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Depression Era Lessons for Today’s Entrepreneurs

by: Geoff Ficke

The vast majority of an educated modern populace has developed a pretty vivid tapestry of what life was like during the “Great Depression”. The visions of struggling dirt farmers like the Joad’s in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, the big city soup lines, the tent cities for thousands of homeless and photographs of men selling apples on street corners have burnished in many of us a searing image of hopelessness and despair.

Today, the United States is sharing the most serious economic malady since the “Great Depression” with countries all over the world. While not approaching the absolute calamity of the 1930’s, the damage done to our wallets and psyches is nevertheless daunting and bruising. Businesses, organizations and individuals are understandably fearful and have curtailed spending in lieu of conserving capital. Risk taking, the key to maximizing gain, has been virtually shut down. Small business growth and development has been strangled. Entrepreneurs have hunkered down, fearful of the vagaries of a marketplace that seems to have no stomach for new products and ideas.

In times like these it pays to study the lessons of history. The Great Depression was bleak for so many, of course. Nevertheless, it was actually a fertile era for creativity and entrepreneurial activity.

People were desperate to make every purchase count, to leverage every dollar spent and obtain maximum value. The result was that an exciting array of creative breakthroughs came to market to satisfy the greater demand for economy.

The importance of consumer advertising was magnified and became a much more critical tool utilized by packaged goods manufacturers to woo value conscious consumers. Heinz ketchup, Palmolive soap, Campbell soup, Westinghouse appliances, Revlon and Max Factor cosmetics and Hormel Spam enjoyed an explosion of growth created by new sales promotion concepts. Billboards, mass advertising, coupons and sampling became ubiquitous. Local, regional and national agencies evolved to assist manufacturers in promoting their products in new, exciting ways. Barn advertising for tobacco products and Burma Shave road signs added needed revenue to beleaguered farmers and roadside landowners.

The Studebaker Motor Company had evolved from a 19th century maker of hand carts and wheelbarrows to a struggling auto carriage manufacturer. The Company enjoyed modest success until the Great Depression. Recognizing opportunity, Studebaker went back to its roots as a maker of work conveyances and began to produce the Studebaker paneled work truck. At a price of around $600, this workhorse vehicle enabled thousands of laborers, handymen and small contractors to eke out a living hauling, building and scratch farming.

The ball point pen, nylon, the radio, radar, the Land camera, the photocopier, sticky tape, the television, FM radio band, the helicopter, the jet engine and the electric razor are only a few of the inventions that were perfected and came to market during the 1930’s. Inventors did not stop their pursuit of fresh, valuable innovations. They seized the reality they were confronted with and targeted practical solutions to problems that needed to be addressed at that time.

The same opportunity is available today. The opportunity to create products or services that offer great utility and excellent value is appreciated by the consumer more than at any time in recent memory. There is a rush to basics, store brands, no frills products that perform and are sturdy. The inventor that can address these contemporary needs will find a willing acceptance from investors, consumers and retailers.

There is never a better time than NOW to launch a product, start a business or license a product. This is true when markets are booming, or when the economy is in a trough. There are always excuses made for not making a sale, not closing a deal or not taking that chance, that chance that can change one’s life. Every economic age offers the opportunity for success for those willing to address real needs with inventiveness. History offers us plenty of proof.