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The Foundation Effect – Love Your Work, Episode 266

October 14 2021 – 07:30am

On October 10th, 1901 – 120 years ago, almost to the day – the grandstand was full at the horse track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But not to see horses. There was a parade of more than 100 of these new things called automobiles, and several other events, including races of automobiles with electric engines and with steam engines.

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But the main event was a race of gasoline automobiles. By the time the event took place, it didn’t look like it would be much of a race. There had originally been twenty-five contestants. Only three made it to the starting post, then just before the race, one broke down and had to withdraw.

So there were just two cars, driven by the men who had built them. One was the country’s most famous car manufacturer. The other, was a local. A failed car manufacturer, named Henry Ford.

At the time of this race, the most famous car-maker in America was Alexander Winton. He had made and sold hundreds of cars. He had gotten tons of press driving from Cleveland to New York.

At the time of this race, Henry Ford was a failed car-maker. He had made and sold a handful of automobiles, but his first car company had failed.

It was clear who was going to win this race: Moments prior, Alexander Winton had set the world record for the fastest mile traveled in an automobile, going around the dirt track in a little more than a minute and twelve seconds. Winton’s car was seventy horsepower. Ford’s was twenty-six. He had never taken it on a turn, and it didn’t have brakes.

The race was supposed to be twenty-five laps, but just before the event, the organizers shortened it to ten. According to Richard Snow, author of I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford, they probably didn’t want to see the local loser lapped over and over. This race was more of a sprint.

The Foundation Effect

Has this ever happened to you? You pass by a construction site for months, and there’s nothing going on. There’s just a wall with a project logo, peppered with graffiti.

Then one day, there’s a six-story building frame there. Now, each time you pass, it’s gotten taller.

There was no visible progress for months, then there was rapid progress. You saw what I call “The Foundation Effect.”

The Foundation Effect is the delay in your progress, as you build your foundation. You have false starts and failures, and it looks as if you’re going nowhere. But once you have your foundation built, you progress rapidly.

Back to the races

Henry Ford, the failed carmaker, won the sprint. But it wasn’t until much later he also won the marathon.

Eight years after that race, Henry’s Ford Motor Company released a car that changed everything. It was durable enough to make it over rough country roads, lined with horse-drawn-wagon tracks. It was versatile enough farmers could use the engine to run a wheat thresher or move hay bales down a conveyer belt. It was twice as good as any car out there, at half the price.

The first year, they sold 10,000. The second year, 20,000. A few years after that, they sold almost 200,000. By the time the “Model T” went out of production nearly twenty years after introduction, the Ford Motor Company had sold nearly 15 million. More than half of all cars in the world were Fords.

Meanwhile, Alexander Winton’s company kept building custom cars, made-to-order. He just couldn’t compete with Ford’s Model T, and had to shut down. Despite having over 100 patents on automobile technology, few today have ever heard of Alexander Winton.

You need a foundation

How did Henry Ford create such an incredible car, that sold in such incredible quantities? He built a rock-solid foundation. Over and over, he rejected the mere illusion of progress to scrap everything and start over.

As a creator, you may feel as if you’re getting nowhere. You’re starting projects, but not finishing them. The ones you do finish are failing. You’re throwing iterations in the fire, like Radclyffe Hall. From recent episodes, you know creative waste is part of the process. You’re building the underwater part of your iceberg, so some future masterpiece will be that much better.

But you’re also building your foundation. The foundation of a building holds it in place. Even when the building sways in the wind or shakes in an earthquake, the foundation is there to bare the stress.

Architects and engineers can design a foundation using knowledge about the laws of physics. Many buildings have been built before, so there’s a lot of collective experience to draw from.

You, as a creator, need to build your foundation from scratch. It’s what makes your work unique. As a creator, your foundation is made of the change you want your work to make, the medium through which you’ll make that change, and the process you’ll follow to make your product.

These things take time to develop. It will look as if you’re getting nowhere, but once they’re in place – like a skyscraper once the foundation is laid – your progress will be rapid.

How to build your foundation

To build your foundation, you need to clarify your vision and master your execution, so you won’t topple over.

Here are some ways to do that.

1. Keep shipping

This seems counterintuitive, because when a skyscraper goes up, they only build one building. They aren’t putting up a few stories, scrapping it, and starting over.

The reason they can build a foundation to support the skyscraper is, millions of other buildings have been built before that skyscraper. Architects and engineers can design a strong foundation because they have tons of data.

You need to collect tons of data about your unique way of doing things. How do you get it done? How do people react? Does it express your unique point of view? What is that point of view? Overall, how do you make what only you can make?

Henry Ford’s hit car was the Model “T.” Why was it called the Model T? Because he had already built the Model S, the Model R, Q, P, O – you get the idea. He started with Model A. It took until Model T to build the foundation for stratospheric success.

The way you build your foundation as a creator is to keep shipping. Remember, shipping is a skill. And each time you ship, you make your foundation stronger.

2. Don’t just build. Experiment.

It’s funny that when most people think of Henry Ford, they think of the assembly line. A bunch of guys on a line, each doing one tiny job, such as placing a nut on a bolt, or merely turning the nut on the bolt. But for Ford to create those tasks, he first had to design the product that could be broken down into those tasks.

Ford treated each car he designed and built as an experiment. He made them as good as he could, but knew they couldn’t be perfect. They were going to break down, or have annoying maintenance requirements that needed to be improved.

We can design buildings that don’t collapse because other buildings have failed. Ford made new and better cars because his cars failed. That’s how he improved the transmission, lubrication, and spark plugs. That’s how he found a steel alloy that would be lightweight and strong – and countless other improvements to the design and manufacture of his cars. And that’s how, even as he improved the Model T, he kept making it cheaper. When he introduced it in 1909, it was $825. Sixteen years later, inflation be dammed, it was only $260.

3. Walk away from failures (guilt-free)

Henry Ford wasn’t afraid to quit. Yes, he went from Model A to Model T, but that was in his third car company. He had one failed company before the race, and after he won that race, he gained enough notoriety to attract investors for a second car company. But he walked away from that company, too – only four months later.

By the way, Ford went from A to T, and not all those cars were introduced to the public. Many were internal experiments that he walked away from – or, if you will, iterations thrown in the fire, like Radclyffe Hall’s drafts.

4. Have a vision

You can’t walk away from failures for no reason. You can’t learn from experiments if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You need a vision.

You don’t have a crystal-clear vision from the start. That’s why you’re doing all that shipping and experimenting and quitting in the first place.

Why did Henry Ford walk away from the car company he started after the race? It wasn’t going to help him carry out his vision. Ford had a vision to create an affordable automobile for the masses. His investors, on the other hand, wanted to build high-end cars for the wealthy. The company wasn’t a foundation that was going to help Ford achieve his vision, so he stepped back, to build a foundation that would.

Keep building your foundation

If you’re frustrated with your progress as a creator, maybe it’s because you’re still working on your foundation. If you’re scrapping iterations and walking away from half-finished, and failed, projects, make sure it’s in the pursuit of a vision. If it is, keep learning, until you get it right. Once your foundation is in place, the sky is the limit.

Image: Monument by Paul Klee

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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

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