On the Level

Harley Proctor had figured out how to make a cake of soap efficiently enough to be sold to the average American consumer in 1878.

And while his soap sold fairly well, it never took off as he had hoped.

The factory manufacturing the soap kept pumping out the product, and sales remained sluggish. Harley had plateaued, it would have appeared. One day, a chemist working for the company took a chance on a passing thought that had come to him. He anticipated nothing of any importance to come of it. He wasn’t even all that confident it would work.

Curiosity got the better of him, though, and he gave it a shot. He soon discovered that adding air bubbles to the mixture before it set and hardened into soap forms gave the product an unusual quality. “I made floating soap today,” wrote the chemist in his ledger, almost as an afterthought.

But that floating soap (important when more people took baths than showers, because you didn’t have to grope the bottom of the tub for dropped soap) became the launchpad of one of the world’s great consumer brands, Proctor & Gamble. And the chemist whose curiosity opened the door to Ivory Soap and the innumerable other products P&G has introduced over the many decades?

None other than James Gamble, Jr. – son of Harley’s co-founder, James Gamble, Sr.

Curiosity is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship – a truism that has held water for centuries. You may have a vision, but that’s not a guarantee that the best ideas will always fit. Being open to ideas, and even actively seeking them out, leads to growth and improvement.

Curiosity got the better of him, though, and he gave it a shot. He soon discovered that adding air bubbles to the mixture before it set and hardened into soap forms gave the product an unusual quality. “I made floating soap today,” wrote the chemist in his ledger, almost as an afterthought.

Sometimes entrepreneurs become so enamored with their idea, their discovery, their “baby,” that the possibility of taking another angle on it, or shifting into a new direction, a better direction, simply gets disqualified before it can even be proven or tested.

As the pop group En Vogue sang in 1992, “Free your mind and the rest will follow.” Entrepreneurs begin with a great idea, no question about that. But when they free their minds to consider more ideas to build on and improve that original concept, wonderful things can happen.

It could be likened to the mind of a child, in a way. Any parent of a two-year-old would immediately agree that curiosity becomes the child’s primary, all-consuming passion – even about the most obvious things. Why does the snow fall, or why is that thing we hold outside in the rain called an umbrella? Why does the milk in their Cocoa Puffs turn brown? How do airplanes fly or how does TV work? And those are the easy questions!

When working to make a fledgling enterprise successful, it can challenge us to admit that we don’t have all the answers. But a great way out of that box, again, can be obvious. Creatively re-frame situations from new angles and perspectives. Open your mind to new ideas. Stay curious. Refuse to accept that the creative process has nowhere left to go. Keep building prototypes rather than engaging in endless theorizing.

Just think, if entrepreneurs didn’t follow this advice, we’d never be able to live every aspect of our lives connected to the miracle of the smartphone. We would still be cranking a handle on a wall-mounted telephone, waiting for “Sarah,” whoever that was, to patch our landline calls together over at the operator switchboard in Mayberry.

Stay humble enough to wonder about what you don’t know. Stay energized enough to want to find out. Stay curious enough to fail and pivot and fail again on the road to success. And don’t worry about dropping that soap along the way.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it often becomes the ticket to an entrepreneurial venture finding new life.

By Dan Seitam, C-Leveled