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Adapt or Die -- Some Chilling Lessons From the Ice Industry

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Imagine having a great idea, a get-rich-quick scheme destined to make you the next billionaire entrepreneur. Imagine an idea whose genius lies in its sheer simplicity. Now, imagine nobody caring.

This very situation happened to one of the single most successful entrepreneurs of all time. Massachusetts businessman Fredric Tudor endured derision, near bankruptcy and consumer indifference before he would become known as the “Ice King.”

On a warm summer day in 1805, Tudor and his brother hit on an idea that is so much a part of our lives today it’s almost impossible to imagine life without it: using ice to keep food cold. Tudor’s business travails present a study in what every entrepreneur needs: perseverance, vision, patience and resilience.

Here are some lessons about navigating change that can be drawn from the story of Tudor's business.

Related: Do Pivots Matter? Yes, in Almost Every Case.

“Trust yourself while all men doubt you, while still allowing for the doubting too” -- Rudyard Kipling 

1. Trust yourself. 

People thought Tudor was crazy. Who would buy ice, after all? He was treated an amusing eccentric by the media and had to buy his own ship to get his cargo to the Caribbean, where he wrongly assumed everyone would clamor to his revolutionary idea since local ship owners and captains judged his idea to be so dubious.

Sadly, when his first shipload of ice arrived in the Caribbean, nobody wanted to buy it. After much effort, however, Tudor’s second shipment was a success. Tudor’s trust in his vision carried him through until he was able to prevail.

If everyone thinks your idea is whacky, take heart: People thought the same about Nicolaus Copernicus, Christopher Columbus and Steve Jobs. On the other hand, don’t forget that for every misunderstood genius there are 100 perfectly understood dopes.

2. Stick with it. 

Tudor’s first partner, his brother, quickly extricated himself from the business venture. And Tudor himself had every reason to quit. Just as his business really started to take off, the U.S. government imposed an embargo that prevented him from selling to his newly acquired customers.

Related: Facing Startup Uncertainty? Try 2 Different Ways to Plan for the Future.

3. Plan for the future. 

Too often, entrepreneurs focus so much on growth that they overlook planning for the future. Success in business relies heavily on an organization’s ability to sustain its advancement. To a large extent, longevity means knowing who you are as well as having the ability to adapt when necessary. 

Experts estimate that in 1880 an American who lived in an urban area consumed on average 1 ton of ice each year.

In 1900 more than 775 companies were making and distributing ice. It was a good business. While it seemed like the demand for ice would last forever, disruptive innovation would cause the market to quickly melt away. At the turn of the century, electric freezers began to be reliable enough to threaten the seemingly invincible ice industry.

As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie wrote for Mental Floss in "The Surprisingly Cool History of Ice," by 1940, "5 million units had been sold. With freezers allowing people to make ice at home, there was little need to ship massive quantities across the country.”

Today only three of the members International Packaged Ice Association were in business before 1900, Jane McEwen, executive director of the International Packaged Ice Association told me.

While many factors contributed to the collapse of the ice industry, one theory holds that those that survived saw themselves not in the business of making ice, but in the business of keeping things cool.

Balancing growth and staying focused on the core business while embracing market changes and creating a sustainable organization will always be a challenge for entrepreneurs, but the alternative is the untimely demise of the business and for many entrepreneurs, the end to their life’s work. 

Related: Evolve or Die in the Age of the Consumer