An Afternoon of Desperation
You probably don’t remember it, but the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis was celebrated in a terrific heat wave. And July 23 was particularly hot — which is why today is such an important date in innovation history.
It was especially terrific for one immigrant, Arnold Fornachou, who was fortunate enough to scrape together enough funds to purchase a vendor booth selling ice cream. He was thrilled to be selling at such a prestigious international event… and he wasn’t disappointed! In fact, business was so brisk, he ran out of the glass dishes in which the ice cream was served! Disaster!
He had paid for the booth, made the ice cream, invested in refrigeration equipment, and attracted paying clientele!!! Only now he would have to send them away empty…unless he could come up with some other way to package the drippy substance so people could eat it without their soiling their petticoats… and fast!
In a panic, Arnold scanned around the other vendors in search of a solution, but no one served anything requiring a dish! Then he had an idea! Another immigrant vendor, Ernest Hamwi, was making flat, circular Syrian pastries called zalabia! (Hey, you can’t make this stuff up!) Arnold folded the zalabia into a cone shape… and so the ice cream cone was born – not from new product development kitchens and focus groups, but from good old desperation! (Fortunately, there’s still a lot of that around to spur problem-solving innovations today)!
And Now for the Real Innovation
If Arnold had been thinking about merely maintaining business as usual after his World’s Fair debacle, he would have instituted a six-sigma assessment to ensure that he had sufficient numbers of glass dishes and a rapid dishwashing process built into his market development plans. If Arnold had merely made it through a bad situation with a stopgap solution, we would not know any more about him.
The reason we celebrate Mr. Fornachou 105years later is due to his being sufficiently open minded to recognize the long-term potential of his stopgap improvisation.
How often do you think the answer to our business problems might be right under our noses? It usually just takes someone to help us see them.
He went on to form the Missouri Cone Company (apparently he was not as good at naming inventions as he was at making them). By the time of the Depression, the 120 million men, women, and delighted children in America were consuming 250 million cones a year!
Is your Ice Cream Melting?
What is the point of this story, as interesting as it is? (For ice cream fanatics, I understand no further explanation is needed)! I’ll give a personal answer.
Aside from loving ice cream, this story is was the inspiration for the development of our “Upportunity” practice earlier this year. I was lamenting the apparent cessation of innovation when I chanced upon a program on the history of food in America.
When I heard this story about innovation that came only from desperation, I was encouraged to hear about the necessity and potential reward of innovation even – especially – in difficult times. It encouraged me to encourage companies to transform the downturn into an “upportunity”.
Many companies have run out of “ice cream dishes” in today’s distressed economic environment. Perhaps this depicts your company. This story reveals five keys to the success of your company:
1.Difficult times, not just times of plenty, are great times for innovation. In fact, history shows that the most dramatic, disruptive innovations come from the most difficult times and situations. Let us know if you want more examples.
2.Innovations are closer than you think — it’s a matter of seeing them. Arnold was only a few stalls away from the salvation for his investment at the Louisiana Purchase Fair. But more than that, he was just a few stalls away from creating a completely new concept in an industry of which he didn’t even view himself a part. It is possible to bring a fresh, outside-in perspective to your company that can unveil opportunities that you might be overlooking.
3.You have no choice whether or not to innovate. Your competitors are working on them as you read this. If you’re a culinary historian, you know there are multiple claims to the invention of ice cream. Rather than detracting from this account, it reinforces the urgency of acting quickly – because others, encountering challenges like yours, are also working on solutions while you contemplate.
4.In times of disruptive volatility, competitors can come from anywhere. Who would have thought that something as “American as ice cream” would come from the momentary collaboration of two unknown immigrant vendors at a fair! Similarly, you need to think beyond the competitors you know – the ones with your same training, assumptions, and business models. You need to think about potentially more disruptive competitors creating completely different solutions from completely different perspectives.
5.The people in your company are poised for action. Necessity is the mother of implementation. (We all know she also spawned innovation, but innovations never make it through childhood unless there is a powerful NEED to shepherd them through the often-toxic developmental environment of the corporation). The people in your company have never been more aware of the need for changing business as usual than now. This may be buried in the stress of fewer people having to do more work without a compelling vision for a way of changing the situation. The catalyst of an innovative response to the recession can be used to engage them in a way they have not yet been engaged.
If this story is relevant to your company, feel free to contact Insighting Ideas for a free consulting conversation about proven ways we can help your company see the overlooked opportunities within your grasp.
Let us know your interest in other historical case studies of companies that faced watershed moments at critical moments in facing major crises before they went on to become industry leaders such as IBM, Intel, Cisco, Motorola, Xerox, and Continental. We look forward to exploring new revenue streams with you.