In 1895, Gillette decided it was time to return home. Moving back to Fond du Lac in Wisconsin, he took up work as a salesman for the Crown Cork & Seal Co. The company’s founder, William Painter, had invented the cork-lined bottle cap and turned it into a profitable business. Still, at 40 years old, Gillette wanted some of that success for himself.
Painter could sense Gillette’s disappointment, and he understood his hunger for invention. One day, he decided to approach Gillette and offer him some valuable advice. “Why don’t you try to think of something like the Crown Cork, which when once used is thrown away, and the customer keeps coming back for more?” The idea stuck in Gillette’s head, but still his mind ran blank. “It is easy to give that kind of advice,” he said, “but how many things are like corks, pins, and needles?”
Gillette could not get Painter’s advice out of his mind for days after. “I applied the thought to every material need, but nothing came of it,” he said. That all changed, however, on one spring morning in 1895.
As he was getting ready to go to work that day, Gillette became frustrated with his razor. Its blades were dull – so much so that the razor was practically unworkable. As he tried to sharpen it, Gillette realized that it was so worn out it could not be used again. Suddenly, as his irritation with the razor grew, a light bulb went off in Gillette’s head.
What about a razor that would not need sharpening to work? What about disposable razor blades that could be thrown away when they were dull? What about a razor that was safe and did not cause nicks and cuts? Gillette rushed back to his room and penned a quick note to his wife. “I’ve got it,” it read. “Our fortune is made.”
Success did not come as easily as Gillette had imagined it would. Time after time, his idea was turned down for its impractical nature. That is, until William Nickerson came along. Nickerson was a chemist who agreed to try and help Gillette manufacture his razor. With a $5,000 loan from investors, Nickerson set off to work. That same year, the Gillette Safety Razor Co. was formed.
The first Gillette razors were on the market by 1903, but not before the company was already $12,000 in debt. As a result, Gillette was forced to sell an investor much of his own stock in order to get some cash infusions; he was now a minority stakeholder in his own company. The first razors were priced at $5 each, with a pack of $20 blades costing $1. In that first year, only 51 razors and 168 blades were sold. But positive customer reviews were pouring in.
Meanwhile, Gillette was still working for Crown Cork and hating every minute of it. “I urged the razor company to make a salaried position for me,” said Gillette, “but those in control refused to meet my wishes, giving as a reason the need of every dollar for development of the business.”
Gillette resigned as president and set sail for London. But when he got wind of the company’s proposal to license its international rights for ongoing royalties, Gillette rushed back to the U.S. and tried to stop the move. Eventually, he succeeded and even won himself a salaried position.
By time Gillette was 55, his company dominated the razor industry. He had achieved his dreams of becoming a millionaire. The stock market crash of 1929, however, took most of that away from him. He was also removed from power by the board of his own company.
Until his death at the age of 77, despite his own financial losses, Gillette could sit back and watch proudly as the company he founded continued to blossom. A century later, it still sells five times as many razor blades as any other company.