Business ideas that changed the world: The Post-it note

Proof that the simplest ideas are often the most effective – Growing Business examines the origins of the now office staple

When: 1980
Where: USA
Why: The humble Post-it note has become a staple of communication in the western world
How: The ‘failure’ of a new adhesive prompted experimentation, which led to the Eureka moment
Who: 3M’s Spencer Silver and Art Fry
Fact: By 1999, Post-it notes were generating sales of more than $1bn for 3M

The ubiquitous adhesive yellow pads of paper have become such an office staple that it’s hard to believe they’ve only been around for three decades. Post-it notes feature prominently in almost every office store cupboard and are used by everyone, from CEOs to data-entry clerks.

The humble Post-it note introduced a brand new method of communication into the US office, after going on sale in 1980. A fantastic example of a product that boasts versatility and flawless simplicity in equal measure, it offers a blank canvas for the office, or even domestic, to-do list and remains the perfect explanatory accompaniment to the memo left on a colleague’s desk.

The background

The Post-it note had a rather long gestation period at 3M, the multinational conglomerate behind the product. It was back in the late 1960s that chemist and 3M employee, Dr Spencer Silver, was working on a range of new adhesives. One of the substances he developed was a new but deeply flawed sticky substance. Silver’s adhesive was unable to achieve a complete bond with the surfaces it came into contact with, essentially rendering it useless for any kind of permanent sticking.

Although the product was launched, sales never really took off, but it did keep Silver tinkering with his substance and, more importantly, gave him cause to discuss it with his colleagues. One such colleague was Art Fry, who took an immediate interest after seeing one of Silver’s product presentations.

Chemical engineering graduate Fry had started out as a salesman before working his way up the ranks at 3M, eventually landing a role within the product development division. He instantly saw the potential in Silver’s adhesive and set about thinking up better uses for it. The Eureka moment came during a church service. Fry, a member of the choir, was constantly looking for better methods of bookmarking hymns. The tiny pieces of paper he used were forever falling out of his hymn book, but with a small amount of Silver’s adhesive, the strips of paper stayed in place, thus forming the perfect bookmark.

3M’s policy of allowing staff a percentage of their working hours to tinker with their own projects meant Fry had time to start developing his bookmarks idea. He adjusted the adhesive’s properties so that it left no residue on book pages and started to hand out prototypes to colleagues for feedback.

The trouble was, the bookmarks proved too durable. Everyone he gave them to just used the same one over and over, meaning there was no need to consume more. It wasn’t until he used one of his bookmarks to annotate a report he was reading that he discovered the full-potential of using Silver’s adhesive on strips of paper.

Between them, Fry and Silver had come up with a mobile notice board, and an entirely new office communication method. Fry started handing out stacks of the sticky paper sheets to colleagues and very soon, the whole company was using them, and 3M decided to give Fry the resources he needed to develop the product commercially.

Commercial impact

Nearly a decade after Silver had first developed the basis for the Post-it note adhesive, 3M started test-marketing Fry’s invention under the name ‘Press & Peel Pads’ in four cities – Denver, Richmond, Tampa and Tulsa. Reception was muted, to say the least. But both Fry and 3M were reluctant to give up on the product, given that it had been so popular with the company’s own staff. In a last-ditch attempt to generate a buzz around Press & Peel Pads, 3M launched a more focused and resource-intensive campaign in Boise, Idaho. Samples were handed out to offices, stationery stores were persuaded to put up point-of-sale displays, local newspapers were convinced to run stories on the product and, most importantly, 3M sales temps were sent out to do demonstrations.

The extra marketing resource proved worthwhile, and the city responded with great enthusiasm, giving 3M the confidence to commit to a full commercial launch in 1980.

The initial product was launched in two sizes – 3 x 5 inches and 1.5 x 2 inches, with a price tag of just under a dollar for each 100-sheet pad. 3M management was still unhappy with the name, however, and it was at this point that the product name was changed to Post-it notes, in an attempt to tie them in with the Post-it Bulletin Board. It was thought that aligning the two products in terms of branding would create better consumer awareness of both.

Once the full weight of the 3M commercial team was behind the product it became profitable within a year, in spite of the massive quantity of free samples being given away. By 1984, sales had reached $45m, and 15 years later revenue topped the $1bn mark. The product’s patent ended more than a decade ago and several copycat products have since been introduced onto the market, but the product name and famous ‘canary yellow’, the colour of some scrap paper used during the prototype stage, are still trademarks of 3M.

What does the Post-it market look like today?

But what became of the men behind the Post-it? They were never given shares, or formally compensated for the development of the product in any other form than their 3M salary, but they remained with the company and both went on the develop other products, although none was anywhere near as successful.

Today, 3M manufactures more than 4,000 products under the Post-it brand that are used in offices and homes around the globe. As technology has evolved, and digital methods of communication such as email and instant messaging have become part of the everyday fabric of modern life, the Post-it note still has an important role to play. Post-it branded products are still used for indexing, reminder notes and document annotation, despite the onslaught of electronic communication.

It’s unlikely they’ll become redundant while paper still changes hands and memos are still printed. And even if that day does arrive, digital versions of the yellow pads have been adorning PC desktops for years, proving that the principle of the simple Post-it note will linger on for years to come.


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