Innovation lesssons from Carl Elsener III and his Swiss Army Knife

Carl Elsener III started his working life as a teenage apprentice cutler straight from school, but from these humble beginnings went on to turn a relatively simple penknife into a global phenomenon – the multi-functional Swiss Army Knife.

The famous red-handled knife with the Swiss white cross has held a lifetime fascination for me, offering a spoon, fork, compass, screwdriver, mini-screwdriver for spectacles, can opener, wood and metal saw, toothpick, tweezers, scissors, pliers, key ring, fish-scaler and magnifying glass. Moving with the times, some latest models come with an LED light, laser pointer, USB memory stick, digital clock, Bluetooth or even MP3 player, but I’ve stuck with the basic model.

Elsener is up there as one of the greatest innovators of all time, with his product shaping a lasting impression of innovation, ingenuity and uniqueness. Today, 45,000 knives are produced daily in Ibach, Switzerland, providing current annual revenues of more than $500m and making Victorinox the largest cutlery manufacturer in Europe.

It started when Elsener’s grandfather opened a cutlery business in 1884. In 1891 the company won its first contract with the Swiss army. Members of the Swiss military received the first Elsener-designed knife, complete with a blade, reamer, screwdriver, and can opener. In 1897, he introduced the Officer’s Knife, which included a corkscrew. After his mother died in 1909, he chose her name, Victoria, as his trademark, then added the suffix inox (stainless steel was also called inox steel from the French noxydable) in 1921 as a nod to the tough components.

Elsener took over as CEO from his father in 1950 when the knives were still hand made. After introducing machine production, he quickly recognised the popularity of his Schweizer Offiziersmesser (‘Officer’s Knife’) among US forces personnel based in post-war Europe. It was the Americans who, unable to get their tongues round Offiziersmesser, first called it the Swiss Army Knife.

He was a tireless man who could work until two in the morning. When he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, he wrote it down on the wallpaper so as not to forget it. Despite his success, his motto remained: Gueti sache chone immer no bässer wärde – Good things can always be made better.

US sales declined sharply after 9/11. Once a popular item at airport duty-free stores, the knives were banned from air travel. Victorinox refused to lay off employees, instead coming up with an unorthodox solution: it leased workers to other companies, but continued to pay their wages. The company has since adapted some of their products to be flight-friendly, including versions that contain all of the original tools minus any blades.

Does the Swiss army actually use Swiss Army knives today? Absolutely! The army also has an implement not found on civilian models that can open ammunition cans and scrape carbon from firearms. Not much of a weapon there. Corkscrews. Bottle openers. Come on, buddy, let’s go. You get past me, the guy in the back of me, he’s got a spoon. Back off, I’ve got the toe clippers right here. Apologies for the comedy, but I’ve had my Swiss Army Knife since a thirteen year old scout, and not sure I could fight off more than a rabid squirrel.

NASA commissioned a special edition for their astronauts, and the knife has been invaluable in various space mission emergencies, including the first time the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station, and one of the tools on the pocket knife was used to open the hatch connecting the two. There are pictures of the moment the penknife was used to open the hatch.

Swiss Army Knives in space is just one of the many extraordinary episodes in the history of Elsener’s product. These include bespoke penknives being made for US presidents, and models of the original Swiss Army Knife being placed in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the State Museum of Applied Arts and Design in Munich.

There is real dignity and romance to Elsener’s entrepreneurial endeavours, his is a moment of time in building a unique product and a business that scaled into a global enterprise with a clear brand identity. So what can we learn about his spirit, vivacity, attitude and creativity into today’s startup thinking? How do you keep innovating and pushing the ambition? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from Elsener that should spark your startup thinking today.

A DIY ethic drives innovation Elsener was revered for his Do-It-Yourself abilities. He didn’t quite make it up as he went along, but like any startup he had to find his market, experiment and determine product-market fit, working out where the audience was. The ‘product’ was simple and yet a work of precision and design. Success is achieved by a host of variables, none more so that sheer-bloodied single-mindedness to get up there and make it happen – talent rocks, but attitude is king. It’s about conviction and determination to make it happen – by doing it yourself. 

Belief Elsener took on an established industry with major, established organisations in control and broke the rules with his own product thinking. In doing so, he changed the dynamics and disrupted an established market. He had enduring success and created a lasting legacy, measured in branding and cultural – finance too, but that’s the applause, not the goal. Elsener made the mind shift change that is needed to begin thinking and behaving like a startup and ask themselves the questions that an entrepreneur must ask.

Authenticity inspires customers Elsener started with a bold expression of his own, to be truly authentic, not seeking to copy or replicate others. The startup leadership lesson here is one of my favourites: you can be confident and competent all you want, but if you’re not accepted as real, and having a point of difference in what you offer customer, you won’t inspire a following. What’s your signature tune and tone of voice?

Just copying something is no good, unless you just want to be a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional – is there anything else quite like a Swiss Army Knife?

Be your own image If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. Elsener’s design makes the product instantly recognisable, it stands out visually, just as John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album.

Playing it safe gets you nowhere – turn your back on competitors If you don’t take risks you’ll never excel. Playing it safe all the time becomes the most dangerous move of all. Deviate from routines. Rote activity doesn’t lead to the path of innovation or disruptive technology. Elsener never played it safe.

Turn your back on competitors. Yes, ignore them. They aren’t running your business. You are. So instead of focusing on your competitors, focus on your customers. Be empathetic. Know them inside and out. Invest in relationships, not transactions. Learn what makes them tick, how they feel, what they need. This may sound like basic sales training, but it’s vital at the brand level, too. If you know what matters to your customers, you can structure your brand offering with the confidence that it will connect.

Open mindedness Elsener’s work is drawn from a diverse range of influences. The uniqueness in the product plus constant change and update, combining existing elements in new ways, produces something entirely its own, with a prowess for almost throwing stuff together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of any entrepreneurial business. Not all of Elsener’s experiments worked, but their willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every startup needs.

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose Elsener had a vision, was strong minded and had a clear sense of purpose. He was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values and aspirations. Founders never rest on their laurels, they retain the mix of spirit, drive, and passion, more than willing to rebel against the norm, are restless do go again, yet stay true to their vision.

Be a brand At the brand level, you’re not competing product vs. product. It’s not a feature vs. feature game. Your brand needs to have a relevant place in your customers’ hearts and minds. So be true to your brand and the promise you make and bring it out in everything you do. Leading from your authentic vision and consistency of purpose will help your brand mean more to people. And that alone will make you more memorable.

Can you make your product or service stand out as a Swiss Army Knife? It is held that consumers have mind-space for only three brands in any given category: the leader, the challenger, and the one other company lucky enough (or hard-working enough) to be noticed. The rule of three may still be true, but the sheer proliferation of brands flooding a sector can make it especially difficult for any startup brand to stand out.

In an over-crowded category you may find yourself fighting against forces greater than direct competitors. Sheer clutter can be a more powerful distraction to potential customers than any competitor’s offering. Your brand and how it connects to the people that matter to you is a key in differentiating yourself from your competition.

We’re all the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. You need to be authentic, as Oscar Wilde said Be yourself, everyone else it taken, and as Steve Jobs was known for his Be Unique, Be Different personal motto.

Be unique, like a Swiss Army Knife. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else, if you do so, you are insulting yourself. If you want to stand out from the crowd, give people a reason not to forget you. Are you unreasonable? Here’s one good reason why you should be: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. So said George Bernard Shaw in his play Man and Superman back in 1903.

In addition to surreal jokes about extracting boy scouts from horses’ hooves (or vice versa), there are tales of how the Elsener knives were carried by famous explorers from Everest climbers and American astronauts who took it to the moon. Sometimes macabre stories did the rounds of emergency self-amputations and life-saving tracheotomies. But it is a truly unforgettable product and brand.

Elsener would often be mistaken for a janitor when he opened the door to visitors to the factory in his overalls. He went to work daily on his bicycle. He handed over control of the family firm in 2007 to Carl Elsener IV, the oldest of his eleven surviving children. He was humble, but remarkable.

We look to the skies to change the world, but you don’t change the world simply by looking at it. You change it by living in it. Take a leaf from Carl Elsener’s book of life, and make your mark.

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