My shaving mirror laughed at me this morning, saying boy are you getting old. There’s so much junk in your eyes what you’ve got you don’t even know. It doesn’t take a mobile phone company to tell you life’s pay as you go, and again this week I was minded by the death of George Lowe, the last surviving member of the team that first conquered Everest in 1953, aged 89, that life’s too short to go unnoticed.
Lowe was the expedition cameraman, a vital role to record the feat. He also took part in the trans-Antarctic expedition of 1957-58, which made the first successful overland crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole – that’s only just over 50 years ago. He was involved in two of the most important explorations of the C20th, yet shunned the limelight. The last British climbing member of the 1953 team, Mike Westmacott, died in 2012.
The ascent of Everest was one of those challenges that you imagine at the time was in the it can’t be done category, similar to putting a man on the moon when Kennedy announced it in 1961. Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers and Alexander Graham Bell all had to put up with negative public comments, but thank goodness there are determined people who refuse to listen to the naysayers. Innovators are notorious for their ability to press on with their ideas and try things nobody has ever done, despite what other people tell them.
The history of the humble frozen fish finger is a great example of this. There was a glut of herring in the UK after World War II, and Clarence Birdseye test marketed herring fish fingers, a product he had discovered in the US,under the name ‘herring savouries’. These were tested in Southampton and South Wales against ‘cod sticks’, a comparably bland product. Shoppers, however, confounded expectations by showing an overwhelming preference for the cod, and as a result, cod fish fingers were first produced in Britain on 26 September 1955.The name ‘fish fingers’ was chosen by factory workers.
But there’s a lot more to it than that! One of the hallmarks of an entrepreneur is the ability to recognise a business opportunity that others overlook. It was this ability, along with a restless curiosity and a propensity for taking risks, that enabled Clarence Birdseye to turn a centuries-old tradition into a revolutionary process that would create a multibillion dollar industry and make Birdseye a very wealthy man.
Born in Brooklyn in 1886, Clarence Birdseye embarked on the path of free enterprise at an early age. He entered college to study biology, paying for his tuition through different money making ventures, including selling baby frogs to the Bronx Zoo for snake food and trapping rare black rats in a local butcher shop for a genetics professor. But the funds generated were insufficient to meet tuition costs, so Birdseye dropped out of college to try his hand in the fur-trading business.
Birdseye travelled to Newfoundland, where he was able to turn a small profit buying and selling pelts. While in the Arctic, he was introduced to the Inuit Indians’ practice of ‘quick freezing’ the fish they caught – they simply laid the fish on the ice, and the combination of ice, wind and temperature froze the fish almost instantly. Even more amazing, Birdseye noted that when the fish were cooked and eaten, they were tender and flaky, and tasted almost as good as when freshly caught. He also noticed the same was true for the frozen caribou, geese and cabbage he stored outside his cabin.
Birdseye knew that efforts to commercially freeze meat and vegetables had failed because the foods did not keep their flavour or texture, as at that time freezing methods took 18 hours or more. Birdseye concluded that the Inuit’s quick-freeze method kept large ice crystals from forming in the food, preventing damage to the cellular structure and thereby preserving the food’s freshness. He also concluded that the public would pay for such palatable frozen foods, if he could deliver them.
Armed with this knowledge, Birdseye returned to New York in September 1922. He organized his own company, Birdseye Seafood Inc., and began developing quick-freeze machinery. His early efforts were a success from a technological point of view, they were a failure commercially. Shoppers were sceptical, and Birdseye was unable to convince grocers and housewives that his quick-frozen fish was different than the dry, tasteless food created by traditional, slow-freezing techniques. The company soon went broke.
Undaunted by this failure, Birdseye continued to perfect his quick-freeze machinery. In 1924, he developed a process of packaging dressed fish in cartons, then quick-freezing the contents between two flat, refrigerated surfaces under pressure. Realising that he had discovered the basis for an entirely new type of freezing operation, Birdseye decided to form a new company to capitalise on his invention, The General Seafood Corp., and the frozen-food industry was born.
But despite the revolutionary improvements Birdseye had made, he still could not overcome the public’s distrust of frozen food. With sales lagging, General Seafood sold its assets, including Birdseye’s patents, to Postum Co. in 1929 for what was then a staggering $22m. Postum reorganized itself as General Foods Corp. and appointed Clarence Birdseye president of its new Birds Eye Frosted Foods division.
In 1930, the company launched a major campaign to win acceptance for its new lines of ‘frosted foods’. The campaign was a success, and Birds Eye’s selection of foods soon ranged from frozen peas, spinach and cherries to fish and several kinds of meat. After two false starts, Birdseye’s dream of making quick-frozen food available to the public had become a reality.
Clarence Birdseye did more than just create the frozen-food market. The quick-freezing process he pioneered spawned new opportunities in both business and agriculture. It opened up a year-round market for fresh fruits and vegetables that greatly increased farm production, and in frozen orange juice, it created a product where none existed before.
Shortly before his death in October 1956, Birdseye held nearly 300 patents. He was driven by curiosity and the challenge that it couldn’t be done. He offered this advice to new college graduates seeking to get ahead in the world: I would go around asking a lot of damn fool questions and taking chances. I do not consider myself a remarkable person. I am just a guy with a very large bump of curiosity and a gambling instinct.
The lesson from Birdseye is to maintain your self-belief, something Henry Ford did too. The pioneer behind the first mass produced car, he had a clear goal, to make the car the mode of transport of the future. He had to overcome a lot of initial scepticism, and didn’t allow others to distract him: If I had listened to what my customers believed they wanted, I would have made a faster horse. By the way, his first design didn’t have a reverse gear.
Pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright also ignored the doubts of others – including their father who laughed at the idea of an airplane: What a silly and insane way to spend money, leave flying to the birds he jeered. But the brothers followed their dream, and realised their ‘ridiculous’ idea.
Jeff Dyer, co-author of the book The Innovator’s DNA, captures the essence of people like the Wrights and Birdseye in the five skills: questioning, observing, networking, experimenting, and associative thinking:
- Questioning Develop a question about a problem, company, or industry, and then working off that question to come up with new ways of solving it. Peter Thiel and Max Levchin asked the question: How can we get money to other people without a bank? This led to the idea of attaching money accounts to email, resulting in Pay-Pal.
- Observing Going out and looking at different things, then find a way to adapt what you see to your business. Howard Schultz travelled to Italy, and fell in love with the atmosphere of romance and pleasure of coffee shops, and brought it back to America to create Starbucks.
- Networking Keeping in touch, finding newer, quicker, easier ways to communicate with potential customers.Mike Lazaridis, founder of Research in Motion, maker of the Blackberry device, was intrigued that coke dispensing machines were networked to communicate that they needed to be restocked. He took this idea and twisted it so that people could send information wirelessly through their mobile phones.
- Experimenting Deconstructing and then rebuilding a product, a process, or an idea, and then making a product itself from this. Michael Dell took what he learned from taking apart computers and applied his knowledge to his future business, creating the Dell Direct Model of self-build PCs.
- Associative Thinking putting ideas or products together to form one cohesive new distinct offering. Steve Jobs, after taking a calligraphy class, took design as the essential element to his thinking and applied it to computers, creating the great typography of the Apple devices.
I’ve always had a positive mindset, and the attitude that today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost to drive me forward. I may not amount to much in reality, but I’ll always give it a go, because what is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Isn’t it our attitude toward it? Every opportunity has a difficulty, and every difficulty has an opportunity, so cultivate an optimistic mind, use your imagination, always consider alternatives, and dare to believe that you can make possible what others think is impossible. As Henry Ford said If you say you can or you can’t you are right either way. Realise that ‘I can’t’ usually means ‘I won’t!’
The Thomas Edison quote, I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work should encourage the development of new disruptive innovators. Birdseye is the reason those frozen peas are so green and why we have the humble fish finger. The oxymoron ‘fresh frozen’ would be nowhere without him. It’s a good job he was a curious man, with the I-can-make-it-happen attitude
I think all of this positive thinking is captured by Edgar Albert Guest’s short poem The path to home, which he wrote in 1917, a copy of which I’ve always had with me for reference:
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done, but he with a chuckle replied, that “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin on his face. If he worried he hid it. He started to sing as he tackled the thing that couldn’t be done, and he did it.
Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that; At least no one has done it”; but he took off his coat and he took off his hat, and the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin, without any doubting or quiddit, he started to sing as he tackled the thing, that couldn’t be done, and he did it.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done, there are thousands to prophesy failure; There are thousands to point out to you one by one, the dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle it in with a bit of a grin, just take off your coat and go to it; Just start to sing as you tackle the thing, that “couldn’t be done,” and you’ll do it.
George Lowe and Clarence Birdseye were forward looking, disruptive thinkers, galvanised as pioneers driven by achievement and innovation. You’ve got to be open to new ideas. You’ve got to know when to think expansively. You’ve got to know how to go with your gut instinct. And most of all, when you’re told it can’t be done, just do it. Life’s too short to go unnoticed, so make a difference.