Legal Law

How Solving a Common Problem Can Lead to Fame and Wealth

The end of the 19th century was a time of massive cultural, business, and lifestyle changes in the United States and Western Europe. Industrialization was in full swing. The railroads were fully formed and provided faster movement of people, goods, and food for consumers and businesses. Men like Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and JP Morgan were transforming business and innovation. This was a golden age of consumer product invention.

The opportunity to innovate in the areas of personal hygiene, comfort, and safety was being aggressively addressed for the first time ever. The evolution of a mass consumer market was incipient. The confluence of this new mass market and a host of new products to address perceived needs created a unique confluence of opportunity.

The daily chore of a man shaving his facial hair was one such opportunity. Today, seeing the pictures and images of this era; we’re amused by the highly styled and gloriously cultivated facial hair seen on many male faces. The clean-shaven face is rarely seen. It would seem as if the men of 1890 were striving to grow individualized works of art on their faces.

The reason so many men grew beards, mustaches, and goatee hair was the difficulty inherent, at the time, in the shaving process. Water was not always available to soften facial hair and lather. Warm water was even rarer. Most men, even of limited means, turned to the barber to trim their facial hair. When shaving off his beard, a sharp steel razor was essential. Razors had to be sharpened regularly on a strap and had to be very sharp. Many men cut themselves and become infected performing this simple act of personal hygiene. Shaving while traveling on a moving train was very dangerous. The need to tackle this task was ready to be successfully marketed.

Into this yawning void stumbled a socialist utopian dreamer named King Gillette. Gillette was considered a failure by his family. His father was a successful innovator and his mother wrote a famous cookbook, “The White House Cookbook,” which remained in print for almost 100 years. King Gillette had received several patents but failed in his efforts to commercialize any of them. He earned his living by working as a street vendor. His failures embittered him and he immersed himself in socialism and preached a kind of anti-industrialism.

However, this unlikely capitalist, while working as a salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company, was encouraged by his boss to keep trying to invent new products. Specifically, he encouraged Gillette to invent products that required subsequent periodic replacement purchases. His passion became developing a shaving system that was safe, portable, efficient, cost effective and required the purchaser to replace the implement on a regular basis.

King Gillette took his concept of a shaving device, which required an amalgamation of metals and metallurgical technology, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Working with engineers at this prestigious school allowed Gillette to refine the elements of the safety razor. His patents indicate an apparatus of elegant simplicity.

Gillette formed the American Safety Razor Company to commercialize his invention. Initially, due to limited capital and the high cost of production, sales were slow. While reviewing the product, the sales potential, and the virtual absence of competition, Gillette made an inspired decision: he would sell the razors at a loss to encourage sales, use of the portable implement, and accelerate word of mouth about his amazing razor. Sales expanded exponentially almost immediately and Gillette Safety Razor became one of the most revered brands in history. The term “loss leader” was born, or losing money on the first sale to consolidate subsequent gains.

Gillette quickly realized that its real business wasn’t selling razors, it was selling blades. He almost immediately began to give away the knives. To this day, the purchase of a new Gillette shaving system includes a free or deeply discounted razor, ensuring years of consistent and highly profitable repeat blade purchases. Product fidelity was assured.

The term “planned obsolescence” is classically applied to products like Gillette razors. In the 1890s, people practically didn’t throw anything away. Everything was used until the useful life of a product was completely exhausted. The concept of a product being used and discarded in favor of a replacement unit was novel. It was also key to the evolution of a dynamic market for consumer products. We owe a lot to King Gillette and the business model he created. It serves us well to this day.

King Gillette was an unlikely capitalist. Even after making millions from his inventions, he hypocritically preached a strange anti-capitalist philosophy. However, he possessed all the essential characteristics so necessary to be a successful businessman. He had vision, drive and courage. Failure did not stop him. He searched and found a need. He addressed that need, cutting costs and prices to make his razors and blades affordable to the masses. He provided a simple solution to a basic human problem: shaving.

King Gillette’s lesson for all struggling entrepreneurs is obvious. There will always be a demand for innovation that addresses everyday problems through simple product benefits. Look around your home, hobby, or workplace. This is where you will find potentially lucrative and significant business opportunities.

For assistance or inquiries about marketing your opportunity or invention, please contact the author, Geoff Ficke, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. at or email [email protected]

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