A recipe for possibility: ship, listen, repeat

The tire company that could

In 1895 brothers Édouard and André Michelin leveraged their rubber company to create one of the first air-filled tires for what they expected to be a rapidly growing automobile market.

Unfortunately the next 5 years would reveal a market moving at much slower pace than expected. Rather than sit on their hands, the Michelin brothers attempted to intervene and grow the market’s appetite for cars and tires by creating the Michelin Red Guide — a free guidebook filled with information that addressed what they believed to be several barriers to market adoption: it provided detailed maps with locations of restaurants and hotels so people knew where they could eat and stay; it listed the handful of pharmacy locations that sold gasoline in sufficient quantities to refuel a car because there were no dedicated gas stations at the time; and it provided sunset and sunrise times because there were no street lights.

The laborious research required to plan a safe trip — a process that we can hardly appreciate given the convenience of today’s world — was being taken care of in a 399-page book that could sit in the back seat of a car that, by the way, became a whole lot easier to justify purchasing.

20 years and one World War later, the Michelin guide’s growing value was validated when Michelin was able to sell around 100,000 issues at $2 per issue (equivalent to ~$26 in 2021 money). Enthusiastic readers were also generously providing feedback to the company on how to make the guide more useful, which led to the decision to hire full-time food critics whose sole job would be to eat at restaurants and decide whether they were worthy of what would become the heralded Michelin Star.

Fast forward to 2021, the Michelin Guide is still in production and the aura of Michelin Star ratings is present everywhere: travel guides, Netflix documentaries, film and pop culture. 

This impressive 121-year-and-going evolution and widespread impact of the Michelin guide wasn’t built on guarantees, it was achieved by committing to a practice:

The Michelin brothers could not have known with certainty that the market would eventually be willing to pay for their guidebook or that the guide would evolve into one of the most trusted resources worldwide for restaurant reviews.

Instead, their growth was the result of identifying an unmet need, committing to a process of shipping a guidebook once per year to help address that need, listening to their intuitions and the people they were aiming to serve, and shipping again.

The moment things become valuable and the market catches on is often unclear and besides the point — what the tenacious focus on a problem and commitment to a process of shipping grants you is regular contact with the people you aim to serve and the possibility of sharing something that, in time, resonates and attracts.

The next time you feel fatigued by the process consider that it may be because you’re focused on the wrong things like the unsatisfiable need for guarantees. Instead there is much more fulfillment to be found when you focus on the creation of possibility which is what a process empowers you to do every day. 

And the next time you find yourself questioning the power of committing to a problem and a process, remember that one of the most prestigious food critics in the globe is a tire company that decided over a century ago that it would help give people directions. 
Replies to A recipe for possibility: ship, listen, repeat
I do like it when you use specific examples and stories to make your points. The creation of the Michelin Guide reminds me of the story of Ray Kroc who was just trying to sell more milkshake mixers to the McDonald's brothers. 
2021-03-12 00:01:38
Great post William. Love this. A great story and an insight at the end. I'm constantly amazed that a tire company runs one of the most prestigious food review system in the world. 
2021-03-12 09:42:40
Lol the last line made me wonder. Does the tire company itself still own and operate the food-review?? I doubt it, but it doesn't take away from the origin story.

You're spot on about identifying why the process might be painful and admitting that something is off. It shouldn't be painful and it's an epidemic that people think it should be and they try galvanizing themselves to 'soldier' on. 

I think there could be a whole article series on relating painful-process to the detachment-from-customers. That's not the only cause but in my experience it's numero uno. 

As we get further distanced from the actual person that the process is meant to serve... I think we do this double-downing. Where we think that the solution is to distance ourselves even more from the people so that we can GRIND HARDER and possibly come back with something so great that the people will be floored. But actually what needs to be done is just going back to the basics. Go back to the people. In this example Michelin was able to be creative and come up with this guide because they were able to empathize with their customers. 

And then comes the process. Also can't just talk with people and then not be able to deliver lol.

Btw this was really well constructed. Is this a post you've been working on a for awhile?
2021-03-12 14:47:30
agreed on the comparison! There's probably yet another guiding principle to extract from stories like these - something like "solving big problems is really about solving several small ones"... or something like that :P. 


yep the tire company still runs it themselves! I agree with all your points there; I'm still reinforcing these ideas myself so will post more related content in the future. And thanks for the feedback! I was chipping at this one for a few days. I was watching André & his olive tree - a documentary about a Taiwanese chef who ran a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Singapore and shut it down to many peoples' surprise - the seed for this article was planted there. 
2021-03-12 23:18:51
The first time I learned what a Michelin Star was the first thing I wondered was if it's the same thing as the Michelin tires. How could food and tires be related? The teenage me never really understood much then. 
2021-03-13 16:22:46
I'll have to look into that documentary about the Taiwanese chef. 

The first time I learned about Michelin and their food guide was from Gary Vee when he was talking about how creative you can actually be and how people should stop trying to copy what's working for other people and really exercise self awareness. I remember being floored by the fact that the food-guide and the tires were related. I had grown up just thinking they had the same name lol.
2021-03-14 02:53:28
@williamliao thanks for inspiring this follow-up post I wrote over at Lifelog

2021-03-15 06:22:41
product for your product - love it! And I think you're spot on. 

Some examples in addition to Michelin that come to mind: 
Gum Road sells a 14-day product launch guide as a product (though you can get it for free). 
Lessonly - a learning management system company - has a clothing store for their brand. 
Every commercial conference held by a tech company (e.g. Apple's WWDC).

Another analogy: 
Selling the canvas and THEN selling the brushes & paint. Think: GoPro + accessories, the camera body + lenses, the bike + the special bike shoes.

Infinitely more crude and less appealing: 'creating the sickness & selling the medicine'. 
2021-03-16 20:11:50
 great examples! Love them. Especially the big pharma + medical industrial complex (these guys are the og)
2021-03-19 10:02:44