How toilet paper weirdly tells a story of industrial disruption

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If you’ve been wondering recently why you use so much toilet paper. Why it seems every year you’re buying more rolls than ever before. Wonder no more. As a bonus you’ll also find out with a weird example how so many industrial companies sow the seeds of their own disruption.

The first every job I held with a big company after graduating was with Kimberly Clark. An American multinational paper goods manufacturer. A big brand of theirs is Kleenex. The market leading toilet paper which we now buy giant packs of up to 24 rolls. But it wasn’t always this way. When I started working there more than 20 years ago the best selling package size of toilet paper was a 4 pack. Did we all of a sudden start going to the toilet more frequently to require more toilet paper? If not, then how is it that most families could survive on a 4 or 6 roll pack from the weekly shop and now we need to purchase to a 24 roll pack?

Here’s how:

When I started working at Kimberly Clark most toilet rolls had between 300 and 500 sheets (paper squares) per roll. Some brands had up to 1000 sheets per roll. But what I discovered as a few years went by is that instead of raising the price, the company would simply remove 10 or 20 sheets per year. They did this as they believed that consumers are more sensitive about price than quantity. It’s a popular fast moving consumer goods ‘pricing‘ tactic to maintain profitability without changing the selling price. Kleenex Cottonelle is now down to 180 sheets per roll. In addition to this Kleenex Cottonelle is 1 ply, and the Kleenex brand it replaced was 2 ply. Some toilet papers are down to 100 sheets per roll. They even increase the size of the core of the roll to keep the same perceived roll width. So there is your answer. Each roll we buy these days has far less paper on it. Often by a factors of 4, 6 and even 10. This is why we need to buy packs which are 4x times the size. But the paper companies got what they wanted, they kept their prices per roll roughly the same.

But this goes deeper than a story of bathroom anthropology. It tells the story of how many large legacy companies are coming undone. It’s a story of their industrial mindset. And that mindset is as follows: They’d rather give their customers less for the same price than be transparent. In fact, it’s exactly what industrialists do, they want to get more for less, every single year. But in a strange kind of reversal, they end up costing themselves more and giving themselves less. Their cost per roll in distribution, and packaging goes up. And their cost per tonne of what they sell in retail margins increases. And it is of course a race to the bottom. A brand can only cut product delivery so far until the product is no longer. It also creates a worse product experience for the end consumer. I know I don’t want to carry home toilet paper packs four times the size in my trolly or buy it 4 times as frequently.

Above all of that, it shows where the focus is for these companies: On selling stuff they already sell, as cheaply as possible, using the machines they’ve already got, with a short term focus. At no point is the end user considered, or part of a strategy which doesn’t involve trickery. They have a mindset of scarcity, not abundance. On the flip side we have many startups and technology companies focused on giving more for less, and creating platforms for consumer creation and collaboration. It’s no wonder half of the the Fortune 500 lost their invitations to the party in the past 10 years.

New Book – The Great Fragmentation – out now.

The first question early stage startups should ask themselves

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When we being our journey into a new startup we get excited by the possibilities of what we are about to build. Especially when it comes to raising capital to support the project. But in the moment there’s one question we should not forget to ask ourselves:

Is this a technology push or a problem pull?

The answer to this question changes the direction of the entire project. It changes who will care about what we are building. If making money is the objective, it makes more sense to be in the problem pull space. If you want to change the world, Peter Thiel or Peter Diamandis style, then it pays to be in the technology push arena. Both can become commercial success stories, and one isn’t superior to other, it just depends on what we are chasing – it’s really about the ‘Why?’ The thing that really matters is not confusing which of the two our startup plays in and ensuring our expectations match the funding, timeline and outcome realities.

New Book – The Great Fragmentation – out now.

How the technology works is irrelevant

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There are very few people in the world who know how the thing in the picture above actually works. Yet, there are also very few people in the developed world who have not been a major beneficiary, and even a driver of this complex technology. There is not generally a fear of the technology that makes cars do what they do. Instead we embrace the benefits they deliver and use them in every way we can. They changed where we live, how we travel, our leisure patterns, the structure of living spaces and cities, they changed the world more than anything that came before them. They totally transformed our culture.

And it is happening again. A new set of tech tools are providing both fear and opportunity. I wasn’t around when cars became common place, but I imagine there was as much fear of the unknown then, as there is now. There was probably talk of jobs evaporating and the end of economics as we know it. And yet, it was the bellwhether for the greatest period of prosperity in human history. While it’s impossible to know how most anything works these days (division of labour), it’s very easy get behind the power technology provides to win in business. In fact, it’s probably easier to win because fear of the technology is holding so many people back. We don’t need to know how something works, we just need to know that it does. And once we embrace that fact, it will reshape our perspective and quite possibly our fortune.

The culture of the power flip

upside down house Many of the economic ideologies we learned in business school are turning upside down. What once worked, now doesn’t. What was expensive, is now cheap. What was impossible, is now humdrum. But unless we stop, consider and look, we just might miss some of these changes in what is true. Capital used to be expensive, and labour used to be cheap. Now it’s moving in the opposite direction. We used to think that the accumulation of capital was the key to success. But we forget it was a substitute to try and uncover intrinsic value. Thankfully we are starting to remember money is a tool, and not an end. Creativity used to be chosen by gatekeepers, now it’s chosen by us through sharing. We got tricked into believing that we should leave creative pursuits to others in the media, in the movies, and to the rock bands with recording contracts. To those who got picked. But now we know that was just because they owned expensive tools and could afford to buy our attention. We’ve now proved there is no monopoly on art, we’re all artists. Technology used to be expensive, and walled behind industrial barriers. We could only experiment with it while ensconced in corporate quarters building things for them as employees. Now we have NASA in our Pocket, maker spaces and collaborative tools to make better tech than those who gave us the tools to do it. The best tech now comes from hacking entrepreneurs because it’s accessible to all now, at disposable price points. The challenge most established businesses face isn’t technology, or ideas but belief systems. They develop a culture that makes them fall in love with what made them successful. It’s why big business is being disrupted after years of relative stability. Sometimes the most important thing ‘Big Co’ can do is forget what they know, and maybe even burn the map that got them to their current destination. New Book – The Great Fragmentation – out now!

Future Lab – Q & A

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I was recently asked by the super clever Future Lab team of LS:N Global to do an interview on a few topics including: The New Australian Consumer, Crowd Finishing or Pre- Hacking (a theme in my book) The Sharing Economy (A former startup I had rentoid.com was early in this space), Reverse Retail, and Innovation via Skunk Works.

While writing up some thoughts in my note pad, I thought it would make a good blog entry. And then I wrote ‘blog this’ on the first page of my notes. And that is exactly what I have done – literally. It will take some interpretation (hand writing, typos, order) as it is just a mind stream of half sentences, but often the unfinished nature of things is what makes them valuable.

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 New Book – The Great Fragmentation – out now!

If you think privacy doesn’t matter….

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If you think your privacy doesn’t matter, then how about you do the following:

  • Email me your bank account details and login passwords.
  • Remove the blinds and curtains from your house.
  • Leave the door open when using the toilet.
  • Publish on your Facebook page the links to every website you visit – even those with 18+ year age requirements.
  • Tell me how much you get paid and give me the details of your assets and debts.
  • Send me a copy of your passport, driver’s license and birth certificate…oh and your mother’s maiden name.
  • Share with me your medical records, any medication you take and other details you share with your doctor.
  • Share with me all the grades from your school reports.
  • Give me copies of all your performance reviews from every employer you’ve ever had.
  • Let me hear every conversation you have, even those behind closed doors or with your partner.
  • Give me live footage of every angle, in every room in your home.
  • Give me a complete record of everything you have ever bought.

While I wouldn’t put any of these things into the shameful or evil criminal category, it’s clear we’d rather keep some things to ourselves. Sure, some of this information needs to be entrusted to other people like doctors, lawyers, accountants, employers and family members, but most of it is not for public consumption. And I haven’t even added what can be deciphered when data points are cross-referenced. But here’s the kicker – most of these are already being tracked by metadata, and many more are about to be by the IoT.

I happened upon this recent talk on the reality of privacy by Glenn Greenwald. He references behaviour from the chiefs of our biggest internet companies; yes, those who make a living our of selling our digital footprints. Many of these CEOs dismiss the right to privacy as a notion either outdated, or something only those with things to hide need worry about. It’s ironic they make a concerted effort to hide their own personal lives. The talk is a mind-opening 20 minutes which proves undeniably that the right to privacy is an issue. Not being concerned about it now will have implications later on when perhaps it is too late.

Not for any reason, privacy is simply a matter of respect for our fellow humans. Don’t let it be something you give away without due consideration of the real trade off.

New book – The Great Fragmentation – out now!

Five for Friday v3

Here’s another 5 things that are worth investing some weekend time postulating life, culture and commerce over.

1. Take the marshmallow test for grown ups. An intriguing look at an old study that was done on kids attitudes in the 1960’s.

2. Hey, just print your next car. More proof 3D printing laughs at the internet as childs play in terms of future global impact. This is the 2nd 3D printed car I’ve seen after the Urbee… Sh*t is gettin’ real.

3. Some timeless advice from 1956. Let Earl Nightingale open your mind to the secrets to happiness and success. The best advice in life does not have an expiration date. This is seminal.

4. Wanna get learned? Get your ears around the Econ talk podcast. My fav’ podcast that I’m not in…. actually I never listen to anything I ever record because that would just be weird and sycophantic.

5. The future of technology – don’t ask me, this pinterest page of a search for ‘technology’ has way more ideas. Read at your leisure…

Have a super weekend people.