The Post-it Note was introduced 35 years ago today. Was it really invented by mistake?
“It’s like the conjurors – they do these tricks and they don’t tell you how they do them. Well, that proprietary knowledge is what makes businesses work.”
– Art Fry, inventor of the Post-it Note
A few years ago, I had the honor of meeting and talking with Art Fry, the inventor of the Post-it Note. I also had the pleasure of being invited to hear Mr. Fry give a talk on innovation. I thought the 35th anniversary of Art Fry’s famous invention, that debuted on April 6, 1980, would be a good time to share a few of the notes I took during his presentation, including Mr. Fry’s answer to whether or not the invention of the Post-it Note was an accident.
The audience learned about Mr. Fry’s career at 3M, a global company based in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Fry’s down to earth Midwest character charmed the group as he shared stories of his successful inventions and also humble recollections of ideas that failed.
Mr. Fry also talked about how 3M gives employees the freedom to spend 15% of their time experimenting with projects of their choosing. It was during that experimental time that Art Fry tinkered with the idea of creating a better bookmark that wouldn’t fall out of the hymnbook he used while singing in his church choir.
Art Fry on innovation… “Innovation becomes a survival mechanism when we can’t do things the same old way as we did them before.”
Art Fry talked about the importance of 3M encouraging participation in social groups as a way for employees to meet and talk about ideas. “These activities mix people from different parts of the company and allow them to discuss what they’re doing.” said Fry. It was on the golf course that Fry first learned of the tiny glue spheres created by 3M organic chemist Spencer Silver, PhD. Silver had developed the adhesive formula five years earlier and pitched it to different people in the company with no success. It wasn’t until that fateful day on the golf course that Art Fry learned of the innovative adhesive and thought it could be the solution for his bookmark.
Art Fry on researchers… “Half of their job is to come up with new things and the other half is to turn around and tell others about it. Because what good is it to discover new things if people can’t make use of it?”
Many stories have been written claiming the Post-it Note was invented by mistake. Here’s the real answer that Art Fry shared with the group during his talk…
“It wasn’t an accident. It was a classic thing in research…coming up with a new material… and then I found an application for it. If you had planned a trip, a vacation to go to someplace you haven’t been before and you see something you haven’t seen, it isn’t an accident that you saw it. Because you would’ve done all the preparation to make it happen. This was the case with us. We sailed into unchartered waters and discovered new things.”
The Post-it Note was born in the same division as 3M’s Magic Tape. When Art Fry first showed his new invention to coworkers, he said they called the pieces of paper “stupid and frivolous” and saw no market for them. Fry believed in his idea and started handing out samples to family and friends. When people started asking for more, he knew he was onto something. He kept track of how many pads people were using and calculated that the same people who used only one roll of Magic Tape in a year had used 20 pads of his Post-it Notes.
When recalling the early test days with 3M handing out free samples of the sticky notes in Boise, Idaho, Fry mentioned that, “10 sheet samples led to complete addiction.” Within a few weeks, the pads of paper had a remarkable acceptance rate with 95% of the people who received free samples indicating they would purchase more.
Art Fry on the importance of proprietary information…
“When you go to school… and your learning curve is very steep… and you think that everything you want to know is in those textbooks or on Google. Well, you get out and you go to work and you find out there’s a whole wealth of knowledge that people aren’t talking about. It’s like the conjurors… they do these tricks and they don’t tell you how they do them. Well, that proprietary knowledge is what makes businesses work. Knowing how to do things that other people can’t do themselves.”
The original color of the Post-it Note wasn’t designed, it was chosen by accident, when the lab next door had only had yellow scrap paper available. Over the years, countless colors, shapes and applications of the original Post-it Note have been marketed, generating billions of dollars in sales for 3M.
Did Art Fry get a percentage of all those sales? Here’s what he said when asked that very question, “No. I worked on a lot of projects that failed and they still paid me. Plus, I got to work with people who were the best in the world… where there was always something going on and it was so very exciting. And if they had given me a royalty, I would’ve had to spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out how to spend all of that money.” Fry laughed as he said, “So, they took care of that problem for me!” When Fry retired, 3M did buy him a new boat, because Fry loves to spend time fishing for Walleye in the lakes of Minnesota.
“You’re all capable of doing amazing things… and I hope you get a chance to in your life.” – Art Fry
Michael Mode is a speaker, magician and innovation consultant who teaches companies how to Think Like a Magician to solve challenges they feel might be impossible.