“Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door,” is a phrase attributed to the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. He probably didn’t say it, but it’s entered the language anyway.
What he did write in 1855 was this, “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”
Either way, it’s pretty much the same thought.
I’ve never read any of Emerson’s poetry so I have no opinion on his merits as a poet, but I have a definite opinion on the merits of his marketing strategy.
What amazes me about this piece of advice, apart from the phrase’s longevity, is just what spectacularly dreadful advice it is.
And that’s not even with the benefit of hindsight.
All the evidence suggests it was terrible advice when Emerson wrote the line, and we can validate this by looking at product innovation from the period.
And what a rich period it was for innovation -- resulting in the creation of substantial new industries.
For example, in 1846, the first American patent for the sewing machine was granted to Elias Howe, although it took until 1854 for him to enjoy any substantial earnings from the patent, and then only after a series of legal battles.
The zipper, first patented in 1851, faced an even longer struggle and did not achieve any meaningful commercial success till the 1930s.
Rather than paths being beaten to the respective inventors’ doors, the establishment of these industries was characterized by hardheaded tenacity.
And what if you build a better mousetrap today?
We’re talking Apple or Dyson better, the Aston Martin of mousetraps.
Let’s call it ClapTrap™ -- it’s catchy.
Would you follow Emerson’s advice and wait for customers to come knocking?
I’d climb the nearest roof and holler real loud, build the website and fire up a social media campaign.
I’d pay guys to dress in cat suits and picket the town hall, with placards proclaiming: ClapTrap stealing our jobs.
Or persuade a celeb to endorse ClapTrap™, and watch copy-cat celebrity rodent infestation stories, bump Lindsay’s relapses off Entertainment Tonight.
Now ClapTrap™’s hot, sales take-off, and you’re laughing all the way to the bank, in the bank, and leaving the bank.
Until you get blindsided by a smear campaign from the category leader, claiming ClapTrap™, is produced with child labour and covered in lead paint.
When even this libellous accusation fails to dent sales, an ex employee with suspiciously deep pockets files a claim alleging patent infringement.
And sales still skyrocket.
Then a competitor starts making knockoffs in China, produced with child labour and covered in lead paint, but substantially discounted and almost as effective as the original.
Now sales fall of a cliff, while your lawyer’s bills skyrocket.
You’ve got problems you’d never have if you’d only waited for the world to beat a path to your door.
But you’ve also got the ClapTrap™ brand, and a hard-won reputation as an entrepreneur to watch.
So how did Emerson get it so wrong?
Even more intriguingly, if his thinking is so misguided, why do so many people know the line?
Why am I writing about it some 150 years after he wrote it?
I think the answer is we want his line to be true.
We want to live in a world where the superior product always triumphs, where massive ad budgets don’t perpetuate the mundane, and quality not hype, is what engages our attention.
The line tells it the way it should be.
The way we wish it was.
And that, if not poetry, is undeniably poetic.