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Sell More Toothbrushes!

There are many times in business where individuals and organizations believe they are thinking outside of the box – when indeed they are not. Often, they are using the same approach with trendy buzzwords. That is not to say, leveraging an approach that is working is negative. If something is working, there is success in doing what works. This article is about being open to investigating different approaches that may work better, while ignoring fears that would make us hesitate to try new concepts. Such bravery leads many to improved results and new opportunities. To help illustrate how thinking creatively can be rewarding, I have a story to share.


During a family reunion, the topic of 'Thinking Outside the Box' came up. I listened as the adult family members threw out their definitions of what it meant. From a verbal perspective, the best explanation I recall hearing was looking for a new or unconventional way of doing something. The most compelling viewpoint, however, came from Uncle Sal. He shared a story his Grandpa Joe had shared with him.


Grandpa Joe’s first sales job was selling toothbrushes in depression-era America. There was no lead generation software, no CRM application with automated marketing campaigns, no mobile devices, and no computers. The tools were hardcore creativity, confidence, perseverance, and sales expertise – sink or swim. Of course, being that this was his first sales job, Grandpa Joe had not honed his selling process and skills. When he showed up for his first day, upon meeting with his boss, he was handed a briefcase full of toothbrushes, along with the New York City territory assigned to him. Grandpa Joe asked his boss if he had any tips on how to best sell the toothbrushes. His boss told him, "The best salesmen generally came up with some new innovative approaches. Give them a try and leverage the one that works." With that, Grandpa Joe was off to sell toothbrushes.


After the first week, Grandpa Joe checked in with his boss. His boss asked him how his first week went. He explained that he was only able to sell 20 toothbrushes, and he mainly sold to family and friends who purchased to support him on his new endeavor. He was still trying to come up with his strategy. His boss didn't seem disappointed, and he told him to keep going and give it some time.


At the end of week two, Grandpa Joe checked into the office, and his boss asked him how the week went. Disappointed, he told him he only sold 12 toothbrushes. He then related how he had tried multiple strategies. Standing on the street corner, going door to door, and marketing to the variety stores. Discouraged, he told his boss he wasn’t sure he could succeed in the toothbrush selling business. His boss gave him a piece of business wisdom, "Creating new ideas and strategies isn’t always easy. It takes some time. For every strategy that doesn't work, you're closer to the one that will. Don't give up." Given jobs were scarce and feeling a bit encouraged after speaking with his boss, he went out and tried again.


Mid-week he had to stop back in the office, and his boss was surprised to see him. Grandpa told him he was working on a new idea and had stopped in because he needed to add more toothbrushes to his supply. At the end of the week, he had successfully sold 75 toothbrushes. When his boss inquired about his progress, Grandpa explained his new strategy seemed to have some merit but still needed a bit of work. In preparation for the upcoming week, he obtained a generous supply of three hundred toothbrushes.


At the end of the fourth week, he reported selling 250 toothbrushes! Of course, this grabbed his boss's attention. He was astonished at the number. This was the most ever sold in one week! His boss asked what he had done to make that many sales. Grandpa revealed that Grandma had tried to make refried beans for the first time, and they were awful. Having an idea, Grandpa took some chips and the left-over refried beans down to the subway station. He set up a table with the chips and refried beans along with a sign that said FREE. He told his boss that people would get off the subway, take a chip, dip it in the refried beans and eat it. Many would soon get this look of disgust on their face, and say this tastes like shit! Grandpa would then say, 'It is, would you like to buy a toothbrush?'


Of course, as a family, the humor after the story was the main point. The underlying lesson is what I came to ponder later and put into practice. Never underestimate the power of thinking creatively, trying new ideas and learning from failures. Do not give up. Doors will open for you to enhance an existing solution, solve a problem, or create the desire for something new. Having a positive impact on you and your organization.


In business today, innovation comes from the same lineage: trial and error. We can choose to try new things, learn from others’ trails or stay stagnant and hope our market doesn’t outgrow us. Take the first step: Try something new! Then take another step and make room for disciplined experiments to help your business evolve. With intentionality, you can preserve current success while testing the hypothesis in parallel. Doing so is hard work but also exciting, rewarding, fun and in today’s economy, it's critical to survival. The world around us is constantly changing, more rapidly than ever. The cycle time of products and services going from a nice-to-have to a must-have, to an expectation continues to shrink. To be ahead of what’s expected, or better yet, to create what’s expected, what is your strategy? How will you choose what your year in business looks like?


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