The King had lost his edge. There was no sense denying it. The loss of his edge cut deeply, and it was obvious to anyone who knew him. He started off with such hope and promise, but he was certain that history would remember his life as a waste. That’s assuming, of course, that anyone remembered him at all.
Anyone can be subject to transient feelings of despair or inadequacy. Kings are no exception. It had been so long since this King felt any sense of accomplishment, that he was beginning to wonder if he ever would.
By all accounts, he was a quite likable King. He approached his duties with the philosophy of excellence. It bothered him to see waste — whether it be wasted time, opportunities, or material. This only exaggerated his own feelings of inadequacy as he encountered door after door being slammed in his face.
It might strike you as odd that anyone would treat a King this way, even if he wasn’t exactly the keenest of blades. Maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as all of that, but in his despair, this King saw his life as nothing but a progression of closed doors. He wondered if perhaps he just wasn’t cut out to be in this vocation. If a King can’t give the people something that they want, what is the point of continuing?
As he struggled with his feelings of inadequacy, he received some counsel from one of his advisors. “King, you need to figure out a way for the people to need something from you every day. If they have no reason to come back to you regularly, they’ll forget about you. Maybe you need to think about giving the public something that is less than permanent.”
He couldn’t believe his ears. He had lived his life with the belief that nothing should be wasted. Now, one of his most trusted advisors was telling him that the key to his success would be to encourage dependency and waste! What kind of a King would he be if he followed that advice?
It wasn’t long after hearing those words that the King stared at his reflection in the mirror. It was then that he came to grips with the fact that he had lost his edge. That fact cut him deeply. He rubbed his chin, not in contemplation of this deep cut, but because of it. The cut he experienced that morning was not metaphorical; it was physical. He rubbed his chin to stop the flow of blood that came from shaving with a dull razor — one that had lost its sharp edge.
At that moment, the King remembered those words of unsolicited advice. For as long as man has been shaving, the ability to keep a sharp edge on the razor has been the bane of his existence. The long, open-blade razor was dangerous enough, with every scrape of the face carrying the potential of turning into a long, deep laceration. In the age before antibiotics, those cuts frequently became infected, sometimes leading to death.
What if there was a way to make perfectly-sharpened razors that could be used safely, discarded, and easily replaced? No longer would anyone have to waste time and risk one’s health by maintaining the edge of a razor. Perhaps the key to the King’s success would come in the form of something that was designed to be used once and thrown away. In other words, planned obsolescence — intentional waste.
Shaving? Razor blades? Disposable products? Do these sound like the sorts of things a King should be concerned about? Perhaps we should mention that although the person we’re talking about was born as a King, that’s because it was his name, not a title of nobility. The fellow who was rubbing his razor-scarred face that day was a man from Chicago by the name of King C. Gillette.
King had been working as a salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company. Having always been taught that the secret to success is to offer a quality product that will last, his notion of a disposable razor was nothing short of revolutionary. For his idea to work, he not only had to overcome the technological challenges but he would have to change the mindset of the public. His razor would need to be so good that people would be willing to pay for something they would use only once.
King experimented with several different materials before he perfected his invention. The Gillette razor blade consisted of a sandwich of different metals, each to provide strength, durability, or heat resistance. When it was complete, the Gillette razor was beyond revolutionary. The real question was whether he could get the public to embrace it.
On September 28, 1901, King founded the American Safety Razor Company. Its name would be changed the following July to Gillette Safety Razor Company. The first razors were offered for sale in 1903. In that first year, a total of 51 razors and 168 blades were sold.
That doesn’t sound like much of a promising start. That’s understandable. In addition to changing the mindset of the shaving world, King had to contend with the cost of producing his product. Despite every effort to keep the costs down, he had to price his razor at $5 (the equivalent of $166 in 2022). This was about half of what an average laborer earned in a week. For anyone to make that kind of investment, the razor would have to truly deliver.
The modest sales of 1903 were just the beginning of the Gillette Revolution. In 1904, 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades flew off the shelves. By 1906, production facilities expanded into Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. 70 million blades were sold in 1915. When the United States entered World War I, every soldier was provided with a Gillette razor.
Today, the Gillette line of razors and accessories generates $6 billion of sales each year. The brand is valued at $14.5 billion. When King Gillette died in 1932, he had firmly established himself as the undisputed monarch of the shaving industry. More than that, he ushered in a new way of doing business by perfecting a product that is good enough that people will gladly pay good money for something they know will quickly wear out and be replaced.
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