A view from Dave Trott: Turn the problem inside out

In 1886 in the US, 65% of the population lived in rural areas.

Tens of thousands of farms clustered around tiny towns.

The main method of communication was by telegraph.

Telegraph lines followed the railway track, it being the shortest distance between towns.

So the telegraph operator usually sat in the train station.

In North Redwood, Minnesota, the telegraph operator was a 23-year-old named Richard.

One day, a shipment of watches arrived at the station.

No-one collected them, so they would have to be sent back.

Richard saw this problem as an opportunity.

He told the sender he could save the freight charges by letting him sell the watches.

There weren’t enough people in his small town, but Richard turned the problem inside out.

He was connected to 500 similar small towns by telegraph and railway.

He contacted every telegraph operator along the railway line and asked them to help sell the watches.

And they did – in two days.

So he ordered more watches and sold them the same way.

Which meant he spotted another opportunity.

None of these tiny towns had any big stores, just tiny local shops.

He could provide goods that weren’t available locally.

And he didn’t need a shop, just a big book for people to order from.

So he began distributing tens of thousands of catalogues.

Each one was 500 pages of furniture, firearms, stoves, saddles, wagons, clothes, bicycles, crockery, tools, jewellery. 

With nothing else to do in the evenings, people would sit and read his catalogue cover to cover like a magazine.

Which meant they were actually shopping.

And, all over rural America, that catalogue became the main way of buying anything.

Richard built a massive business by turning a problem inside out.

But, by 1925, more people were living in cities than the countryside.

It should have been a big problem but, to Richard, it was another opportunity.

Cities were full of hundreds of small shops; what if he opened stores that were as big as his catalogues? 

So Richard’s company began opening huge stores in cities. 

By 1926, they had 27 stores.

By the next year, they had 192 stores; by the next year, 319; by the next year, 400; and by 1941, they had 600 stores.

By 1969, Richard’s company was the largest retailer in the world with 350,000 employees.

In fact, in 1973, his company was rich enough to build the tallest building in the world.

A quarter-of-a-mile high: 200 feet taller than the Empire State Building. 

It was, of course, the Sears Tower in Chicago.

The man was Richard Sears and the company he built was Sears, Roebuck & Co.

How he built it was to turn a problem inside out.

Because everything is about perspective.

So if you change the perspective, you change everything.

Turned inside out, the problem becomes an opportunity.

A single tiny town with hardly any shops is a problem.

But 500 tiny towns with hardly any shops is a massive opportunity.

All it needed was someone to turn the problem inside out.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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