DATE 8 / 22 / 2019
I am swimming. There is no turning back, and there is no land in sight, not behind me, or in front of me.
This month marks seven years since I founded Lilly Brush. In that time, I’ve invented six new products with a seventh launching this fall. Every single day since has been plump with work, and seemingly endless amounts of interaction with my incredible team and of all kinds of wonderful people, but when I happen to run into my old friends, they almost invariably ask me about my previous career as if I were still alone at my easel each day turning out landscapes and still life paintings. What I’ve come to understand is that outside of my own family and a handful of very close friends, none of the people I spent decades sitting next to on soccer bleachers, at school plays and on charitable boards has any idea of what I’ve been up to these last seven years. It’s as if, at 50, I took off swimming straight out into the blue ocean and disappeared over the horizon.
There’s been a series on the History Channel lately called The Food That Built America. I recommend it highly, but whenever I do, people throw their hands up to block the thought and say, “No, no, nooo, I want to eat; I don’t want to knoooow!” So, fear not, this will not put you off your hotdogs like Upton Sinclair’s 1906 expose of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle. This instead follows the not-so-charmed lives of the men and women who created the food brands we know and love today, among them, Kelloggs, Post, Birdseye, and Heinz. It is by no means a three part version of the dry, but endlessly entertaining, How It’s Made. No, here among the often grimy founders of our current multi-billion dollar American food empires, we find enough human intrigue and drama to forever enhance our previously bland trips down the cereal or frozen food aisles. Ahh, C.W. Post, you were a sly devil!
Oddly enough, the most extraordinary part about the series is how unremarkable each of the founders was. None of them seemed to be particularly brilliant, wealthy or educated, but that is where the seductive appeal of each of their stories lies. To see reenactments of the awful trials and tribulations of these sweaty, beaten down, nearly, but not quite defeated inventors who somehow made it all happen, well, that’s the stuff small business owners like me eat up with a ladle, because that, in essence, is the American Dream.
After watching the final episode of the series, and imagining with some horror the future squabbling of generations of entitled heirs, I lay in bed wondering what exactly the secret ingredient was that these guys had over everyone else? Yes, they had the recipe for Coca-Cola, or savory catsup, but multitudes of small companies with similarly great products have failed to thrive. Why did these food-centric American titans of industry, despite having teetered on the brink of failure at least a half dozen times, survive? More specifically, what made them keep going towards a goal that they could not see despite the obstacles of heartbreak and hardship and the implicit understanding that there was absolutely no guarantee of a good outcome at the end of their journey?
Angela Duckworth will tell you, it’s grit. Yep, grit makes perfect sense. Given the unremarkable status of many founders, their level of grit would very likely be the defining predictive element of success or failure, whether or not they possess inordinate talent, or extreme intellectual giftedness. Certainly, those are nice assets, but if intellectual facility has made the road through a person’s life a reliably rewarding jaunt from their first constellation of shiny gold stars achieved in kindergarten to the schwag stole of the Summa Cum Laude society at graduation, it may actually become something of a liability. In fact, if you’re used to that kind of tidy success, and then suddenly encounter the constant barrage of random destruction that is entirely outside of your control and perpetually happening to start-ups, believe me, you will be rattled out of your mind.
I won’t go on much more about a subject that I am only just beginning to come to understand, but if you’re as curious as I was after you finish The Food That Built America series, look up Angela Duckworth. You might even take the Grit Scale Quiz to see if you have an aptitude for the founder’s way. I scored high. Of course that doesn’t predict whether or not Lilly Brush will flourish in its next seven years, but if I had to place a bet, I’d tell you that I’m strong enough to swim until it does. Land will come.
Elsie Hamilton, Founder and CEO