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  • Tyler Harman

The Myth of the Better Mousetrap

We all know the quote: "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door."

It alludes to this promise that if you build something truly better, folks will recognize the quality, seek you out, and throw money at you. The reason this myth is so dangerous, is because it assumes that zero work is needed beyond merely building a better product. But don't let that stop you. After all, this is America! You can do whatever you want! Just don't count on folks beating a path to your door all on their own.

First, let's talk actual mousetraps real quick.

A Quick History of Mousetraps

William Hooker invented the original "Snap Trap" mousetrap back in the 1890s. While a few others have made small adjustments to it (like Mast and Atkinson a few years later), we still use roughly the same design to this day, over 130 years after it was invented. You know the one, the small wooden plank with the spring-loaded bar.

For decades, others tried to outdo the Snap Trap and design something much different and safer and more discrete, all to their dismay. There was the Delusion mousetrap, the Little Champ mousetrap, dozens that I found, all of which were actually better traps, but the market didn't see value in them. Some were more expensive, were supposed to be reusable, but who wants to reuse a mousetrap!

The Reality of the Mousetrap Quote

The quote is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emmerson. But there are two issues with this story.

First, he never said that. What he actually said was:

"If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods"

Second, this was written in Emmerson's journal back in the 1850s long before mousetraps were a thing (in fact the first patent application ever sent in was in 1879).

The quote actually came from an advertiser named Elbert Hubbard in the 1920s. He took the boring, clumsy indirect quote from Emmerson's journal and jazzed it up a bit. However, the most interesting part is that he still gave Emmerson credit because it would mean more coming from him. And with a quick search of the word "mousetrap" in Google's Ngram Viewer, you can see the popularity of that word jump at that same time Hubbard rewrote Emmerson's quote.

Three Lessons from the Mousetrap Quote

The main takeaway is that there is no promise of success for simply building a better mousetrap. It still requires a great deal of work to make it a success. Spanx inventor Sarah Blakely learned this exact lesson when she launched her company. After years of design, patents, and begging stores to sell her product, she realized that still wasn't enough. Her products were collecting dust on the shelves. Spoiler alert, she figured it out. But, what she thought was the finish line, was actually the starting line.

The second takeaway is that wonderfully strung-together words like that can paint a very vivid picture in our minds. Because of sayings like the Mousetrap myth, we all still believe that's all it takes. "If you build it, they will come." But sadly, to most unsuspecting entrepreneurs, merely having a good product is not enough. But man oh man, does that sound comforting! You hear something like that, you feel like everything is going to work out, it's like a nice warm bear hug. At our core, we all want these things to be true, so we believe them.

The third takeaway is, words matter. The way you say things matter. What Hubbard did with Emmerson's words was a magical thing. I do want to point out, we can't fault Emmerson too much for that clumsy writing, after all, he didn't know we were all going to be reading his journal 140 years after he died, he's just riffing there!

Actually, that's the bonus fourth takeaway. Emmerson was just riffing! Most people working on ad copy, or the positioning of their products, defining their brand, building their website, or their sales process, etc. They're just riffing. Those things should go through a couple iterations before they see the light of day--at least a second draft.

Yes, we can't spend all day writing and refining, we're not F. Scott Fitzgerald, we have a business to run here, but for something that's going to represent you and your vision for years to come, it's worth a second look, don't you think?

In conclusion.

Three big lessons from Emmerson, Hubbard, and the failed "better mousetraps":

  1. There's no promise of success from building a good product. You need to sell them.

  2. We tend to believe things that we want to believe.

  3. Words matter. Take the time to form your thoughts, and then give them a rewrite.

  4. After you write something, take another stab at it before you chisel it into stone.

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