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How 3M Almost Lost the First Post-it Note

Posted on January 08, 2015

Office technology changes over time, but one thing is a given - the ubiquitous Post-it note.

First introduced in 1980, 50 billion are now manufactured by 3M every year and they are sold in over 100 countries. Available in 27 sizes, 57 colors and 20 fragrances, they have been used to create art pieces and noted as a source of great fortune in a major movie.

While 3M declines to reveal annual revenue for the product, its division reported revenue of $3.47 billion in 2009. Although that revenue figure includes Magic Tape and scouring sponges, it’s safe to say there is a lot of money to be made selling Post-its.

Employee Suggestion Sparks a Great New Product

Despite the success of the product, it almost never was.

First discovered by 3M researcher Spencer Silver in 1967, the adhesive was regarded as a solution without a problem. 3M researchers were generally tasked with making tougher, stronger adhesives. Silver had created an adhesive that was easy to peel off.

As Silver described it to the NY Times, "It was part of my job as a researcher to develop new adhesives, and at that time we wanted to develop bigger, stronger, tougher adhesives. This was none of those."

The company also didn’t know what to make out of it. A few years later 3M attempted to commercialize it with the Post-it Bulletin Board, a board coated with the glue to which one could attach scrap pieces of paper. The product’s surface also collected dust and was a commercial failure.

The discovery would have gone to waste had not a 3M colleague and attendee of one of Silver’s seminars, Art Fry, stepped in. Fry, a singer in a church choir, was frustrated with bookmarks in his hymn book. The bookmarks would often move around and sometimes fall out when the page was opened. In 1973 he realized Silver's adhesive could be used to create a reusable bookmark that would stay put and wouldn’t damage the pages.

Silver and Fry wrote up the idea and presented it to their supervisors. Having already been burned by the Post-it bulletin board, management was skeptical but fellow staff members at 3M were excited. Prototypes were already widely used in the office to communicate messages to one another.

"I thought what we have here isn't just a bookmark," said Fry in the NY Times article. "It's a whole new way to communicate."

After extensive market testing, the product was launched in 1980 and usage exploded. Because Post-its were commonly used to pass along a message with a document, they enjoyed the advantage of being a self-advertised product. Readers would be exposed to the note attached to papers, become curious, and buy it for themselves. In this way it could be argued to be one of the first products to be marketed virally.

Takeaways

But this remarkable success would never have been possible without Silver and Fry’s collaboration. Silver found the product idea and Fry found the market for it.

It seems society is finally becoming aware that the image of the ‘lone genius inventor’ is false. Edison, the possible archetype of this image, in fact toiled in a lab with the help of many others. Every great product is actually created through the collaboration of multiple people.

This begs the question: Who knows how many companies have a product of Post-its scale sitting unused or unexpressed in their employees heads?

It seems certain that in large companies, and even smaller ones, some of the best ideas are destined to get lost. Perhaps the best idea of all is to have a method of collecting employee ideas and encouraging collaboration among workers.

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