Lessons in Failure – Why 3M’s Post-It Notes Almost Didn’t Happen

By Dr. Ed Tori, March 2015

These days, there is hardly a household, business, or even computer screen that isn’t covered in some variation of those popular little yellow adhesive notes. How many households and businesses today would be shocked to know that the all-purpose Post-It® Note almost didn’t happen?

When Dr. Spencer Silver of the 3M Company accidentally discovered a new adhesive in 1968, he found it fascinating. It had an unusual structure that couldn’t be dissolved or melted. But because it was such a weak adhesive, it had no apparent use. After promoting it within the company for five years, he set it aside.

It took another year for one of Dr. Silver’s colleagues to come up with a use for it. Art Fry, a devoted choir member, was having problems with bookmarks fluttering out of his hymnal. Having learned about the strange adhesive in one of Silver’s seminars, he had a hunch it might work to secure the bookmarks in his hymnal without harming the pages. Taking advantage of 3M’s “bootlegging policy” which allows workers to use up to 15% of their time on chosen projects, he developed the ‘Post-It®’.

The leaders of 3M were still skeptical, and put it through product development for another three years. Finally, in 1977, the product was launched. However, since 3M had not tested it with the general public, there was little interest and it failed.

A year later, however, the distribution of free samples saved the life of the Post-It® once more. Results showed that 90% of American households would buy the product, and by 1980 Post-Its were sold nationwide. Into the 21st century it remains a highly successful product, despite taking ten years and nearly failing numerous times. 3M has even expanded the concept into the virtual world. Initially deemed a failure covers refrigerators to computers everywhere.

Image sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PostItNotePad.JPG


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