There comes the idea. There comes the vision. There comes the sound market research to ensure a virgin good takes its place in the hallowed pantheon of world-changing products.
Oy vey! There comes a product that ends up employed for something completely different from its original intention. The product still changed the world, people got rich, but what the heck…
More than a comedy of errors and that fool of fate vibe, we think you will find some powerful lessons from these products on determination, insight, adaptability and other vital characteristics of entrepreneurship.
America’s favorite soft drink started out as anything but soft. Coca-Cola’s original purpose was to combat anxiety, headaches and drug dependence. John Pemberton, a pharmacist and Confederate veteran suffering from morphine addiction, invented the primordial Coca-Cola in the late 19th century. He named the drink Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, and it started out a sweetened alcoholic beverage infused with coca leaves.
As it grew as a brand, Coca-Cola was gradually honed with carbonation and non-narcotic sweeteners to give the world its most famous soda.
2. Kotex & Lysol
I place these two products together because they reveal the plight of women wading in the torrid currents of marketing. On one hand, Lysol began as a feminine douche and contraception, failing on both accounts and being downright dangerous to women’s health. Marketing campaigns even accused women of being deficient spouses if they didn’t use the product. Mercifully, research and politicking mutated Lysol into what it is today: a cleaning and disinfecting home product.
If you don’t believe me or the header graphic, check out this old ad found in Mentalfloss:
On the other hand, Kotex started out as a surgical dressing. Perceptive Red Cross nurses discovered another use for it due to its absorbent material: feminine hygiene. After the war, Kotex discovered a new market.
No, this product wasn’t created for your toddler to make your carpet crusty, even if it buys you a break. Soap manufacturer Cleo McVickers first invented this salty clay-like substance in the 1930s. Originally, McVickers believed he’d discovered the ultimate wallpaper cleaner. He didn’t get rich for this, but 20 years later his son Joseph remarketed the product for kindergarteners. The rest is messy history.
4. Bubble Wrap
In 1957, engineer Al Fielding and Swiss inventor Marc Chavannes thought they had a hit by designing the ultimate wallpaper—plastic sheets with air bubbles. Needless to say, the idea went over like a lead bubble. Fielding and Chavannes attempted to market their invention as a greenhouse insulation, and that approach failed as well. The product found its purpose (and was saved) by an idea from a marketer at Sealed Air, who used in 1959 as the wrapper for IBM’s 1401 computer. Is there anything computer technology can’t do?
The material was quickly dubbed Bubble Wrap. Today it’s a $4 billion a year in sales product. The home decorating industry is eternally grateful.
Not everything is about sex in society, and Viagra is a perfect illustration. At first, the med was conceived as a treatment for symptoms of heart disease. However, in Phase I clinical trials researchers discovered that the drug was a failure for its intended purpose. However (again), researchers noticed that male subjects were hardening not in the arteries but other places. Voila! A heavenly product “erected” from a failed drug, and now Viagra rakes in an estimated $1.9 billion dollars a year.
Over a century ago, Listerine was invented as a surgical antiseptic. It didn’t quite catch with the medical community, and later was employed for these purposes:
– A cure for gonorrhea
– Treatment for sweaty feet, soft corns, and toe crust
– An additive for cigarettes
– Treatment for dandruff
Sometime in the 1920s Listerine found its destiny as a cure for stinky breath. Thus, if you’re ever booted from Shark Tank, know that you can come back many times with the same product and different marketing.
7. Post-It Notes
Talk about the greatest failure becoming the greatest success. In 1968, Spencer Silver was working for 3M trying to create super strong adhesives for the aerospace industry. Instead, Silver created the opposite: an extremely weak, pressure-sensitive adhesive. Interestingly, the substance left little residue and could be reused several times. As with the other products mentioned, marketing and market research attempted to find a use for it to no avail.
Years later, another employee of 3M, Arthur Fry, used the adhesive simply to keep hymnal papers together when he was singing at church. One sticky thing led to another sticky thing, and the Post-It Note came to the market in the 1970s, floundered for a while, and finally became an American staple (or replacer) in the 1980s. And no airplanes had to fall apart either!
8. St. Patrick’s Day
I know. It’s not a product, but it’s still is a brand. Moreover, St. Patrick’s day reveals that some celebrations are steeped in fiction and lies, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful. As we reported, St. Patrick’s Day was originally a day of devotion lacking in parades where the government outlawed liquor consumption in pubs; and that American activism and thirst for equality is what truly inspired the holiday’s modern variation.
Oh, and leprechauns aren’t real either, if you were wondering.
9. Super Glue/Krazy Glue
Everyone’s favorite repair hack was once utilized as an emergency wound-sealer in combat situations, specifically the Vietnam War. That’s not how it started, though. These glues are composed of a substance called cyanoacrylate. Harry Coover invented cyanoacrylate in 1942 for Kodak Laboratories—in an attempt to create a special extra-clear plastic suitable for gun sights. That intention didn’t work, and neither did other uses such as plastic for airplane canopies. After years of tweaking, cyanoacrylate found a temporary home on the battlefield as makeshift would sealer that prevented soldiers from bleeding to death before being taken to the hospital.
The invention saved many lives, but the Food & Drug Administration never allowed it for the general public. This version of cyanoacrylate made its way to consumers for home repair, although some variations are employed in orthopedic surgery and dental procedures.
This product was a joint stumbling of both men and women. In the late 19th century—around the time Pemberton was getting high on Coca-Cola—chemist Constantin Fahlberg thought he had almost perfected a coal tar derivative. During that discovery time, when at home after work, he noticed that his wife’s biscuits tasted much sweeter than usual. Fahlberg discovered that the reason for those sweet-ass biscuits had to do with him not washing his hands after work and getting the residue of the coal tar derivative on the food.
Sometimes bad hygiene can lead to vast riches, as well as pink packets on every restaurant table.
As you can see, the line to success is rarely straight, and often seeming mistakes can be transformed into vast opportunities—just as good intentions and aggressive marketing can cause massive damage (as with Lysol). Also, what starts as something base can evolve into sophistication for consumers. The key with these inventors and entrepreneurs is that they kept their eyes and ears open, accepted failure as a bridge to triumph, and simply never gave up…stoned out their minds or not.