Even in desperate economic times, quality counts.
And sometimes the biggest opportunity comes from challenging the status quo.
These are two of the important lessons the phenomenally successful entrepreneur William Chase, founder of Tyrells Potato Chips, learned the hard way.
Leaving school at 14, he took out huge loans to maintain his farm. It failed and he went bankrupt. For awhile he worked as a potato trader, negotiating between farmers and supermarkets. But he was so disgusted by the way the big guys squeezed their small suppliers that he determined to find a better business.
Taking a Stand Pays Dividends
He didn't stray far from potatoes. He took up hand frying them, producing a high quality, high price product at a time that most potato snacks were cheap, nasty and mass-produced. His Tyrrells chips actually tasted of potato. Better still, he resolutely refused to sell them to supermarkets. When they tried to stock them, he sued them and won. That stance alone won him friends and fans and he was able, just three years ago, to sell his company, Tyrrells, for $50 million.
By now, he learned a lot - about the public's love for quality products and principled stands.
"Doing the crisps, it lifted my whole confidence in society, taught me that people did care what they ate. When you do a product people love and want to pay for, it changes your whole view of the human race."
Life After Potatoes
So he went back into business and back into potatoes - but this time making traditional vodka. He traveled to Michigan to study distilling and ordered his supplies off the Internet. He had never made an alcoholic drink in his life, but what he knew by now was that excellence was its own reward.
"Everyone else buys their spirit in, mass-produced, taken from sugar cane and made in an industrial process. It's awful. And they can only sell it by wrapping it up in stupid marketing stories. But we do every single step of the process on the farm. We make all our own spirit. And people love it. They loved that it has a flavor, and an aroma - it isn't just a colorless, tasteless drink. It has character."
And it paid off: after winning in blind tastings at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Chase's vodka is now officially the best vodka in the world. Served in the world's swankiest bars, it has flavor, it has aroma - and he exports it to Russia.
The Gift of Hard Times
Would he, I asked him, ever have discovered these talents in himself if he hadn't been in a corner?
"No," he laughed. "I don't think most people know what they're capable of. Sometimes it takes being cut off at the legs to find out! That's what it took for me. If I hadn't been so completely disheartened by the way the supermarkets treated me, I might still be a farmer today!"
There's a lot to love, and learn from, in Chase's story. But what I love most of all is his revelation that there was more opportunity in bucking the system than caving into it. I've never before thought of vodka as the antidote to cynicism, but I do now.
So what rules are you going to break this year?
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