Inventing the Close Shave

Posted: April 21, 2013 by Chuck Matthews in Innovation, Leadership, People
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UC Chuck MatthewsOne of my all-time favorite examples of the quintessential entrepreneur is King C. Gillette.  He embodies what I like to call the entrepreneur’s 3-D vision: drive, determination, and dedication.  His entrepreneurial journey parallels the timeless challenges facing entrepreneurs then and now.  He epitomizes the three essential tasks of the entrepreneur both at start-up and as the venture matures – creativity, leadership, and communication.

Previously, I introduced the core elements of the entrepreneurship process: focus, environment, the entrepreneur, and the engagement/execution process. Even with a clear focus (product and services, customers and competition), an entrepreneur must continually assess an uncertain and changing environment (business, economic, legal, political, social, and technological factors).

Central to all of this is the entrepreneur.  That the entrepreneur must simultaneously wear multiple hats is legendary in the lore of new start-ups. With so many distractions, let’s take a closer look at how the entrepreneur applies concepts of creativity, lessons of leadership, and achieves clarity of communication.

Creativity.  It all begins with an idea.  At the turn of the 20th Century, the dominant method for men to get a close shave was the straight edge, strop, whetstone, mug, brush, and soap.  Gillette envisioned a reusable steel blade and holder shaving system that did not need stropping or honing, that would give a clean, safe, shave at a fraction of the cost of going to a barber or the labor and time intensive system in use. The entrepreneur sees a problem, clarifies it, and seeks a solution. It is the entrepreneur’s creativity and innovation that provides the spark that ignites the beginning of change.  One of the greatest sources of creativity is seeking solutions to everyday problems.  It might be driven by new knowledge, technology, even changes in mood and meaning.

Leadership.  If there is one thing that sets entrepreneurs apart, it is their leadership in translating ideas into action and making things happen.  King Gillette initially was ahead of his time.  His solution, while innovative, was not immediately embraced. The engineers at MIT said it couldn’t be done.  Undaunted, he continued to pursue his vision for nearly six years, until another MIT educated machinist, William Nickerson, partnered with him to introduce the Gillette Safety Razor in 1903. It would have been easy to give up, but leadership is about overcoming obstacles, working with others to see and understand what needs to be done and how to do it.  The entrepreneur lives the classic definition of leadership: facilitating personal and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives.

Communication.  As good as a creative solution to a problem might be, it is only as good as the entrepreneur’s ability to effectively communicate that idea.  This is one of the most perplexing challenges for most entrepreneurs. Often great innovators are not always the best communicators. The key is recognizing that there is always limited time available to clearly, concisely, and effectively present how the problem, solution, market opportunity all come together. It is tempting to talk tech, become immersed in the detail, and/or lose sight of your objectives.  When presenting a new business idea, I always advise my students to keep it clear, clean, and concise.  Moreover, you need to know your audience.  For example, while the core message remains crisp and customer centric, investors are going to want to know more about the return on their investment.

As important as these three tasks are to the launch of a new venture, they are equally essential to the ongoing growth and success of the business over the long-term. Gillette, for example, was one of the first entrepreneurs to recognize the need to continuously innovate products and services, provide ongoing leadership, and leverage the power of advertising by crafting a simple, compelling message for the consumer.  Entrepreneurs challenge traditional definitions of value and embrace market inefficiencies (they seek to make them more efficient).

Identifying, capturing, and taming ideas is never easy.  It is the entrepreneur that must be relentless in the pursuit of his or her idea.  The entrepreneur must recognize his or her own strengths and weaknesses and find the roles to which he or she is best suited.  In our next column, we will explore how the entrepreneur engages in the process of opportunity recognition, acquiring needed resources, and assembling a team.  Till next time, all the best for continued entrepreneurial success!

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