1. Price tags
In 1873, Frank Woolworth, who had just finished 2 study terms at a business college, started to work as a shop assistant. He was very shy and would stutter, freezing with fear every time customers turned to him. The owner of the shop, Mr. Moore, wanted to turn Frank into a clever businessman and once said that he was going to be absent for the whole day, so, he’d have to leave the young man alone to assume all the duties of a seller. Moreover, Frank was responsible for the store’s daily revenue, otherwise, Mister Moore would fire him.
He started to shiver at the thought that he would have to communicate with customers all day long. That’s when Frank got enlightened with an ingenious idea — he decided to attach a piece of paper with the price to every item so that the visitors of the shop wouldn’t disturb him as much. He spent the entire prior night placing cards with prices on the items, while stale goods received a tag saying, “All for 5 cents.”
Much to his surprise, the buyers liked this idea — there were a lot of shy people among them too. While the stale goods sold out within a couple of hours. Frank managed to earn a 6-day store revenue in just one day. Having come back, the shop owner was shocked and started to use price tags on a regular basis. He also offered Frank the opportunity to open his own store and even lent him $300.
Soon after, Frank opened one “Five-and-Dime” store, later he opened another one — and things were going great. The money started rolling in. Woolworth then came up with an idea to decorate his shops with Christmas decorations so that buyers were in a festive mood while shopping and would spend more money. His idea succeeded again — people liked it, and other shops started to use this idea too.
Over several decades, Woolworth became so rich that he managed to build the world’s highest skyscraper of that time in New-York — a 55-story building called the Woolworth Building. The creator of price tags died in 1919, at the age of 66, from a gallbladder disease.
2. The Slinky
Richard Thompson James had been showing off his creative skills since childhood when he would create toys for himself. When he grew up, he got a degree in naval engineering and got a job as an office worker at the “William Cramp & Sons” shipyard in Philadelphia where he would invent equipment for submarines and battleships.
Once on a hot day in 1943, he was developing a system for the suspension and stabilization of sensitive shipboard instruments aboard vessels. Then, one moment, James made a clumsy turn and dropped a box with spare parts off the top shelf. When Richard bent down to collect the scattered parts, he saw a tension spring that was awkwardly “walking” down the table and stacks of books and stopped on the ground.
The “walking” spring impressed the engineer and he repeated the same trick with the spring at home on his own stairs. In the next few months, he studied the elastic coefficients of different types of wire until he found the optimal combination. That’s when the first “walking” spring that could easily go down the stairs was born.
James borrowed $500, opened his own company, and produced first 400 toys packed in ordinary parchment paper. However, toy shop owners were not interested in his ordinary looking spiral bent wire. After much persuasion, James managed to display his Slinky springs in one of the shops. But they would lie untouched on the store shelves for weeks. After some time, the owner decided to grab life by the horns — he went to the shop and started to demonstrate the way his invention worked. As unbelievable as it might sound, he managed to sell all 400 Slinkys within 1.5 hours for $1 each and he sold more than 20,000 toys within the next several weeks. The Slinky spring toy became a national phenomenon.
James improved the production of springs, speeding it up many times, and sold more than 100 million toys for $1 each over the next 2 years. His company made a huge profit. However, at the same time, the inventor was gradually becoming more and more socially isolated. He wasn’t interested in money anymore. He also stopped taking part in raising his 6 kids and started to cheat on his wife. When she found out, he began to spend more time in the confessional at church. Later it turned out that he was secretly giving almost all of his earned income to evangelical religious groups. Eventually, in February 1960, James left for the wilderness in Bolivia without any explanation, and he joined a sect and severed all ties with the outside world.
Moreover, he left his family and company with million-dollar debts. His wife, Betty, had to choose between closing the company or becoming its leader. She chose the latter, plunged into business, and managed to be even more successful than her husband. By the way, it’s thanks to her that the Toy Story cartoon included the Slinky dog. After the release of the cartoon, the sales of Slinkys doubled. Today the Slinky spring toy is one of the most popular toys in the world.
The owner of Slinky died somewhere in Bolivia in 1974, at the age of 56.
3. Victoria’s Secret lingerie
In the late 1960s, Roy Raymond, a Stanford graduate, decided to buy a present for his wife and went to a shop looking for a set of beautiful lingerie. But all he saw in the shop were terry cloth robes and ugly floral print pajamas, while the shop assistants had been trained to serve only women and were not able to help him select the desired lingerie. The whole experience made him uneasy and he ended up leaving the shop without making a purchase.
After this experience, Roy decided to open his own lingerie shop where male buyers would feel comfortable. Over the next 8 years, Raymond studied the lingerie market and decided to focus on lace products and push-up bras. In 1977, he borrowed $40,000 from his parents and the same amount from other relatives and opened his first shop, called Victoria’s Secret. He earned $500,000 in the first year.
Raymond started to sell products with the help of catalogs and making a real revolution in the approach to lingerie sales. In 1982, his 6 shops brought him $6 million in revenue. Despite these figures, Roy had some financial difficulties and he decided to sell his company to Leslie Wexner, the creator of The Limited retail stores’ chain, for $1 million. Wexner instantly reoriented Victoria’s Secret and focused it on a female audience that could choose affordable luxury lingerie by themselves. It was he who later made this brand one of the leading brands on the market.
In 1984, Raymond founded a kids’ store called, “My Child’s Destiny” that went bankrupt 2 years later. After several more unsuccessful business start-ups, Raymond committed suicide in August 1993 by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
4. Sliced bread
In 1912, an American man of German origin, Otto Rohwedder, owned 3 jewelry shops. However, it wasn’t gold and diamonds that he was interested in, but the tools and mechanisms that he was constructing in his free time. Once, Rohwedder heard housewives complaining about how much time it takes for them to slice bread, especially in the mornings when they had to cook breakfast for the whole family. Additionally, the process of slicing wasn’t a safe activity. Otto got inspired and he decided to create a machine for bakeries that would slice bread.
He got so inspired by this idea that he decided to sell all his shops in 1916 and started to develop the first prototype of the invention with the money he made. He made hundreds of sketches, made his first machine that would cut bread and put slices together with a metal knitting needle. However, one year later the warehouse that the inventor was working in caught on fire and everything got destroyed — from the prototype to the blueprints.
Otto didn’t give up. In order to continue to feed his family and raise money for further developments, the engineer worked as a securities agent for 10 years. In 1927, he designed the first machine that was technically better than the burned prototype — the new machine not only sliced, but also wrapped bread. However, when it came to selling the device to bakeries, Rohwedder was laughed at because no one believed in his idea for selling sliced bread.
That’s when Otto offered to use his device at his friend’s bakery. This bakery, named the Frank Bench Bakery, was almost bankrupt at that moment. So, since he had nothing to lose, he agreed and the massive machine was installed in his shop.
5. Masking tape
In the 1920s, the 3M company was producing sandpaper that wasn’t always good quality. At this time, a 22-year-old engineer named Richard Drew had the lowest paid job. His main work was to test various types of grains for sandpaper. 2 years later, Richard got a small promotion — he was now being sent to local car repair shops to sell the products manufactured by the company.
It’s worth noting here — at that time, painting cars 2 different colors was very popular. But for car painting specialists, this process was extremely difficult — they used self-made glues, newspapers, and surgical tape. When removing the surgical tape, it would often pull off the fresh paint and the painting masters had to restart the process all over again. That’s why they needed the sandpaper.
Drew visited one of these car repair shops right at the moment car painting masters were boiling over another unsuccessful paint job. Of course, they reacted to this young fellow without any enthusiasm and refused to listen to him. However, at that moment, Drew had an idea, and he thought that it would be great to invent a sticky tape that wouldn’t leave any visible trace after its removal.
iRchard didn’t have any knowledge in the field of creating sticky tape at that time. But he started to conduct experiments using vegetable oils, flaxseed, resin, glycerin, and other ingredients. Drew almost stopped working altogether and was almost about to be fired when, finally, after 2 years of trials, he found an ideal formula and created a paper that would easily stick to the surface and unstick without any trace.
Initially, his boss didn’t appreciate the invention. But when the tape gained popularity among auto repair masters, he decided to open a laboratory for experiments. While working there, Drew created a transparent sticky tape made of cellophane in under a year. Years later, this product made the 3M company billions of dollars.