on cost-efficiency contributed more to Walmart’s enormous success than did any other aspect of his business model:

This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. For twenty-five years running—long before Wal-Mart was known as the nation’s largest retailer—we’ve ranked No. 1 in our industry for the lowest ratio of expenses to sales. You can make a lot of different mistakes and still recover if you run an efficient operation. Or you can be brilliant and still go out of business if you’re too inefficient.

A Child of the Great Depression Takes to Retail

Walton was a child of the Great Depression. The poverty he experienced while growing up in a rural Missouri farming community taught him the value of money, hard work, and perseverance.

Walton learned the value of a dollar early from his parents, who financially struggled to raise their family. The two squabbled constantly, except on one topic. “One thing my mom and dad shared completely was their approach to money: they just didn’t spend it.”

Walton was just plain cheap. His devotion to bargain became Walmart’s underpinning. He lived by a simple formula: pile it high, sell it cheap. “Say I bought an item for 80 cents. I found that by pricing it at $1.00, I could sell three times more of it than by pricing it at $1.20.” He refused to increase profit margins at the expense of price: “I might make only half the profit per item, but because I was selling three times as many, the overall profit was much greater. Simple enough.”

The Lasting Impact of Sam Walton

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. He studied his competitors and borrowed liberally. His strategy was to buy low, sell at a discount, and make up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory. Over the decades, Walmart has relentlessly squeezed as much value as possible from its supply chain and passed those savings on to consumers.

Walton’s passion to serve as the “agent” for consumers has changed retailing forever. It’s hard not to overestimate Walmart’s influence on local communities and economics. Walmart’s obsessive focus on low prices changed the way Americans shop. Its bargaining power, superlative size, and logistical efficiency not only dampened inflation, but also brought about productivity gains throughout retailing and manufacturing. Its dominance has attracted backlash from labor unions, anti-sweatshop campaigners, and anti-sprawl activists. Critics also blamed Walmart for contributing to the movement toward overseas production jobs, and for destroying small-town merchants.

However, Walmart’s business model has struggled overseas, especially with profitability in countries where it operates three fourths of its international stores.

Sam Walton’s Influence on Entrepreneurs

Walton inspired legions of other entrepreneurs who thrive on managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage. Prominently,

  • Dell’s Michael Dell kept costs low by using direct sales as his primary sales channel and orchestrating Dell’s supply chain with that of its suppliers.
  • Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary used absurdly low fares to generate demand from fare-conscious travelers who would have otherwise used alternative means of transportation or would have not traveled at all. O’Leary’s operating costs (aircraft, equipment, personnel, customer service, airport access, and handling) are one of the lowest in the airline industry.
  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos used innovative sales-discounting methods and a strong emphasis on customer service to grab market share from traditional retailers. Without the burden of operating physical stores, Amazon’s efficiency has played a key role in the structural shift away from brick-and-mortar retail.

The “wheel of retailing” theory in corporate strategy posits that a lower-cost innovator eventually undercuts every dominant merchant. To combat the risk of cost-leadership from Amazon and other online retailers, Walmart has made major investments in e-commerce, even at the risk of cannibalizing its in-store sales.

Burt, Bees, and Simple Happiness / The Curious Case of Burt Shavitz


Narratives of entrepreneurial success and great wealth are fascinating

Today’s high-achieving culture adores people like Elon Musk who dream big, set ambitious goals, stubbornly get things done, and build wealth for themselves.

This scale of purpose, however, is not for everyone. A surprising number of people find their purpose by going the other way—by rejecting the trappings of wealth and pursuing humble, unpretentious, contended lives.

Consider the case of Burt Shavitz, the namesake and co-founder of Burt’s Bees, a prominent beauty-products company. Burt, whose bearded face and scruffy hat grace the tins of the company’s hand salve and ointment, died this summer at age 80.

Burt Shavitz of Burt's Bees and Simple Happiness

The small, simple, happy life

Burt Shavitz’s extraordinary reclusive life exemplifies what Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

As a young professional photographer in the sixties, Burt grew increasingly disenchanted with city life in his native New York City. He was particularly distressed by the loneliness of an old woman whom he photographed at a home across his apartment—she always looked out sorrowfully from behind dingy curtains and never left her room. “As soon as I took this shot, I knew that that would be me, ninety years old and unable to go outside, if I didn’t get the hell out. I borrowed a van from a former girlfriend, packed up everything I needed—my bed, what clothes I had, an orange crate of books—and disappeared into the declining sun,” Burt recalled in 2014.

Burt left his city life for the backwoods in Maine and started living in a camper van. He led a hippie lifestyle; he had no ambitions and very little money. He took to beekeeping after unintentionally stumbling upon a swarm of bees at a fencepost. One day, while peddling beeswax by the side of the road, he met Roxanne Quimby, a single mother who was hitchhiking to work. Roxanne and Burt soon got romantically involved.

Roxanne had an entrepreneurial mindset: she made candles, lip balm, and hand lotion from a 200lb stash of unsold beeswax and started selling personal care products to tourists and at fairs. Over time, when their business thrived enough, Burt and Roxanne moved to North Carolina to establish a factory. However, Burt missed Maine very much. After a falling out with Roxanne, Burt sold his one-third stake in the company to her for a measly $130,000 and returned to Maine. (In 2007, Roxanne and her associates sold the company to Clorox for $913 million; she claims to have given him $4 million of the proceeds. Burt’s Bees/Clorox continued to pay him an unrevealed amount for continued use of his likeness and his name on its products.)

Burt's Bees Hand Salve

Idea for Impact: Happiness is mostly a matter of perspective

After returning to Maine, Burt no longer kept bees to make a living. He just enjoyed life—doing what he wanted, when he wanted. He told Flare magazine in 2013, “I’ve always had enough. I never starved to death, and I never went without a meal. I served in the army and went to Germany and slept in snowbanks, and walked 100 miles in the day carrying an 80-pound pack. What was it that I needed? My beekeeping produced enough cash that I could maintain my vehicles and pay my land taxes. What do I need? Nothing. No wife, no children, no TV set, no washing machine. All the pins sort of fell into place my entire life.”

During his later years, Burt lived in a cluttered country home in Maine that had no hot water and liked to watch nature pass by. A 2013 documentary called “Burt’s Buzz” captures his long and unconventional life. This highly recommended documentary (entirely on YouTube) juxtaposes Burt’s ideal day—“when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere”—with the rock star adoration that he received from fans during a visit to Taiwan as the ‘brand ambassador’ of Burt’s Bees products.

In interviews—as in “Burt’s Buzz”—Burt denounced the emptiness of consumerism and extoled the virtues of simple, reclusive living. Evidently, he never regretted missing out on millions, but felt hurt by a three-decade-old business deal with Roxanne gone bad. “I’ve got everything I need: a nice piece of land with hawks and owls and incredible sunsets, and the good will of my neighbors,” he once said. An obituary in The Economist observed,

Settling back in his rocking chair, feet spread to feel the heat of the stove, Burt Shavitz liked to reflect that he had everything he needed. A piece of land first: 40 acres of it, fields and woods, on which he could watch hawks and pine martens but not be bothered, with luck, by any human soul. Three golden retrievers for company. A fine wooden house, 20 feet wide by 20 feet deep, once a turkey coop but plenty spacious enough for him. From the upper storey he could see glorious sunsets, fire off his rifle at tin cans hanging in a tree, and in winter piss a fine yellow circle down onto the snow, and no one would care. … He would wander into the woods or lie on his lawn to watch the baby foxes play, murmuring “Golly dang!” with simple happiness.

The seventeenth century French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld once wrote, “Happiness does not consist in things themselves but in the relish we have of them; and a man has attained it when he enjoys what he loves and desires himself, and not what other people think lovely and desirable.” If, indeed, contentment consists of liking of what one has and having what one likes, Burt’s humble life illustrates how happiness arises from the harmony between oneself and the life one leads in one’s simple corner of the world.

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.

These Celebrities and Hollywood Actors Didn’t Just Wait Around for Dream Jobs to Turn up

“He who lives uprightly and experiences true difficulty and disappointment and is nonetheless undefeated by it is worth more than someone who prospers and knows nothing but relative good fortune.”
Vincent van Gogh

Stories of superstars who struggled in their early careers are very inspiring

Some superstars had it made. They came from privileged backgrounds and had spectacular starts to their careers. They were lucky enough to attend the best schools, get the right pedigree, make the right connections, get an early break, or join the fast track to the top.

Other superstars were not so lucky in their early careers. Most of these men and women—particularly the archetypical self-made person—came from humble backgrounds and struggled to establish themselves. They found productive jobs to eke out a living, all the while never losing sight of their ambitions. They took every opportunity to learn and prove themselves. They worked hard to get a foot in the door, toiled in the trenches, learned everything about their trades, and painstakingly built their spectacular careers from the ground up. In sum, they didn’t just while their time away waiting for their desired jobs and dream gigs to show up.

Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt

Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt---Hollywood actors with humble early careers who didn't just wait around for dream jobs to turn up

Consider three Hollywood superstars who struggled during their early careers and worked modest jobs to earn their living but never abandoned their ambitions.

  • Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson (b. 1937) ran errands and worked as a messenger at Hollywood’s MGM animation studios before being “discovered.” He had moved from New Jersey to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and lived with his wannabe-actress mother (whom he thought was his sister until he was 36, a full ten years after her death.)
  • Comedian and Hollywood actor Robin Williams (1951–2014) gained precious experience in his twenties working as a mime artist in front of New York’s Museum of Modern Art while trying to find acting gigs. As a child, Williams hardly fit the stereotype of someone who would later pursue comedy. Born to a successful Ford executive, Williams grew up a shy, lonely child playing by himself in an empty room of his family’s mansion. He overcame his shyness only after taking drama classes in high school.
  • Celebrated actor and producer Brad Pitt (b. 1963) worked a variety of odd jobs while struggling to establish himself in Hollywood. To pursue his passion for the big screen, he moved to Los Angeles from Missouri two weeks before he was about to earn his degree in Journalism. He took acting lessons and made contacts. Within months, Pitt got uncredited roles in three films. For the next seven years, he gained increasing recognition in supporting roles on television and in films before securing leading roles that catapulted him to worldwide fame.

Examine the purpose of these examples viz. to emphasize that successful people find something productive to do while improving themselves and waiting for their big break. Take note of a crucial nuance: we are not discussing humble part-time or casual summer jobs that later-superstars held in their youth—e.g., Pope Francis worked as a bouncer in Buenos Aires, German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a barmaid in Leipzig, Bill Gates as a page in the United States Congress, Warren Buffett as a newspaper delivery boy in Washington, D.C.

Albert Einstein, Soichiro Honda, Stephen King

Albert Einstein, Soichiro Honda, Stephen King---Celebrities with humble early careers who didn't just wait around for dream jobs to turn up

Other disciplines also present plenty of superstars who pursued their ambitions while holding humble first-jobs.

  • Physicist and philosopher Albert Einstein (1879–1955) spent two frustrating post-college years searching for a teaching job before becoming a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. In between examining patent applications and during his spare time, he worked on physics problems. In his third year at the job, he wrote four groundbreaking papers that transformed physics.
  • When Japanese engineer and industrialist Soichiro Honda (1906–1991) moved to Tokyo at age 15 to find work as an auto mechanic, a repair shop owner hired him as a nanny to his infant. With a child in tow, Honda often meandered about the garage, observing and learning from the mechanics. When the child was asleep, Honda tinkered with engines and started giving suggestions to the mechanics. He strengthened his passion for automotive engines just as the nascent industrial base of Japan was finding a new enthusiasm for machines.
  • 'Carrie' by Stephen King (ISBN 0307743667) Best-selling author Stephen King (b. 1947) struggled for years after graduating from college. He and his writer-wife grappled financially and lived in a trailer home. He worked hard at building a career as a writer and developed ideas for many novels. King sold short stories to men’s magazines and worked small jobs to make a living. When working as a janitor in a school locker room, he was inspired to write a novel titled “Carrie”. Set in a girls’ locker room, Carrie features a schoolgirl who exercises her newly-discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on her bullies. Carrie turned into King’s first published novel and lent him his big break.

Idea for Impact: Self-disciplined people don’t wait for the right answer or the golden path to present themselves. They understand that the best way to get unstuck is to start somewhere, focus on action, keep themselves productive, amend their course if necessary, and do all this without losing sight of their goals and ambitions.

A note of caution: Stories of superstars’ successes are but cherry-picked examples

“Welcome to Hollywood. What’s your dream?
Everybody comes here. This is Hollywood, the land of dreams.
Some dreams come true, some don’t. But keep on dreamin’.
This is Hollywood. Always time to dream, so keep on dreamin’.”
— From “Pretty Woman” (1990)

More than we possibly realize, so much of life’s success in life has to do with luck (or fate or destiny.) As I’ve written previously, success is often more about being at the right place, at the right time, and with the right person than about possessing the right skills and working hard.

The above are merely examples of a few lucky superstars who made it big in Hollywood or in their chosen disciplines and followed their passions as careers.

For every Stephen Hawking or J. K. Rowling, there are thousands of wannabe writers whose creative writing doesn’t even pay enough to buy the notebooks they use.

For every Jack Nicholson, Robin Williams, or Brad Pitt, there are countless Hollywood wannabes struggling in the “Land of a Million Dreams.” What’s more, among actors who manage to find work, an even smaller fraction of them actually make a living doing it. Part-timers are paid so little that they must work at stores, restaurants, or bars at night and on weekends. The cost of living in Southern California has hit the roof; even professionally-done headshots cost hundreds of dollars. The celebrity impersonators and street performers on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame have even started aggressively pestering tourists and photographers for bigger tips.

Celebrity impersonators and street artists on Hollywood's Walk of Fame pestering tourists for bigger tips

In the la-la land of Los Angeles, chances are that any random person you meet is an aspiring actor, model, designer, musician, songwriter, screenplay writer, director, stunt-double, makeup artist, or is trying to get some gig in the entertainment industry. Each aspirant is taking classes, trying to make contacts, looking for auditions, hoping to land jobs, wishing to be “discovered” by an actor or noticed by a talent agent at a restaurant, club, or elsewhere.

Competition is brutal and the market for fame is saturated

In Hollywood, anything is possible and yes, “some dreams come true.” However, in reality, there’s an infinitesimal chance that any aspirant will ever get a break. Even still, thousands of hopefuls flock to Hollywood every year (and thousands of rejects move out.) After endless auditions, rejections, or false starts, they wake up to the harsh realities of competition and get jobs that are more gratifying than chasing a near-impossible dream.

“He that lives upon hope will die fasting.”
Benjamin Franklin

If you have a passion for something that will not pay adequately, pursue it on the side. Here’s some sage advice from my mentor Marty Nemko:

Do what you love, but don’t expect to get paid for it. Want to be on stage? Act in community theater. Want to be an artist? Convince a restaurant to let you decorate its walls with your creations. To make money, pick a field that pays decently and has few liabilities. Chances are, that will lead to more career contentment than pursuing a long-shot dream as your career. Treating a long-shot dream as an avocation gives you most of its pleasure without forcing you to endure a life of poverty.

Starbucks’s Comeback / Book Summary of Founder and CEO Howard Schultz’s “Onward”

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz’s “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul” is an interesting case study of organizational change as orchestrated by a passionate entrepreneur. The book covers the first two years of the turnaround of Starbucks after Schultz returned as CEO.

'Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul' by Howard Schultz, Joanne Gordon (ISBN 1609613821) In 2007, in the face of falling consumer spending and the upcoming Great Recession, the consumer discretionary sector was hit hard. Like other companies in that realm, Starbucks’ sales and profitability had dropped. The company’s stock price plummeted after Wall Street pared the rich valuations (high price-to-earning) of the company’s once-hot growth stock. Through these trials, Schultz worked at the company’s Seattle headquarters as chairman. Even after retiring as CEO in 2001, he had never left the company entirely and had even interjected often during Starbucks’ presentations to investors.

Starbucks’ financial under-performance was likely as much due to the economic slowdown as it was self-inflicted. In an apparent instance of misplaced cause-and-effect, Schultz blamed the company’s leadership for focusing too much on rapid expansion, opening too many stores, and diluting the in-store Starbucks experience. Behind the CEO’s back, Schultz started working with strategy consultants and other board members to develop a “transformational agenda” centered on the core values of the company he had founded in 1982.

In January 2008, Schultz invited the CEO home on a Sunday evening, fired him, and assumed the CEO position for a second stint. Over the next two years, Schultz rejuvenated the company’s mojo by making operational improvements and focusing on employee engagement, Starbucks’ specialty coffee products and its distinctive in-store customer experience.

Schultz’s vision, focus, and execution of this transformation makes up the bulk of “Onward”. One dominant theme in the book is founder’s syndrome—the intense reluctance of entrepreneurs like Schultz to cede control of their businesses.

Starbucks founder, Chairman, and CEO Howard Schultz

Towards the end of 2009 (when “Onward” was authored,) the economy started to improve. A measured recovery in consumer confidence invigorated the fortunes of most consumer discretionary companies that had suffered during the downturn. At Starbucks, customers returned to stores and spent more. Sales and profitability improved. The company’s valuation on Wall Street soared again. Conceivably, Starbucks may have enjoyed a comeback even if Schultz had remained just the chairman, retained and supported the CEO, and worked with the company’s leadership team to initiate course corrections.

That Starbucks continues to be an American success story and has done extraordinarily well to date under Schultz’s leadership is one more instance of a beloved fairy tale in the world of business—that of a company in distress rescued by the return of its visionary founder.

“Onward” is Schultz’s somewhat grandiose narrative of his return as CEO. The 350-page book is brimming with peripheral details, self-congratulatory superlatives, recurring claims, and Pollyanna-isms that are illustrative of a charismatic entrepreneur and a brilliant corporate cheerleader.

Recommendation: Skim. (For Starbucks aficionados: Read.)

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars: A Case Study in Determination and Competitive Ferocity


Competition Drives so much of our World Today

We live in a hypercompetitive age where winning is the outcome, often necessary for survival—in classrooms, sports, trade and commerce or at work. The archetypical successful person is determined, aggressive, and obsessed with winning at everything, sometimes at any cost. Of course, competition is healthy; but, winning may come at a hefty price—always striving to win or being overzealous can be both unnecessary and unproductive. Besides, collaborative or naturally uncompetitive individuals tend to find competitive people somewhat unpleasant.

History provides but a few vivid portraits of intense competition that compare to the mid-90s’ “browser wars,” a narrative characterized by the dogged determination and intense competitive spirit of some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs.

Bill Gates and Microsoft are legendary for using brute power: whenever a new competitor emerged, Microsoft would muster its financial resources and its smarts to storm into those markets with alternative products that would eventually dominate. Up until the dot-com bust, Microsoft not only out-competed Borland, Lotus Development, Corel, and other rivals that were previously in the lead, but also crushed upstarts such as Netscape.

“The Browser Wars”: Rise and Fall of Netscape

Bill Gates and the Browser Wars At the start of 1995, a new software called Netscape Navigator took the computing world by storm. Unlike primitive browsers, Netscape could display text and graphics on websites. Early web buffs eager to discover the marvel of the nascent internet were no longer restricted to downloading text alone. In addition, Netscape could render web pages on the fly while they were still being downloaded. Users did not need to stare at a blank screen until their dial-up connections loaded text and graphics.

Even more astounding was the fact that the upstart Netscape Communications, Netscape Navigator’s creator, had been co-founded by a 23-year-old programmer just a few months previously and seemed well-positioned to take advantage of the imminent consumer internet revolution. Netscape was on its way to an extraordinary 90% market share amongst internet browsers. What’s more: the company’s spectacular IPO was drawing near and was to start the dot-com boom.

Netscape’s meteoric rise could not escape the attention of the world’s dominant software company. Early in 1995, Microsoft was particularly occupied with finalizing Windows 95. Its launch, scheduled for August 1995, would prove to be the largest, most expensive consumer marketing endeavor in history. Moreover, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) had embarked on an intrusive investigation into claims of unfair business practices as alleged by Microsoft’s competitors.

While Netscape was capturing the Web browser market, Microsoft and Bill Gates had seemingly missed the paradigm shift created by the consumer internet. Financial and technology analysts wondered if Microsoft was destined to lose its supremacy over software. Microsoft could not wait on the sidelines and cede business opportunities in the upcoming consumer internet revolution.

Browser Wars: The Rise and Fall of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer

Bill Gates and Microsoft Jumped on the “Internet Tidal Wave”

Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and the Microsoft team were not to be trifled with. Microsoft simply could not afford to be the underdog. Its strategy was transformed entirely when, on 26-May-1995, Bill Gates wrote the groundbreaking internal memo, “The Internet Tidal Wave.”

Bill Gates deployed an extraordinary amount of capital and talent to battle for control over consumer internet. Just after the August-1995-release of Windows 95, Microsoft released an inferior Internet Explorer 1.0. In 1996, Version 3.0, matched the features of Netscape Navigator. Finally, in 1997, after bundling Internet Explorer 4.0 into Windows 95, Microsoft started to take a significant market share from Netscape.

In 1998, the DOJ and twenty US states alleged that Microsoft had illegally thwarted competition by abusing its monopoly in personal computers to bundle its Internet Explorer and Windows operating system.

By 1999, Netscape was an inferior web browser and quickly lost its dominance. The software’s market share dropped from 90% in 1996 to a meager 4% by 2002.

In subsequent installments of the browser wars, Netscape Navigator’s open-source successor, Firefox, regained market share from Internet Explorer. More recently, Firefox and Internet Explorer have had to contend with Google’s Chrome, which has grown to be the dominant web browser.

Microsoft Set Out to Destroy Competitor after Competitor

Historically, Microsoft has never been a substantial innovator. Instead, the company’s most famous strategy was to be a “fast follower.” The variety of rivals’ projects made no difference—competitors could pioneer anything from graphical user interfaces (GUI,) pointing devices, spreadsheets, word processors, browsers or gaming consoles and Microsoft would catch up in due course.

Consequently, the most important Microsoft products started essentially as copies of existing products made by competitors or upstarts that Microsoft was able to purchase early. MS-DOS evolved from QDOS, which itself derived from CP/M. Microsoft Windows was inspired by Apple’s Macintosh, which, in turn, had been inspired by a prototype mouse-driven graphical user interface that Steve Jobs had seen at Xerox PARC. Microsoft Excel borrowed from VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3. In addition to riding the coattails of bona fide innovators, Microsoft excelled in smart integration—it combined nifty functions and features into a single product or into a suite of easy-to-use tools such as its Office productivity software.

Microsoft’s Once-Invincible Strategy of Being a “Fast Follower” Wasn’t Sustainable

Alas, in the last 15 years, Microsoft’s “fast follower” competitive strategy has proven unsustainable. As its dominance in the enterprise world grew, Microsoft’s impressive financial performance relied mostly on its “old faithful” franchises. In fiscal 2014, the Windows operating system, Office productivity suite, and servers/cloud businesses contributed 78% of Microsoft’s revenue and almost all of the gross profit.

Despite the competitive ferocity of Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and others at the company’s helm, Microsoft has been unable to return to its domineering ways in the internet’s recent mobile- and social-computing trends. In fact, Microsoft stumbled in category after category of consumer computing and technology, including search, social networking, phones, music players, and tablets. Google, Facebook, Apple—lead by entrepreneurs just as intensely competitive as Bill Gates—have soared ahead, altering the social-media-tech consumer experience.

Recommended Reading: If you like business history and entrepreneurial success stories, read ‘Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time’, Daniel Gross’s engaging profiles of twenty great American entrepreneurs: Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris, McDonald’s ‘founder’ Roy Kroc, Walt Disney, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, et al. For more stories of Bill Gates’s fierce competitive instincts, read Stephen Manes’s “Gates”.

Origin of the Expression “You are Fired!” [Business Folklore]

Source of the Term 'You are Fired'

Origin of the expression 'You are fired!' The term ‘fired’ is a colloquial expression for dismissing a person from employment. It became more popular as a result of the NBC reality show The Apprentice where the host, American businessman Donald Trump, eliminates contestants for a high-level management job by “firing” them successively. In 2004, Trump actually filed a trademark application for the catchphrase “You’re fired!”

Some sources suggest the expression may have originated from the verb “to fire,” as in “to discharge a gun.” However, legend has it that the phrase originated in the 1910s at the National Cash Register (NCR) Company.

John Henry Patterson, founder of National Cash Register (NCR) NCR founder John Henry Patterson (1844—1922) is widely recognized as the pioneer of sales management and for developing formal methods for training and assessing salespersons. In spite of all his genius, Patterson was quirky. He sought total control of his surroundings, imposing his personal values on employees. As a food and fitness fanatic, he had employees weighed every six months. He often dismissed employees for trivial reasons just to deflate their self-confidence and, soon after, rehire them back.

Patterson’s employees and customers branded him abusive and confrontational. Patterson once dismissed an executive by asking him to visit a customer. When the executive drove back to NCR headquarters, he found his desk had been thrown out on the lawn. Right on time, his desk burst into flames. He was “fired.”

Thomas Watson Sr. was “fired” by NCR

Thomas J. Watson Sr., former President of International Business Machines (IBM) Famously, NCR’s star sales executive Thomas Watson Sr. (1874–1956) met a similar fate. In 1914, Watson argued that NCR’s dominant product, mechanical cash registers, would soon go obsolete. He proposed that NCR develop electric cash registers. Patterson resisted the idea. He warned Watson not to overstep his boundaries and demanded that Watson focus on sales only and intrude into product innovation. Following an argument at a meeting, Patterson dismissed Watson. In a fit of rage, Patterson had workers carry Watson’s desk outside and had it lit on fire. Watson Sr. was thus “fired.”

Watson Sr. still believed in the potential for electric cash registers. He joined a smaller competitor, Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR,) which soon grew into International Business Machines (IBM.) Watson Sr. led IBM for forty years and turned it into the world’s leading technology company.

Source/Source: Keynote address by Mark Hurd, then-president and COO of Teradata at Kellogg School of Management’s Digital Frontier Conference on 17- and 18-Jan-2003. Teradata was previously a division of NCR Corporation, the company Patterson founded.

Want to be more likeable? Improve your customer service? Adopt Sam Walton’s “Ten-Foot Rule”


Walton Ten-Foot Rule

Sam Walton, Founder of Wal-Mart Stores Sam Walton, Walmart’s iconic founder and perhaps the most successful entrepreneur of his generation, demonstrated considerable charisma, ambition, and drive from a very young age.

Sam was a committed student leader when he attended the University of Missouri, Columbia. One of the secrets to his reputation in college was that he would greet and speak to everybody he came across on campus. If he knew them, he was sure to address them by their name. In a short time, he had made many friends and was well-liked. Small wonder, then, that Sam triumphed in nearly all the student elections he entered.

From his bestselling autobiography, “Made in America”:

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) I had decided I wanted to be president of the university student body. I learned early on that one of the secrets to campus leadership was the simplest thing of all: speak to people coming down the sidewalk before they speak to you. I did that in college. I did it when I carried my papers. I would always look ahead and speak to the person coming toward me. If I knew them, I would call them by name, but even if I didn’t I would still speak to them. Before long, I probably knew more students than anybody in the university, and they recognized me and considered me their friend. I ran for every office that came along. l was elected president of the senior men’s honor society, QEBH, an officer in my fraternity, and president of the senior class. I was captain and president of Scabbard and Blade, the elite military organization of ROTC.

When Walmart became sizeable enough, Sam realized that it could not offer prices lower than those of other retail giants—yet. As part of his customer service strategy, he institutionalized the very trait that had made him popular when he was a student. He insisted on the “Walton Ten-Foot Rule.” According to the rule, when Walmart associates (as Walmart calls its employees) came within ten feet of customers, they were to smile, make eye contact, greet the customer, and offer assistance. As Walmart grew, Sam added greeters who would greet customers at the door (and control “shrinkage” / shoplifting.) Even today, the Ten-Foot Rule is a part of the Walmart culture.

Likeability: A Predictor of Success

Likeability for success in life Likeability is an important predictor to success in life. Some people seem naturally endowed with appealing personalities. They tend to complement their talents by being personable and graceful, presenting themselves well, and by possessing the appropriate social skills for every occasion. They often win others over effortlessly. At school and in college, they are their teachers’ favorites and are chosen by their peers to represent their classes. They are invited to the right kind of parties and gatherings, and infuse them with life. At work, they are persuasive; they get noticed and quickly climb the corporate ladder.

From my observations of the traits of the talented and successful, I offer you a few reminders to help you become more personable, develop rapport, and thus maximize your chance of success: