You don’t have to have been an economist or an investment banker to have felt the growing undercurrents slowly destabilising our economy over the past few years.
For those of us responsible for our own businesses, the anticipation of an impending economic collapse has been at the back of our minds for a number of years. I remember standing in front of my colleagues over a year ago, talking about how I felt that, not only were we entering a recession, but in my view, it would be the worst economic climate since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Most of us associate that troubled period with large-scale unemployment and negative growth impacting across global economies. However, for sheer creative thinking, it was one of the most innovative decades in modern history. From Mickey Mouse, to sliced bread, the jet engine, FM radio and even humble Scotch tape, all these innovations were children of the 1930s. They are products that have played their role in revolutionising the way we live our lives and have spawned multi-million-pound industries borne out of smart, creative ideas that resonated with a changing society.
So exactly what was the catalyst that drove the creation of these inventions and innovations during this time of deep economic gloom? And, more importantly, how can we learn from these success stories and apply them to our own businesses to capitalise on the current recession?
The business ideas of the 1930s
During the 1920s, people were starting to put the horrors of the First World War behind them. Economies started to recover and, as a result, lifestyles were changing. This period bore a sense of optimism. It was accepted to live beyond your means, with people taking credit to buy furniture and cars, as well as to fund their increasingly
The crash of 1929 quickly put a stop to this extravagance and witnessed the start of a new era characterised by high unemployment, radical politics and thrifty lifestyles. The resulting mood throughout this period, contrary to the economic situation, was one of expectation and aspiration – a yearning and belief that change was coming, coupled with the dawn of convenience.
There were businesses that survived and grew during this environment, and the key to their success was an acceptance of changing needs, along with a willingness to adapt in order to cater for them. They recognised that people wanted to feel better about their situations and be transported somewhere new where they would forget their current troubles.
Sales of chocolate, for example – an inexpensive treat with that immediate feel-good factor – went through the roof. Mickey Mouse’s foray in The Klondike Kid introduced the joys and escapism of animation to the masses for the first time. Alka Seltzer, invented in 1931 to treat heartburn and back aches, meant people could continue to go out to work and earn a wage even when they felt ill. Sliced bread allowed mothers the convenience of making breakfast and lunch for the family in less than a third of the time, while also generating less wastage from the loaf.
These were all brilliant, but simple, ideas that recognised life had changed and spoke to the new generations living through those changes.
The fact was that people were struggling. Businesses and entrepreneurs at the time knew that in order to survive the depression, they needed to ease the struggle or capture people’s imaginations and take them away from life’s hardships.
It has been proven that in times of conflict – and for business this period was war – innovation multiplies 100 fold. The enterprising seek invention and change as the means to their own survival and, in turn, open up the gateways for everyone else.