by Ron Kurtus (revised 9 September 2017)
The Gillette disposable razor was a unique invention that revolutionized more than the shaving industry. A salesman, King Gillette, invented the disposable razor and formed a company to sell those razors. His invention and marketing techniques created business concepts that are still used today.
Questions you may have include:
- How did Gillette create his invention?
- What was the business concept?
- What lessons can be learned from his life?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Early life - birth to age 17
King Camp Gillette was born in 1855 in the small town of Fond du Lac in central Wisconsin. His parents were innovators, who were always seeking to do things better. His father worked at various inventions and his mother created numerous recipes through experimentation.
In 1859, at age four, his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father started up a hardware business.
In 1871, when he was 16, the great Chicago fire destroyed their business. The Gillette family then moved to New York City. His father became a patent agent. King's father often described the various inventions that came across his desk. He also continued to dabble in his own creations. The idea of inventing something that would make him rich inspired King.
The following year King left school to begin working for a living as a traveling salesman.
Middle years - 18 to age 48
Gillette worked for years as salesman, often trying his hand at various inventions to improve the products he sold.
In 1887, when he was 32, King's mother published the famous White House Cookbook, which was still in print 100 years later.
By 1890, he had accumulated four patents, but none of the inventions gathered much interest. Meanwhile, his parents seemed so much more successful than him.
In 1894, at the age of 39, Gillette had become bitter about society--perhaps due to his own shortcomings and apparent failure to become successful in life. He wrote an anti-capitalist book called "The Human Drift" in which he criticized business practices and the rich. In the book, he stated that competition was the root of all evil and proposed a form of utopian, socialistic society that was pollution free. He hoped to replace the sprawling cities that the industrial revolution had created with beehive type communities.
Then the following year in 1895, at the age of 40, Gillette was back to his roots in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, working as a salesman for Crown Cork & Seal Co. The owner of the company had invented the cork-lined bottle cap. He knew Gillette wanted to be a successful inventor, so he gave the advice to invent something people use and throw away. This thought stuck in the back of Gillette's mind.
Gets great idea
Shortly afterwards, as he was ready to shave before going to work, King became irritated that his straight-edge razor was dull and would no longer cut. It was so worn out that he could no longer sharpen it. The straight-edge razor was also called the "cut-throat razor" because it was dangerous enough to cut a man's throat. Salesmen traveling in swaying trains had to be especially careful when trying to shave.
Gillette suddenly had a flash of inspiration of a razor that would not need stropping and honing to sharpen it. He had an idea of disposable razor blades that were sharpened by the manufacturer and thrown away when dull. It would also be a razor that was safe to use, as opposed to the dangerous straight-edge razor.
Excited by his idea, he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as asked their metallurgists if it were possible to make a small piece of steel that would hold its sharp edge and be affordable to throw away. They said it was impossible.
Undaunted, he spent evenings working on his idea. He then partnered with inventor William Emery Nickerson to perfect the method. Ironically, Nickerson had been educated at MIT. It took them 5 years and much of their own money to finally find someone who could provide a machine that would automatically sharpen thin sheets of metal, so they could be used to shave. Gillette was now 45 years old.
They eventually perfected the double-edged safety razor blade, which fit into a specially designed holder with a handle and an adjustable head. Gillette and Nickerson set up the American Safety Razor Company and got their patent in 1901.
Drawing of original safety razor patent
When Gillette became 48, in 1903, they finally started selling the razors.
Later years - 49 to death at age 77
At first the cost of making the blades was more than the selling price, so they sold at a loss to build up enough business to reduce the manufacturing cost.
Another great idea
Then Gillette had the fantastic idea of giving away his razors for free in order to sell more of his blades. This was part of a massive marketing campaign.
In 1904, he received a patent for the idea of a double-edged razor. He also renamed the company the Gillette Safety Razor Company.
Competitors tried by-passing the patents and copied many of Gillette's ideas. He then spent an enormous amount of time and money in litigation to protect his rights. In many cases, he simply bought out the competitors.
By the age of 55, in 1910, the Gillette Company dominated the razor business and Gillette was a millionaire. He was also a celebrity, since his face was on every package of razor blades.
He still didn't change his anti-capitalist views after he had become one himself. Gillette still dreamed of a utopian society, organized by engineers. He tried to get Teddy Roosevelt to become president of his new society and elicited the support of Henry Ford. They both declined.
The stock market crash of 1929, just about wiped out Gillette's fortune. He was also made powerless in his company by boardroom machinations. He spent the years from age 74 until he died at age 77 in 1932 in an unsuccessful enterprise to extract oil from shale.
King Gillette had a desire to make his mark in life. By coming up with the idea of disposable razor blades and giving away the razors to sell his blades, he became a very successful businessman.
Some of the lessons learned from Gillette's life include:
- Sometimes youthful ideas are incorrect
- Keep your eyes open for opportunities
- Good ideas come from common problems
- Don't give up on your idea
- Spend money to get the market
Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp
Resources and references
King C. Gillette - Wikipedia
The Razor's Edge by Richard Martin, The Industry Standard magazine, August 6-13, 2001 (Magazine no longer in print)
The Human Drift by K.C. Gillette, Boston: New Era Publishing Co. (1894) - Gillette's first book. Rare; out of print
The People's Corporation by K.C. Gillette, New York: Boni and Liveright Publishers (1924) - Rare; out of print
White House Cookbook, Revised and Updated Centennial Edition by Hugo Ziemann and F. L. Gillette, John Wiley & Sons (1996) $18.95 - Book by Gillette's mother
King C. Gillette: The Man and His Wonderful Shaving Device, by Russell B. Adams, Boston: Little Brown & Company (1978) - Biography; out of print
Cutting Edge: Gillette's Journey to Global Leadership by Gordon McKibben, Harvard Business School Press (1998) - History of Gillette and his company
Movers and Shakers: The 100 Most Influential Figures in Modern Business by Basic books Basic Books (2003) $17.95 - Short chapter on Gillette
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