When Play-Doh first came on the market, it was wallpaper cleaner.
At that time, coal was the most common way to heat homes. And coal made lots of soot that covered surfaces and walls with black dust. Wallpaper was also common at the time, and made of paper (today it’s made of vinyl). So people who wanted to clean their dirty, soot-covered wallpaper couldn’t get it wet. Enter the need for wallpaper cleaner.
But Cleo McVicker was running an almost defunct hand soap company called Kutol. He had no plans to make wallpaper cleaner. He met with Kroger grocery store representatives to try to sell his hand soap. They asked him for wallpaper cleaner. That was the market need. Cleo had no idea how to make wallpaper cleaner. That wasn’t his plan. But he and his brother, Noah, said yes to Kroger. Then they figured it out and delivered.
The company turned a nice profit on wallpaper cleaner for years. But by the late 1940’s, most homes switched to oil and gas furnaces. With that switch, homes were no longer covered in soot. The market for wallpaper cleaner dwindled to almost nothing.
In 1954, Kay Zufall was a nursery school teacher looking for a cheap material to make Christmas decorations with her kids. She was also the sister-in-law of Kutol’s CEO — Cleo McVicker’s nephew, Joe McVicker.
She tried her brother-in-law’s wallpaper cleaner to make decorations with her class. The kids loved it. She told Joe that he needed to turn his wallpaper cleaner into a toy. He took a look at the decorations made by her class and agreed.
They sold what was eventually called Play-Doh to their local schools in Cincinnati. It received rave reviews. They refined the formula, made a savvy deal with Captain Kangaroo, and sold for $1.50/can what once sold for $0.34/can.
Today, over 2 billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold in 75 countries.
There are three valuable lessons in the story of Play-Doh:
Creating a perfect plan can keep you from doing anything at all
You have an idea, a vision. You want to write a book. Or run a half marathon. Joe McVicker wanted to bring an almost defunct hand soap company back to life.
But so many of us get so excited about a new idea that we bite off more than we can chew. We want to create the perfect plan, so we can reach the perfect goal. We don’t just want to start writing, we have to write a Nobel prize winning book. Then we invest so much time searching for the perfect notebook. So the outcome will be perfect. But we don’t write a word.
Or, we don’t just want to run a half marathon, we need to run that half marathon in less than 2 hours. So we need the perfect training plan. And then we spend hours, days, weeks researching the plan. How many speed intervals should I do? How often should I run hills? But we don’t run a single mile.
Then, we get so invested in creating the plan that we don’t actually follow through on doing the plan.
What if Joe McVicker told Kroger that he first needed to create a plan about how to make wallpaper cleaner? That he couldn’t sell it to them, because he wasn’t exactly sure of all the steps? He would have missed the opportunity. Kroger would likely have found another source for wallpaper cleaner. Which means Kutol would have missed an even greater opportunity down the line.
I’m a planner by nature. I love a good plan. And I think a framework to follow can be helpful. But sometimes, you just have to say yes and try.
Where you start isn’t where you’ll end up, no matter how you plan
Cleo McVicker didn’t start with a plan to build a company that would revolutionize kids’ toys. But if he hadn’t started with wallpaper cleaner, Play-Doh would never have existed. Wallpaper cleaner turned out to be the first step on a long, winding path. Of many plans and opportunities that led them to become a game changer in kids’ toys.
Your first book does not have to win the Nobel Prize. Your first half marathon can take you 4 hours to complete. It’s a start. It gets you on the road.
But a mediocre first novel or a slow half marathon also doesn’t mean that you won’t find ultimate success down the line. That your books won’t get better, and that your race times won’t get faster.
It could also be that you run one half marathon and fall in love with exercise, but realize running isn’t for you. But your running buddy asks you to go on a bike ride one day, as cross training. And then you realize that what you really love is cycling. How would you have known if you didn’t start by running first?
Even if you make a plan that gets you started, what makes sense for you today isn’t the last plan you’ll ever make. One plan isn’t going to take you from reluctant walker to Olympic runner. We all have to adjust as we go along.
A plan won’t keep you from failing
Some of us use the idea of a perfect plan as a way to assuage our fears. Fear of failure, fear of judgement. If we plan perfectly, we can avoid it all. That the right plan will help us avoid failure and the negative feelings that come with it.
But as J.K. Rowling said:
It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.
Don’t hide behind your plan. No plan can protect you from failure.
And don’t see each fork in the road as a failure. Kutol almost went under twice. Each time, the company could have stopped taking action, stopped reinventing itself. And resigned itself to failure.
Instead, the McVicker family kept trying. They chose to pivot, to take action instead of waiting for the perfect plan. And finally found success as a result. A sucess that no plan could have anticipated.
So the next time you get excited about an idea, a new goal, a new business. Remember to create a framework, but don’t get lost in the details. Figure out the next few steps. be open to new ideas. Stop getting paralyzed by the perfect plan. Take a deep breath, be brave, and take that first step. No amount of planning will tell you where you’ll actually end up.