The story of ice

Most everyday products we use and take for granted have a deep story of innovation underneath them. Once such product is that of simple household ice. What’s interesting about ice is that it went through a number of disruptions. New methods and players arrived to usurp yesterdays heroes. Much like the industries did in this post.

The original startup thinker and bootstrapper Guy Kawasaki tells the story of ice and how it pertains to curve jumping. I’ll do my best to remember how the story is told.

If you truly want to be an entrepreneur or an uber innovative intrapreneur, you have to jump curves. You can’t do things 10% better, you must do things 10 times better.  Originally ice was sold through an ice harvesting business. In the ice harvesting business in the early 1900’s, this meant that Bubba and Junior would go to a frozen lake or a frozen pond during the winter time and physically cut out large blocks of ice. And in 1900 over 900 million pounds of ice was harvested in the USA. Then 33 years later was the beginning of the first curve jump in the ice industry. This was the start of the ice factory era. Operating on the ice factory curve then meant that ice harvesting didn’t have to happen in the winter and it also meant that you didn’t have to be in a cold climate. You could freeze water centrally any time of year and any place you decided to set up an ice factory. (In fact, ice factories for obvious reasons did a better trade in warmer climates – a counter intuitive shift) And then once the water was frozen in the factory, the ice man would deliver ice to your house or business. So imagine the advantage of going from ice harvester: a cold city in a cold time of year, labour intensive – to moving to an ice factory, any city, any time of year, with dramatically lower labour costs.

Fast forward another 30 years and we move into the second curve jump. The refrigerator ice curve. This becomes ice 3.0 where an ice factory becomes a legacy cost infrastructure. People started to have refrigerators in their own home that could create ice on demand in a matter of hours, with no wastage, at the cost of a small amount of electricity. No need for factories or deliveries to your home when you have a personalised ice factory.

So if we look at this closely, the great value that was achieved was because the new method jumped across to the next curve. Incremental innovation was entirely usurped. It didn’t matter if you improved your efficiency dramatically on the previous curve because the entire market moved. And very few (if any) producers went from ice harvester, to ice factory, to refrigerator manufacturer. As you can imagine most ice harvesters didn’t see the disruption coming. So too with the ice factories and their owners. And in all probability refrigerator companies are not looking at bio tech or what is likely to come next in freezing water or ‘things’.

So the lesson for entrepreneurs (and more so for business owners & industry stalwarts) is that we simply cannot and will not change the world on the business curve that we are on. We have to jump it, and if we don’t someone else will. Incremental improvement is just not enough. Sometimes we must jump curves to merely survive. Makes me think that car companies are playing a very incremental game with their hybrids… What I really want is a self driving electric car or personal transport drone!

Worth Noting: In many ways all industries move from the macro to the micro. We’ve seen it with computers, music, many forms of manufacturing. We can only assume that the future will be continue the current trajectory to ‘personal’. Most curve jumps involve taking the macro to the micro.

Startup blog says: Get out there and curve jump!


3 Comments The story of ice

  1. Sam Sabey

    Samma, you may have overlooked the Ancient Arabian innovations and wondered how they had cold icy drinks sitting around their oases? There is so much we have forgotten from the ancients it’s remarkable

    They built a well insulated tower, 15 metres or so tall. The inside floor of the tower was tiled, smooth. At night they filled the inside of the tower with one or two centimetres of water, and the cold night sky (at absolute zero, close to -270 degreed C) woud freeze the water into ice.

    At dawn, they would collect the ice, put it in their esky for the day’s refreshments.

    Think about that next time you scrape the ice from your windscreen!

    Sam, @samotage

  2. Steve Sammartino

    Nice Sammy – I love it – I didn’t know they even did that…. and I did scrape ice from my windscreen this morning…

    Turns out the innovation of frozen water runs wide and deep!
    Thanks for the extra chapter 🙂

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