In The Wild West Of 3M, No Idea Gets Left Behind
"Garage Inventors" Work For Companies, Too!
When Arthur Fry jointly invented the legendary Post-It® Note in 1974 with fellow engineer, Spencer Silver, he became one of the most famous in-house “garage inventors” of all time or what 3M proudly calls an “intrapreneur".
He did this within the institutionalized lawlessness of a rare corporation that allowed an industrious engineer like Arthur to champion a technology many had internally dismissed or deemed limited in application.
“I like them myself, but they will never sell – the market is not that big,” remarked one of Arthur Fry’s managers at 3M. Formal market research indicated that the yellow sticky notes, which the engineers had been tinkering with for nearly decade, would never generate more than $750,000 in revenue, a paltry figure when compared to their flagship product line, Scotch® Magic™ Tape.
Arthur set himself up as the sole dispenser of the yellow pads within 3M. “I would only give you one because if I gave you two, you would give one away and I wanted to see how much you used. Use it up and come back when you need another pad.”
Over the course of a year he came to the startling conclusion that employees within 3M were using between 7-20 pads per year. In contrast, those same worker bees were using one roll of Scotch® Magic™ Tape annually, the company’s cash cow. In another test, he dumped a whole pallet load of pads outside one department and asked the secretary to keep tabs of usage. Within two weeks, the manager came back pleading with Arthur to fill the entire stock room to meet requests.
This phenomenal river of demand for a tiny sliver of yellow paper with a small strip of low-tack pressure-sensitive adhesive can be likened to a Tsunami racing invisibly through the water towards land. As it got close, the leading edge of the wave sucked all the sticky notes out of 3M’s supply rooms before it came crashing down as a blockbuster product in the American marketplace in 1978.
The wave’s journey started 10 years earlier when Dr. Spencer Silver, a senior chemist in 3M’s Central Research Labs, was attempting to formulate a superglue. Instead, he stumbled upon a weak adhesive composed of microspheres.
They were indeed sticky, but not sticky enough to hold forcefully to its attached surface.
The oddity of its “removable characteristics” were complemented by the fact that the low-tack adhesive could be re-used several times over. If coated incorrectly, the adhesive would come off on the wrong surface. These properties intrigued Silver, but he was not exactly sure what product could be developed from the discovery.
In most companies, the journey may well have ended here. But 3M was no ordinary company. In the same vein as Xerox or later imitators such as Google, 3M was helmed by the visionary chairman, William L. McKnight who believed in the power of delegation and allowing employees to exercise their initiative. This led to a policy which allowed staff to use 15% of their time, or roughly one day each week, to work on any project or invention their heart desired.
Hire good people and leave them alone.
“Delegate responsibility and encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”
William L. McKnight // 3M Chairman, Inventor of 15% Culture
This Shangri-La of “Intrapreneurial” opportunity took place long before the Golden Age of Inventing which erupted into life in 2013. This milestone year saw the United States Patent Office (USPTO) replace the First to Invent application process with the First to File model, essentially allowing small inventors the opportunity to claim a patent WITHOUT a workable prototype. It would fundamentally shift the playing fields in favor of the small inventor and away from the massive arms of big business.
3M in the 1950s and 1960s was thus a magnet for entrepreneurially-inclined inventors and engineers who could see no way to start their own company or finance their own inventions. This was especially true for a young Arthur Fry who grew up in a small Minnesota town with an engineer for a dad and a Zen for tearing things apart and building new creations.
“I made decision long ago when deciding to become an inventor that I needed to work with scientists and inventors who knew things I did not know about, so between us we could come up with things that individually we could not do alone,” said Arthur.
Like Spencer, Arthur could have chosen a safe, more staid position at a large company like Du Pont. Instead, both were drawn to McKnight’s benevolent vision of building 3M into a wild west of innovation and creativity. It was within this atmosphere that Spencer went on a roadshow within the company, delivering technical seminars outlining his discovery that still had no visible product application.
He did this for roughly eight years, earning the moniker “Mr. Persistence”, before his ideas reached Arthur’s ears on the 3M golf course one day.
On the Back Nine...
“I asked the fellow I was playing with what was happening in his department. He mentioned Spencer and his sticky microspheres. You can’t dissolve them; you can’t melt them. It’s like sticking to a bunch of marbles. That interested me.”
ARTHUR FRY // Inventor, Engineer, Intrepreneur
Arthur attended one of Spencer’s in-house technical seminars and filed the information away. Later, while singing at a church choir, the tiny of scrap of paper marking a spot in the hymn sheet fell to the ground. Frustrated, he wished he had a paper bookmark that would stick to the hymnal without falling out.
Instantly his mind zeroed in on the microspheres that Spencer had outlined in his talk.
“It suddenly dawned on me that the space between the microspheres was the key. If they pushed close together, they will be stickier; further apart less adhesive. I needed to find the magic spacing where it would be just right for paper.”
The next day Arthur went back to 3M and utilized the 15% Culture to test his theory. With microsphere samples in hand from Spencer, he set about experimenting with spacing the invisible ‘marbles’ to produce just the right amount of stickiness. His early prototypes evolved when he happened to write a few notes on the paper bookmarks, some of which he sent in files to his boss.
“Not a bad idea,” wrote his boss on the paper bookmark upon returning the files.
Arthur instantly realized that his sticky notes were not just a bookmark but a new way to communicate or organize information.
[The choice of yellow, by the way, was purely accidental. Yellow scrap paper in nearby lab rooms was readily available and plucked up for the job! Ironically, many would call this choice of color a masterstroke years later! ]
An Addictive Invention
“My colleagues started using their bookmark samples as notes and soon were at my desk saying that they were instant addicts and demanding more samples. As the circle of addiction quickly spread within our product development laboratory, I came to the very exciting and satisfying realization that those little, self-attaching notes were a very useful product.”
However, the simplicity of the early-stage Post-It® Notes belies its complexity.
Arthur literally had to move mountains to perfect the engineering process which at that point in time did not exist.
Fry faced headwinds from fellow 3M designers and engineers who steadfastly maintained the notes could not be manufactured. For several decades, 3M had manufactured adhesive products in large dispensable rolls, completely unsuited to the tear-off pad model suggested by Arthur.
Undeterred, Arthur set about constructing a machine in his home basement that could make the pads. Within several months, he had a prototype that could do the job - precisely. However, too big and too wide to fit through the door, 3M engineers helped Fry knock down a wall to ferry the machine to their local production plant. It worked perfectly the first time!
The tide had slowly turned in Fry’s favor since "once people started using them it was like handing them marijuana. Once you start it, you can't stop."
Further, internal efficiency teams agreed, pointing out its time saving properties. Studies concluded that you cannot afford NOT to use them because if the average secretary picks up something there is a penny of labor involved.
“If she picks up a staple and clips it to another piece of paper, three cents of labor are accrued. Whereas the Post-It® Note was only a penny. With later enhancements the cost dropped further,” said Arthur.
Still, test markets for Press’n’Peel – the initial name for his sticky wonder – were spectacular failures in cities such as Tampa and Denver. Several members of the marketing team were still not convinced it could outsell the Magic Tape as suggested by Arthur’s internal data. They used the market research results to support their case.
However, the 3M 15% Culture gave Arthur the leeway to continue working on his idea despite the headwind, pointing out that the notes had been stuck on the bottom shelves of office supply dealers.
A year later the project was on the verge of being killed for the umpteenth time. “I pleaded with the Division Vice President: Don’t kill the program until we talk to the people who are using it – our customers.”
In 1978, Arthur and his team focused their efforts on using extensive advertising and personal demonstrations to educate the market. One clever tactic was to use bounce back cards with special offers of free tape to entice feedback.
“We love it. Don’t take it off the market – we’ll pay you more for it,” read the general feedback. “We cannot do our work without these pads. Why aren’t there more?”
3M followed this up by giving out free samples in Boise, Idaho which turned out to be the leading edge of the Tsunami which finally broke into blockbuster sales.
Everyone had to have a yellow sticky note!
Inventor, Engineer & Salesman
“If you have a 50% intent to repurchase with an item like that it’s considered a miracle. After 6 weeks in Boise, we had a 98% intent to repurchase,” said Arthur. “3M had never ever seen anything like this before, but it was the product selling itself.”
The Power of Patents
In essence, the Tsunami dispersed itself into a marketing virus which infected each recipient, compelling reuse and repurchase. One year later Press’n’Peel was rebranded as the Post-It® Note and within a short space of time became 3M’s top selling product.
Two patents were granted for the technology. The first for Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres by Spencer Silver in 1970 and the second for Repositionable Pressure-Sensitive Adhesive Sheet Material by Arthur Fry in 1984. Just like the Rubik’s Cube® profiled recently on The Patent Professor®, there were challengers to the claim that Spencer and Arthur invented the Post-It® Note technology including one by Alan Amron, an American inventor.
He claimed to have come up with a similar concept in 1973 and disclosed his idea to 3M executives around about the same time.
Whether or not this is true, it reminds us of the importance of keeping your idea a secret before a patent is awarded. It also highlights a different era where the First to Invent patent model ruled over the inventing process, requiring longer time frames to perfect a physical prototype and much higher capital outlays to craft a workable device.
The Post-It® Note was ultimately made possible by two brilliant engineers who fell in love with a simple idea, crafted with precision and nurtured over a decade within the wild west of 3M, formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.
They both used the 15% culture to stubbornly persist with dreams of releasing a world-changing idea to the world despite the negative headwinds of upper management.
Each time we use a Post-It® Note we're reminded of the incredible ingenuity of a product that is so easy to use WITHOUT requiring instructions.
Just Have Fun!
“Sampling showed customers used it more if we gave them NO instructions than if we did, because they loved experimenting with it so much."
ARTHUR FRY // Inventor, Innovator & Disrupter
Arthur would later state that he was no cleverer than any other inventor or engineer in the room. His idea was a like a child he had to protect and bring up into adulthood. This instilled persistence, desire and action - making him one on the great intrapreneurs of our time and a true asset to 3M.
We can only wonder what he would have achieved an as an independent “Garage Inventor” in the Golden Age of Inventing supported by platforms such as the Internet, Kickstarter and the Shark Tank!
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