Saturday, June 15, 2019

"That Time a Guy Cornered the Liquid Soap Market by Sneakily Buying Nearly Every Hand Soap Pump Available in the World"

From Today I Found Out:
Robert R. Taylor is a name you’ve probably never heard before. But this serial entrepreneur made his mark on the world of business by coming up with several products you are almost certainly very familiar with. Today we’re going to talk about, on the surface, the most boring of those- liquid hand soap. Something you can thank Mr. Taylor and his freshly smelling balls of solid steel for being a thing.

But first, a little background on the man. Born in 1935, Taylor was destined to one day grace the cover of books with titles like “The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time”, consistently proving himself to be not only a shrewd businessman, but a natural entrepreneur. For example, as a young man Taylor is known to have made quite a few dollars by training a homing pigeon to fly to his home and then selling it to pet stores repeatedly.

Education wise, Taylor studied at both Miami university in Ohio and then Stanford Graduate School of Business, graduating from the latter with an MBA in 1959. Following this, he briefly worked as a salesmen for Johnson & Johnson.

Seemingly every great entrepreneur starts by failing and Taylor was no different, in 1963 starting a marketing company with a friend. This endeavour ultimately flopped and Taylor decided to go it alone just a year later in 1964.

And so it was that at the age of 28, he starting a company, initially run out of his garage, called Village Bath Products with a $3000 investment (about $24,000 today) he’d scraped together from the contacts he’d made in his short tenure working for the man.

Not exactly successful right off the bat, when he first tried to sell his hand made soap to a couple dozen companies he had previous business relationships with from his days with Johnson & Johnson, they all turned him down. Undeterred, he then got the idea to match his hand rolled and cloth wrapped soap to towel sets, color scheme and all. That got some companies interested and they started selling his product along with their bath towel sets.

Village Bath Products, which was later rebranded as “Minnetonka” after a town near Taylor’s home in Minnesota, continued to be extremely innovative in the soap market. While product commonly seen today, his various machinations were far more out there in his day, which perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise coming from a man who purchased a hot air balloon so he could fly it around on the weekends to advertise his product. Product that saw the New York Times describe his rapidly growing business as “an off-beat company geared to hippies and people with luxury bathrooms”.
So what kind of things did he come up with that would appeal to the otherwise seemingly diametrically opposed groups of hippies and the Daddy Warbucks’ of the world?

Notable soap products included soap designed to look and smell like candy bars and pieces of fruit, soap paint that kids could use to draw on themselves and the bathtub, and hand-rolled scented “upscale” soap balls packaged in decorative glass jars. Think the type of product that lines the shelves of Bath and Body Works before that type of product was common.

His decision to go with offbeat soap product was primarily based on that Taylor knew his company could never compete selling ordinary bathroom products, since established companies like Procter & Gamble, American Home Products and even his former employer, Johnson & Johnson, basically dominated the entire market. As a result, his best hope for making money would be to sell products they wouldn’t dare to risk putting on the shelves, capitalizing on a niche demand they weren’t satisfying. As Taylor himself would later state in an interview, “The best way for an entrepreneur to compete in today’s marketplace, is to avoid competition — or at least find ways to circumvent it.”

Of course, if a given product line took off, the larger companies would inevitably copy the crap out of it, such as happened in the mid-1980s when he introduced Check-Up anti-plaque toothpaste and later bubble gum to the market, seeing them become wildly successful before ultimately the big boys swooped in and dominated, with their version of the same basic twist on the product forcing his into obscurity.

This saw Taylor having to stay extremely nimble and push for constant and very rapid innovation. In keeping with this idea, Taylor often enlisted the help of his family. As one of his daughters, Lori Lawrence, noted, “It was normal for us to do brainstorming sessions at the dinner table, to come up with product names, to give him our evaluation of scents, consistencies and colors… My dad and I did all different kinds of formulations in the kitchen night after night.”

They’d then test the product during the kids’ bath time to see how it worked. Said Lori of a time when they were trying to make puffy soap balls meant to be dropped in a bath, “Some days they’d be too flat or they’d get too big and explode like popovers.” Undeterred when things didn’t work out, she states he’d simply say, “Tomorrow’s a new day. There’s always a new formula.”

One idea from his family that Taylor apparently found particularly amusing was calling his company’s brand of vintage style soaps “Prof Taylor’s soap”. Taylor committed fully to the Professor Taylor guise, in the early days of the company hand-delivering these soaps to department stores in a vintage Ford pickup truck to give his product an extra authentic feel.

While Taylor was essentially a machine at producing mildly amusing business anecdotes from his various exploits, his real marketing masterstroke was the now ubiquitous SoftSoap....