Sometimes, Little Things Mean a Lot

Wealth of Ideas Newsletter, February 2004

Throughout history, certain inventions have profoundly impacted the course of mankind. Movable type, invented by Johann Gutenberg, and the discovery of penicillin are two notable examples.

Movable type, developed long before the institution of patents, not only enabled literacy amongst a greater population, but promoted the development of literature, research, and art – helping to bring about the advent of the Renaissance.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, when patent laws were already in effect. Yet Fleming consciously chose not to patent his discovery, hoping that his published reports might hasten its development and use.

But what about the little things…everyday objects that have made our lives easier?

Take the package saver. What would life be like without that small circular thing that keeps the pizza from hitting the top of the box? Patented in 1985 by Carmela Vitale, the package saver is unlikely to bring about a new renaissance, but boy are we grateful.

And then there are Post-It Notes. 3M could not find a use for its repositionable adhesive until years later, when a new 3M product development researcher named Art Fry, frustrated by the way his paper bookmarks would always fall out of his books, gave the product its current form.

These small and very practical innovations were not only good ideas, but had marketability – a necessary product characteristic for obtaining an attractive return on investment.

And this little detail is what separates a merely interesting idea or invention from a lucrative one: a market for the resulting product. This, too, is one of those "little things" that can make a big difference.