That contact with Mr. Bissell led to frequent contacts. Soon we entered the cold-weather season when my duties became heavy.
“I hear you are working hard,” Mr. Bissell said to me one day.
I replied, “I should work hard, for I have so many easy months.”
He insisted on the details, and he learned that I was leaving my office at two o’clock in the morning and appearing again at eight. Like all big men whom I have known, he was a tremendous worker. He had always done the average work of three men. So the hours that I kept gave him interest in me, and he urged me to join his office force.
In the early stages of our careers none can judge us by results. The shallow men judge us by likings, but they are not men to tie to. The real men judge us by our love of work, the basis of their success. They employ us for work, and our capacity for work counts above all else.
I started with the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company in February as assistant bookkeeper at $40 a month. By November I had advanced to $75. I was head bookkeeper then, and my position offered no chance to go farther.
I began to reason in this way: A bookkeeper is an expense. In every business expenses are kept down. I could never be worth more than any other man who could do the work I did. The big salaries were paid to salesmen, to the men who brought in orders, or to the men in the factory who reduced the costs. They showed profits, and they could command a reasonable share of those profits. I saw the difference between the profit-earning and the expense side of a business, and I resolved to graduate from the debit class.
Just at that time, Mr. Charles B. Judd, our manager, brought to our accounting office a pamphlet written by John E. Powers. Powers was then the dean of advertising, which meant really a wet nurse. Advertising was then in its infancy. He had been advertising writer for John Wanamaker in Philadelphia, and there he created a new conception of advertising. He told the truth, but told it in a rugged and fascinating way. Wanamaker paid him $12,000 a year, which in those days was considered a fabulous salary. He had become the model and ideal of all men who had advertising ambitions. And so, in some respects, today. The principles for which John Powers stood are still among our advertising fundamentals.
John Powers had left Wanamaker’s and gone out for himself. The Bissell Company’s Eastern manager, Thomas W. Williams, was one of his great admirers. Through him I had heard a great deal of Powers and his dramatic advertising.
One incident which I remember occurred in Pittsburgh. A clothing concern was on the verge of bankruptcy. They called in Powers, and he immediately measured up the situation. He said: “There is only one way out. Tell the truth. Tell the people that you are bankrupt and that your only way to salvation lies through large and immediate sales.”
The clothing dealers argued that such an announcement would bring every creditor to their doors. But Powers said: “No matter. Either tell the truth or I quit.”
Their next day’s ad. read something like this: “We are bankrupt. We owe $125,000, more than we can pay. This announcement will bring our creditors down on our necks. But if you come and buy tomorrow we shall have the money to meet them. If not, we go to the wall. These are the prices we are quoting to meet this situation:” Truth was then such a rarity in advertising that this announcement created a sensation. People flocked by the thousands to buy, and the store was saved.
Another time he was asked to advertise mackintoshes which could not be disposed of.
“What is the matter with them?” Powers asked.
The buyer replied: “Between you and me they are rotten. That is nothing, of course, to say in the advertising, but it is true.”
The next day came an ad. stating, “We have 1,200 rotten mackintoshes. They are almost worthless, but still worth the price we ask. Come and see them. If you find them worth the price we ask, then buy.”
The buyer rushed up to Powers, ready for a fight. “What do you mean by advertising that our mackintoshes are rotten?” he cried. “How can we ever hope to sell them?”
“That is just what you told me,” said Powers. “I am simply telling people the truth,” Before the buyer had a chance to calm down every mackintosh was sold.
It was then, at the height of his fame, he submitted a pamphlet to the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company, by request of Mr. Williams. It was written on butcher paper. One of Powers’ ideas was that manner should never becloud matter. I well remember the first sentence— “A carpet sweeper, if you get the right one—you might as well go without matches.”
But he knew nothing about carpet sweepers. He had given no study to our trade situation. He knew none of our problems. He never gave one moment to studying a woman’s possible wish for a carpet sweeper.
I said to Mr. Judd, “That cannot sell carpet sweepers. There is not one word in that pamphlet which will lead women to buy. Let me try my hand. In three days I will hand you a book to compete with it, based on knowledge of our problems.”
Mr. Judd smiled, but consented. During the next two nights I did not sleep at all. On the third day I presented a pamphlet which caused all to decide against Powers. He sued them for his fee, but on my pamphlet they fought and won the suit.
The carpet sweeper business was then in its infancy. Users were few and sales were small. On the strength of my pamphlet I asked for permission to try to increase the demand. Christmas was approaching. On my nights pacing the streets I had thought of the idea of a sweeper as a Christmas present. It had never been offered as such. I designed a display rack for exhibit. I drew up cards, “The Queen of Christmas Presents.” And I went to the manager and asked his permission to solicit some trade by mail.
He laughed at me. He was an ex-salesman, as were all of our directors. He said: “Go out on the road and try to sell sweepers. Wherever you go you will find them covered with dust, with dealers ready to give them away. The only way to sell a new lot is to use a gun. Get a man in a corner and compel him to sign an order. When you talk of selling such men by letter, I can only laugh.”
But the pamphlet I wrote had won his respect. He consented to try a few thousand letters. So I wrote and told the dealers about our display racks and our cards. I offered both free for Christmas, not as a gift, but as a reward. Not then, or ever since, have I asked a purchase. That is useless. I have simply offered service. I required a signed agreement from the dealer to display the sweepers on the rack with the cards I furnished. This made him solicit me.
I sent out some five thousand letters. They brought me one thousand orders, almost the first orders we had ever received by mail. That was the birth of a new idea which led me to graduate from the expense account to the field of money-earners.
Even then I had no courage. I did not dare to enter the business-getting field without an anchor to windward. That, again, was due to mother. So I decided to devote my days to these new adventures, and my nights to work on the books. Thus I continued for long. Rarely did I leave my office before midnight, and I often left at two in the morning.
As a boy I had studied forestry. I gathered samples of all the woods around me and sent them to other boys for exchange. Thus I accumulated scores of interesting woods. This little hobby of mine led directly to my next merchandising step.
I conceived the idea of offering Bissell Carpet Sweepers in some interesting woods. If my Christmas idea had excited ridicule, this excited pity. I asked them to build Bissell carpet sweepers in twelve distinguished woods, one in each wood to the dozen. I wanted them to run from the white of the bird’s-eye maple to the dark of the walnut, and to include all the colors between.
That aroused real opposition. As I have said, all the directors of the company were ex-salesmen. One was the inventor of some new devices and was a power to be regarded. He said: “Why not talk broom action, patent dumping devices, cyco bearings, and the great things I have created?”
I am talking to women,” I replied. “They are not mechanics. I want to talk the things which they will understand and appreciate.”
They finally let me do that as a concession. Since I had done what they deemed impossible and sold sweepers by letter, they could hardly refuse me a reasonable latitude. They agreed to build 250,0000 sweepers, twelve woods to the dozen, for me.
While they were building the sweepers, I arranged my plans. I wrote letter to dealers, in effect as follows: “Bissell carpet sweepers are today offered twelve woods to the dozen—the twelve finest woods in the world. They come with display racks free. They come with pamphlets, like the one inclosed, to feature these twelve woods. They will never be offered again. We offer them on condition that you sign the agreement inclosed. You must display them until sold, on the racks and with the cards we furnish. You must send out our pamphlets in every package which leaves your store for three weeks.” I offered a privilege, not an inducement. I appeared as a benefactor, not as a salesman. So dealers responded in a way that sold our stock of 250,000 sweepers in three weeks.
Let us pause here for a moment. That was my beginning in advertising. It was my first success. It was based on pleasing people, like everything else I have done. It sold, not only to dealers, but to users. It multiplied the use of carpet sweepers. And it gave to Bissell sweepers the practical monopoly which they maintain to this day.
Other men will still say; “I have no such opportunity. My line is not like that.” Of course it isn’t, but in all probability it offers a thousand advantages. No man is in any line that is harder to sell than carpet sweepers were in those days. I care not what it is. The usual advertising was impossible. A carpet sweeper would last ten years. The profit was about one dollar. Never has anyone found an ordinary way to advertise profitably an article of that class.
No young man finds himself in any field with smaller opportunity. Any man in a bank, a lumber office, a tire concern, or a grocery has a far better opportunity than I had. The only difference lies in his conceptions. I felt that clerkship was an expense, and expenses would always be minimized. I was struggling to graduate into the profit-earning class where no such limit exists.
My success with the twelve woods gave me great prestige. Then I sought other unique ideas. I went to Chicago and saw a Pullman car finished in vermilion wood. It was a beautiful red wood. I went to the Pullman factory and asked them about it. They told me that the wood came from India, that all the forests were owned by the British Government, that the wood was all cut by convicts, then hauled to the Ganges River by elephants. The vermilion wood was heavier than water, so a log of ordinary wood was placed on either side of each vermilion log to float it down the river.
That gave me the idea of an interesting picture. Government forests, convicts, elephants, the Ganges. On the way home I visualized that appeal.
But I returned to realities in Grand Rapids the next morning. My employers there had no conception of government forests, rajahs, elephants, etc. They had perfected a new dumping device.
So I argued long and loud. I asked them to order a cargo of vermilion wood. They laughed. Again they said that sweeper users were not buying woods, that they wanted broom action, efficient dumping devices, pure bristle brushes, and so forth. What folly! One might as well discuss the Einstein theory with an Eskimo.
But my successes had brought me some prestige, and I finally induced our people to order for me the simple cargo I desired. While waiting for it I prepared my campaign. I had letter heads lithographed in vermilion color. My envelopes were vermilion addressed in white ink. I printed two million pamphlets with vermilion covers and a rajah’s head on the front. The pamphlet told a story intended to arouse curiosity, to bring women to see that wood. No other activating factor compares with curiosity. Pictures showed the forests, the convicts, the elephants, the Ganges River and the Pullman car. One hundred thousand letters were printed to offer this wood to dealers.
After some weeks the wood arrived in the shape of rough-hewn timbers. A few hours later Mr. Johnson, the factory superintendent, came to me with tears in his eyes. “We tried to saw that vermilion wood,” he said, “and the saw flew to pieces. The wood is like iron. It cannot be cut. That whole cargo is waste.
I said: “Brace up, Mr. Johnson. We all have our problems to solve. They told me I could not sell carpet sweepers by letters, but I did. Now you, as a factory expert, cannot afford to fall down.”
He cut up the logs in some way with a cross-cut saw. Then he came with a new complaint. He could not drive a brad in the wool, so he saw no way to build a sweeper with it.
I said: “Johnson, you annoy me. Come, take my desk and try to sell those sweepers and I will go and make them. Bore holes for your brads.”
But the storms were gathering for me. Manufacturing had almost stropped. The cost of the sweepers was mounting. So I had to make the concession of offering only three vermilion wood sweepers as part of each dozen, and the rest in ordinary woods.
Soon I was ready to mail the letters. They did not urge dealers to buy the sweepers. They offered the privilege of buying. Three vermilion wood sweepers would come in each dozen if orders were sent of once. The dealer could sell them at any price he chose. But never again could he obtain Bissell sweepers built in vermilion wood. The only condition was that the dealer must sign the agreement inclosed. He had to display the sweepers until sold, had to display the cards we sent him, and had to inclose our vermilion pamphlet in every package which left his store for three weeks. Thus again I placed the dealer in position where he was soliciting us.
The response was overwhelming. The Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company made more money in the next six weeks than they had made in any year before. They had vastly increased the number of dealers handling carpet sweepers. And they had multiplied the interest of women in a device which was then in but limited use.
After that I gave up my bookkeeping and devoted my time to selling. I sold more carpet sweepers by my one-cent letters than fourteen salesman on the road combined. At the same times our salesmen increased their sales by having new features to talk. Thus Bissell carpet sweepers attained the position which they hold today. They came to control some 95 per cent of the trade. The advertising was done by the dealer. The demand grew and grew until the Bissell Company became, I believe, the richest concern in Grand Rapids.
My business was to devise three selling schemes a year. They all referred to finishes and woods. I found a man, for instance, who had presented a method of coloring veneers. The coloring liquid was placed on the under side. It came through the veneer wherever the ends of the grains showed on top, creating a weird and beautiful effect. I gave the resulting wood a coined name and inclosed samples in my letters.
Again I offered to supply dealers three gold-plated sweepers as a part of each dozen, exactly the same as we exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Thus I placed thousands of World’s Fair exhibits in windows the country over.
But in two or three years I found myself running out of schemes. There are distinct limitations to exciting varieties in carpet sweeper finishes. New ideas came harder and harder. I felt that I was nearing the end of my resources, so I began to look for wider fields.
Just at that time Lord & Thomas of Chicago first offered me a position. They had a scheme man named Carl Greig, who was leaving them to go with the Inter Ocean to increase the circulation. Lord & Thomas, who had watched my sweeper-selling schemes, offered me his place. The salary was much higher than I received in Grand Rapids, so I told the Bissell people that I intended to take it. They called a directors’ meeting. Every person on the board had, in times past, been my vigorous opponent. All had fought me tooth and nail on every scheme proposed. They had never ceased to ridicule my idea of talking woods in a machine for sweeping carpets. But they voted unanimously to meet the Lord & Thomas offer, so I stayed.
That, however, as I knew then, was but a temporary decision. I felt the call to a wider field, and the Chicago offer had whetted my ambitions. Soon after I received another and a larger offer, and resigned.