Everyone knows the story of the humble Post-It Note, and how it represents an idea’s ability to evolve and flourish.

Some people would even hold up Post-It Notes as a symbol for innovation itself, much like the lightbulb is a symbol for an idea.

Yet what hardly anyone knows is that Post-It Notes were amazingly close to the same fate as 96% of other innovations: complete failure.

In the video above, we hear about the fascinating story of what it took for Post-It Notes to become a household name, and one of the best-selling products of all time.

We learn that some of the legends of how the Post-It Note was developed are indeed true.

Legend #1: The adhesive formula was a mistake, and was supposed to be super-strong

This is apparently true, as in 1968 3M’s Spencer Silver was working on developing an ultra-strong adhesive for use in aircraft construction. Instead, a mistake led to the new adhesive called acrylate co-polymer microspheres, which were a weak, pressure-sensitive adhesive.

However, they had the unique characteristics of the microspheres being incredibly strong and resisting breaking, and sticking at a tangent to the surface, which meant that the sticky substance could be peeled away without leaving residue and reused.

Legend #2: It only found its calling when used by someone else to keep track of his hymns in church

This is also tue. Art Fry was working at 3M and was aware of Silver’s reusable adhesive. He also sang in a church choir and had a regular problem of losing his hymn notes in his church song book.

Fry was then the person to suggest using the adhesive on the backs of paper so that they could be stuck and removed without leaving residue.

The ugly truth of apparent failure

What most people don’t know about is the fact that nobody believed in this product for decades, and many people struggled to find a profitable application for the technology.

After the initial discovery, 3M management didn’t see value in a non-sticky adhesive, and so it did not have any internal senior support. This lasted for 5 years until 1973 when a change in management allowed Silver to convince the new products laboratory manager Geoff Nicholson to give it a go. But the only marketable product idea they could come up with was a reusable bulletin board to stick papers to. This was shelved as sales of bulletin boards were not high enough to make this a profitable product.

Even after Fry suggested it should be the adhesive on the paper itself, the product then spent several more years in development as the scientists tried to find a way to get the glue to stick to the paper and not come off when it was then attached to another object.

Even after this problem was solved, senior management still didn’t see the commercial viability of the product and shelved it for several more years, even though it was extremely popular within the company.

It wasn’t until four years later in 1977 that the product was finally tested for real-world sales for the first time, with a limited launch in 4 cities to see if anyone would buy it.

Hardly anyone bought it, which appeared to prove to management that they were right to not believe in the product for so long.

Ultimate success

Fortunately, Nicholson didn’t give up quite so easily, and thought that the reason the product didn’t sell was because it was new and people didn’t understand its value before buying.

So a year after the flop in 1978, 3M tried one more time by sending out large numbers of free samples to companies for them to try, and then tracking how many of them re-ordered additional units.

To many people’s surprise, almost 90% of companies given samples re-ordered the product, which finally showed there was demand.

And the rest is history.

So even though everyone knows Post-It notes as an amazing success story, what they forget is that it took more than 10 years for the product to finally get the internal support to reach its target market.

Sometimes, you just need a dedicated internal team who really see the value in something to keep pushing and improving a product until they find a way that shows the right value for it to become a successful innovation.


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Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as the world's #5 Innovation blogger in 2016, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.