Score Another One for Schumpeter

Joseph Schumpeter famously wrote of the crucial role of entrepreneurs in the economic system, in contrast to the unimaginative business managers. The late George Ballas, inventor of the Weedeater, would have been a great case study for Schumpeter.

While driving through an automatic carwash in 1971, George Ballas watched the whirling nylon bristles glide around the contour of his vehicle and wondered if he could adapt the technology to remove the weeds around trees in his yard.

At home, he punched holes in a tin can, threaded it with wire and fishing line and bolted it to a rotating lawn edger. He called it the Weed Eater, and when he couldn’t sell the concept, he founded his own company and built it into a $40-million-a-year business…

“He was laughed at by major corporations, who told him to take his idea and take a hike,” his son said. “He started making it anyway, and it caught on like wildfire.”

Within months of inventing the Weed Eater at his Houston home, Ballas had streamlined the design into a single strand of fishing line spun around by a lightweight motor…

Net sales rose from about $570,000 in 1972 to $41 million in 1976. The next year, Ballas sold the business to Emerson Electric Co. for an undisclosed amount.

Imagine that. No company wanted his invention, but he sold over half a million dollars worth in the first full year of sales, and $41 million worth in only his 5th year! It appears consumers were desperate for Weedeaters all along, and just didn’t know it until they saw one for the first time (which is pretty much my story in regards to Indonesian food).

This is also why central planning of an economy can’t work well. Products like these aren’t created because a planning agency sees value in them, but because some slightly nutty guy makes an utterly unpredictable connection between car washes and weeds.

And that undisclosed amount that he sold the company for?

“It has remained confidential all these years,” his son said, “but it was a happy sum.”

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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3 Responses to Score Another One for Schumpeter

  1. Michael Heath says:

    The number one item on my wishlist for a new invention is something to replace the weed-eater. I can’t stand the technology that feeds the line. From my perspective his product didn’t invent demand, it replaced using clippers on one’s hands and knees which my wife still does in certain areas I’m not allowed to enter with my weed-eater, e.g., near her flower beds. However the weed-eater probably made for a wider variety of feasible landscape designs that leveraged this time-saver.

    My favorite recent invention in lawncare is the backback leaf blower. It used to take me 24 hours to rake the maple leaves off my lawn in the Autumn, my Stihl leaf blower has me now done in 3 hours.

    Several years ago when then recently retired Gov. Mark Warner was gaining national attention he made a very prescient observation – that our culture wasn’t properly encouraging a sufficient amont of young people from the higher socio-economic classes to become entrepreneurs. In fact he noted how relatively successful parents’ children were disproportionately seeking high-income jobs in secure industries rather than becoming entrepreneurs or working in fields where that became a more feasible opportunity.

    I’ve observed this myself, the younger generations of my family choose stability and less stress over opportunity.

  2. James Hanley says:

    I’m sure your backpack leaf blower makes your life easier, but it’s my number one least favorite lawncare item because of the noise (I’m assuming you’re talking about gas, not electric). Thank god none of my neighbors has one.

    And what exactly is the purpose of raking leaves? My parents used to put the leaves in trashbags and wet them down, which made great garden mulch the next summer, but other than that…? I generally just let the leaves degrade into the earth the way nature intended. Not that I’m that in awe of nature’s ways, but I do appreciate her saving me a lot of labor.

  3. AMW says:

    And score another one for immigrants. His parents came fresh off the boat from Greece. One of the absurdities of guest-worker programs (as opposed to liberalized immigration) is that it limits the contributions that foreign-born people can make to the American economy. I love it that there are Central- and South Americans who are willing to come here and pick apples, wash clothes and do yard work. But I love it even more that some of those folks will come here, hatch a nutty idea, and create millions of dollars of value.

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