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What the Ziploc Bag Can Teach Us About Innovation

The ubiquitous, indispensable Ziploc wasn't created overnight. Like most meaningful innovations, it took a patience and persistence that many entrepreneurs overlook.

Lean methodology has taken hold of startup culture, and most founders can dig it: They appreciate the benefits of creating a "minimum viable product" or MVP as fast as you can. 

The benefit? An initial prototype you can show to potential customers and investors, in the interest of collecting feedback and making subsequent improvements.

The problem? In their urgency to develop MVPs and "fail fast" and "iterate," many creators are not doing enough pre-launch homework in advance of their initial prototyping. Nor are they recognizing an indisputable fact of entrepreneurial history: Most groundbreaking innovations, especially in the realm of consumer products, hardly happen overnight.

In fact, in many cases, there has been a gap of at least 10 years between when a landmark new product was initially invented, and when that product finally debuted, reaching retail shelves and the homes of everyday consumers. 

A recent New York Times profile of the inventors of Ziploc is a case in point. It reveals that the first Ziploc bag didn't hit the market until 1968--a whopping 17 years after the inventors first bought the rights to the idea in 1951. In between there was a lot of tinkering and customer testing. Here are two highlights that will help keep you inspired, if you've been made to feel--given the dominance of lean methodology--that your bold new product ideas are not taking hold as quickly as they should. 

1. You can never do enough customer testing. If your product or product design is new enough, customers will be baffled by what it looks and feels like. They truly won't know how to use it, unless you make it obvious. Steven Ausnit, the developer of the original Ziploc, told a story about how, in the early 60s, his company actually persuaded Columbia Records to try an early version of Ziploc technology on the plastic sleeves that hold vinyl albums. Here's what happened, as Ausnit described it in the Times:

At the final meeting, we were all set to go. The guy called in his assistant, handed her the sealed bag and said, 'Open it.' I thought to myself, Lady, please do the right thing! The more she looked at it, the more my heart sank. And then she tore the zipper right off the bag.

This tale reminded me of a story that Tom Smith, the 24-year-old inventor-entrepreneur behind hockey's Look-Up Line, recently shared with me. Smith's line is an orange stripe painted around the edge of the rink, so players know to look up before they smash into the boards and potentially get head injuries. The stripe is 40 inches wide. It costs rinks $500 to install. More than 225 rinks in 21 states have agreed to install it.

It's easy to think of the Look-Up Line as an obvious innovation solving a serious hockey problem. But that would ignore the usual truth about seemingly obvious innovations: They are often the result of years of anonymous hard work, small failures, and trial-and-error improvements. "We didn't do this overnight," Smith deadpanned.

His initial idea was not an orange stripe around the rink. It was an attempt to modify the boards. He and his team of engineers worked on it from the fall of 2011 to the summer of 2012. They came up with 35 different prototypes, all of which were cost-prohibitive, and all of which severely altered the way the puck caromed off the boards. It was only after this phase that Smith realized painting a line would be a wiser path. Even then, it took Smith months of testing before settling on the orange known as Pantone 151 C. Initially, he set up a beta that was "like a stop light." Of the 40 inches, the inner 24 inches were red and the outer 16 were yellow. Players told him it was "a bit confusing." So he switched to orange. 

2. Keep searching for methods to lower your production costs. In 1962, Ausnit learned of a Japanese company, Seisan Nihon Sha, which had made a crucial discovery: how to integrate the zipper into the bag itself. Not only would this reduce production costs by half, it would also make it well-nigh impossible for new users to tear the zipper off the bag.

In the same way Smith's cost-saving switch from modifying the boards to painting a line helped his solution take hold with an initial set of customers, this particular Ziploc improvement--licensing the rights to Seisan Nihon Sha's integrated zipper--led to Ziploc's big break with Dow Chemical. The Times writes: 

After licensing the rights, the Ausnits formed a second company called Minigrip; their big break came when Dow Chemical asked for an exclusive grocery-store license, ultimately introducing the Ziploc bag to a test market in 1968. It wasn't an immediate success, but by 1973, it was both indispensable and adored.

And that's how it took a whopping 17 years for Ziploc to reach retail shelves, and 22 years for it to become a success. 

And in case you're wondering, the case of Ziploc is in no way exceptional. The Ziploc story of slow-burn innovation actually mirrors many other decade-spanning sagas, including the barcode, e-Readers, and HDTVs. 

Keep that in mind the next time you feel like it's taking forever for your product to hit the marketplace. Even something as ubiquitous and indispensable as the Ziploc was once an outcast innovation, seeking ease-of-use and and a cost-efficient method to scale. 

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