By Scott Meacham
A big idea creates ripples that can be felt decades later.
Entrepreneurship is like tossing a rock into a pond. The rock gives the water energy to create ever-widening rippling circles. As the rock sinks, the surface water flows back to fill the space the rock left behind.
Eventually, the pond will become calm and stable — that’s a principal of physics, that bodies and objects seek states of the lowest possible energy.
However, the pond never returns to exactly the way it was before the disruption of the rock. That’s a principle of entrepreneurship.
This last year has been a steady stream of “rocks in a pond.” How we live and work has been disrupted and forever changed in ways we don’t even fully realize yet.
The Big Idea
Like many of you, my family is shopping more than ever online. Every time I see the little shopping cart in the upper right-hand corner of my screen, I think about Sylvan Goldman, inventor of the grocery cart and an Oklahoma hero of entrepreneurship.
Sylvan was a retailer from the time he was a boy. He grew up in Ardmore, OK, working after school in his family’s dry goods store. In World War I, he served in the Army as a food requisitionist in France. After that. Sylvan and his brother Alfred opened a wholesale fruit and produce business in Texas and then California.
Intrigued by a new concept they saw in California called a supermarket, the brothers returned to Oklahoma and founded our state’s first grocery store chain supermarkets, with all the products under one roof. They made and lost a fortune in the 1920s, then survived the Depression financially battered but determined to rebuild.
Sylvan is quoted as saying, “The wonderful thing about food is that everyone uses it, and they only use it once.”
With Goldman’s shopping cart, shoppers could buy more and heavier in one trip to the store. But acceptance wasn’t automatic or instant. Goldman hired attractive every-day folks to shop his stores using the cart. He also hired a greeter to offer customers carts as they came into the store. The cart caught on and he made millions.
Sylvan also invented the handy milk bottle rack, the folding inter-office basket carrier, and the baggage cart. He was a noted philanthropist, giving back to the state and people who supported him.
Like the best entrepreneurs, Sylvan Goldman understood his customers and the grocery industry from the inside out. His inventions reinvented the grocery store and the way people shopped. A big idea creates ripples that can be felt decades later.
But, for me, his most impactful invention wasn’t the shopping cart or any of the other things. It was a concept, an entirely new way of thinking about shopping.
Sylvan Goldman’s big idea — if you think you want to buy it, put it in your cart — changed the way people thought about shopping and then changed the way they shopped.
The rock that Sylvan Goldman tossed into the retail pond endures and continues to be validated in the marketplace today. The retail industry, whether bricks and mortar or online, continues to profit from the ripples from that rock today.
Sylvan Goldman is proof that a big idea creates ripples that can be felt a century later.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Contact Meacham at [email protected].