King Camp Gillette was a brilliantly conflicted figure amongst the greatest entrepreneurs in the 19th and 20th centuries. Gillette is best known for the invention of the razor, which pioneered a brilliant new model of business, “The Razor and Blades Business Model,” and “Freebie Marketing,” both strategic business tactics still in use today.
While working as a salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company, Gillette saw great opportunity in the design of a product that served it’s purpose, and then was tossed in the trash. One-time-use products that foster long-term, repeat, customers. While shaving his face one morning with a razor that lacked a strong edge, the idea to create a thin sheet of razor blade came upon Gillette, thus giving birth to the Gillette razor we have today.
Perhaps a lesser known side of Gillette is the fact that, aside from being a successful business man, he was also a utopian socialist, an entrepreneur with a strong disgust towards the competitive nature of the capitalist model that dominates North American economics. This passion inspired Gillette to be a prolific writer of books that sit between the genres of fiction and non-fiction. Gillette was an obsessive planner, writing hundreds of pages that aimed to highlight every last logistic element and business plan for his utopian vision. In his first novel, “The Human Drift,” Gillette wrote about the chaos of contemporary existence, and a prospectus for the alternative world he dreamed of building to fix it.
“…the drift of commercial affairs is moving with constantly accelerating force toward a common focus, that focus being the final control of the commercial field by a few mammoth corporations. In other words, the general per cent. increase in number of competitive individuals in any avenue of necessary production does not keep pace with the per cent. increase in population. As a consequence, there is a rapid increase of those who are masters or proprietors; and thus, in combination with the rapid improvement in machinery for displacing manual labor, is the main cause of depression in business. Hard times are here to stay, and our intervals of good times must become fewer and shorter as the years pass. This must result in increase of poverty and crime, such crimes as have their birth in desperation, and send a thrill of horror throughout the world. Shall we wait till the dagger falls, or is it our duty to recognize the danger which threatens, and avert if we can?”
Interestingly, the concerns expressed in this segment arguably raise the idea that Gillette’s writing may have served as a vision for the future of the United States of America’s current economic crisis, as brought to the forefront as of late by the Occupy Movement.
“The Human Drift,” as a text, represents an advocation of a new style of industry, and new social planning. In it, Gillette goes into intense, obsessive, details about his vision. The world of Gillette, named “The United Company,” was designed to exist in the Niagara Falls. During the time in which Gillette conceived of this alternative world, the first large electrical generating facilities at Niagara Falls, utilizing the alternating current system of Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, were being built. Inspired by this, Gillette plans for a world powered solely by the electrical currents produced by the falls. The space itself is designed to accommodate the entire population of America at the time, with room for an expansion to include 30 million more inhabitants, a plan to allow the space to adapt as population grows in the future. As competition is the biggest enemy, in Gillette’s eye, The United Company was proposed to be designed in a way that terminated the possibility of competitive business by establishing one establishment per product. Distribution plants were planned for 100 cities across the country, with good distributed in an exact ration to the population itself. Gillette’s vision for the cities of America established the hope of eventually disintegrating all cities, drawing the population to the manufacturing centre itself in order to create the only city on the North American continent. Overall, Gillette’s vision called for an extreme mechanization of our current systems – extreme efficiency that aimed to lead to result in more wealth for the society as a whole, to share equally. By the people, for the people. Of course Gillette’s vision never came into fruition, but aspects of it have appeared, perhaps without direct intention or realization, in the work of modern entrepreneurs, and business theorists.
In the Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen argues that, to truly innovate, the entrepreneur has to partner with the consumer to create a space for collaborative discovery. This relatively modern theory (dating back to the late 80s / early 90s) draws parallels to the vision of Gillette, in that it recognizes success not as the result of one individual, but instead as a collaborative effort.
“Markets that do not exist cannot be analyzed: Suppliers and customers must discover them together. Not only are the market applications for disruptive technologies unknown at the time of their development, they are unknowable. The strategies and plans that managers formulate for confronting disruptive technological change, therefore, should be plans for learning and discovery rather than plans for execution. This is an important point to understand, because managers who believe they know a market’s future will plan and invest very differently from those who recognize the uncertainties of a developing market.”
This collaborative approach to innovation that takes place between the supplier and the customer, as Christensen explains, allows for a voyage into unknown spaces, where communal exploration, dissemination, and discovery can emerge. A perspective such as this, which embraces uncertainty, and collective discovery, can benefit from the design of systems that leverage community engagement as a medium for facilitating such exploration.
Another modern example of an aspect of Gillette’s vision in action is The Public School. The Public School is a systemic art piece, and established institution, founded by Sean Dockray. What began as a seemingly simple and tongue-in-cheek concept: the idea that a public school could facilitate a crowd-sourced curriculum and open participation, evolved into a network of schools around the world. While the institution is not, itself, an “official” academic institution, it does, in fact, hold classes that the public can sign up to attend. The Public School began at the Telic Arts Exchange, another venture of Dockray, in Los Angeles, but also resides in Berlin, Brussels, Chicago, Durham, Helsinki, New York, Philadelphia, and San Juan. As a school with no curriculum, The Public School operates through an interface that creates a public space for the proposing of classes, and the subsequent signing up by those who hold interest in the subject matter. Depending on the public’s interest, the class then evolves as a venue for tangible conversation and alternative education on an infinite range of topics.
Comparing The Public School to generative art, as David Elliot noted in a 2008 Interview with Dockray, is actually quite accurate. While the resulting image of generative art can be beautiful and provocative, the piece is not actually the artwork itself, as Elliot claims, but instead the by-product of the piece, which is the code or process that generated it. While the classes themselves are interesting, it is really the system as a whole, and the facilitation of it, that is evaluated as a piece of work.
”The facilitator is usually someone who gets something done, the lubricant in a process to achieve a goal. But, I think it can be more like a dirty lubricant. It can fuck up a process a little bit, make it self-reflective, inefficient, awkward, etc.” – Sean Dockray in conversation with David Elliot
Dockray offers up a unique perspective on facilitation, framing it as an art form that flips the corporate strategy on it’s head to yield interesting results. As an entrepreneurial practice, The Public School is an interesting model that provides nothing more than a space, and a framework, relying on the audience to define the rest. This take on business design begins to foster an interesting conversation around the potential for the open-source movement to be successfully applicable to the business industry, and to the practice of entrepreneurship.
While “The Human Drift” advocated Gillette’s vision for a new style of industry, and a new social planning, Gillette’s second piece, “World Corporation,” served as the prospectus for a company that would be set up to create this vision. This document, written nearly 20 years after the initial text, is written in the style of a business plan of sorts, highlighting all of the by-laws and logistics of Gillette’s imaginary enterprise, “World Corporation.”
- “‘World Corporation’ represents individual intelligence and force combined, centralized and intelligently directed. Individuals are OF the corporate mind, but are not THE corporate mind.
- ‘World Corporation’ will possess all knowledge of all men, and each individual mind will find complete expression through the great Corporate Mind.
- ‘World Corporation’ will have life everlasting. Individual man will live his life and pass into the great beyond; but this great Corporate Mind will live on through the ages, always absorbing and perfecting, for the utilization and benefit of all the inhabitants on earth.’
- ‘World Corporation’ is a storehouse of Knowledge, Industrial Wealth and Power, constantly increasing, never diminishing.”
Gillette’s vision is based around the development of a system that continues to become more efficient and evolved based around the needs of society at the time of it’s conception. The corporate mind, itself, is not entrepreneurial – it does not create new, it simply takes what exists, and adapts it to improve society.
“‘World Corporation’ is a business plan of absorption by conversion, – a simple means of transferring the world’s wealth from individual control to ownership and control by the people.”
As a business plan of absorption by conversion, ‘World Corporation’ is a machine, of sorts, that requires human input. Therefore the system designs itself to be reliant on human perception and intuition, lacking it’s own capabilities for entrepreneurial endeavor and innovation in a time in which man alone may not be capable of providing that input.
As King Camp Gillette himself states, the progress of humanity is dependent on the birth of ideas, and “if individual minds should cease to give birth to ideas of improvement or discovery, the progress of man would cease.”
If this statement is of serious concern, then why does the machine itself not have entrepreneurial capability? As in – why does the machine lack the capability to think on it’s own, it strategic preparation for this distant-future in which the human mind cripples in it’s ability to conceive of the new?
As Research Scientists in the field of Quantum Physics attempt discovery, breakthrough is revealed in that which is counterintuitive. 0.999… is equal to 1. In this space, human intuition becomes irrelevant because the areas explored are not comparable to that of any past experience. The same could be said about the very distant future. Both are spaces in which common sense, alone, is considered shortsighted.
“Humans are governed by two clocks: the very slow-ticking clock of human evolution and the fast-accelerating clock of technological progress. The result of these two clocks not synching up is the human brain (and the public policy our brains generate) is unable to keep up with the complex environment around us.” – Rebecca Costa
As we continue to rapidly move towards a future, and past experience exponentially divides from present conditions, as Rebecca Costa illustrates with the two clocks of human governance, will mankind become an unnecessary component in the process of entrepreneurship?
My thesis designs for this space by researching and developing an embodied entrepreneur, with the aspiration to personally invent an entirely autonomous system. The process of which, and the outcome there of, will be a documented attempt at creating a business plan writing machine (BPWM) that can thrive without human input. In doing so, the hole in Gillette’s vision, the necessity of human input, will be filled in order to better prepare for a scenario in which our past experience rapidly loses relevance in the field of entrepreneurship.