Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468), to whom history credits with the invention of the printing press, was the quintessential self-reliant entrepreneur. He was trained as a goldsmith, plied his trade for decades in several German towns, and it was only in his forties that he identified the business opportunity that would transform his life.
Taken for granted
the turn of the 15th century, reading material was expensive and the
choice of titles severely limited. The price of a volume of three
hundred pages would exceed one hundred times what it costs today. Less
than one per cent of the population was able to read; as a result, only
the clergy and aristocracy had access to written information.
ancient times, the cost of producing books had been proportional to the
effort it took to copy them by hand. A monk labouring at a monastery
would need two years to copy and illustrate a Bible by hand. In
addition, pages of medieval books were made of parchment, that is,
prepared animal skins, which also increased the overall cost of
Despite the high price of books, it was obvious that
there was a growing market for them. The interesting question is why
none of the thousands of people in Europe involved in the production of
hand-written volumes had perceived the slowness of the process as a
problem. Apparently, before Johannes Gutenberg, the established mode of
operation was taken for granted.
For thousands of years,
goldsmiths had been using gold to make delicate jewellery, as well as
religious and ornamental figures. Gutenberg did not conceive the idea of
casting figures with molten metal, but he was the first to realize the
massive economies that could be made by casting movable types and using
them for book production.
His initial experiments quickly
revealed the difficulties of the enterprise. What alloy should he use to
produce the types? How was he going to melt the thousands of individual
letters that are needed to produce each page of a book? How could he
increase ink density in order to produce clean prints?
Gutenberg many years to master the process. By the time he had overcome
one obstacle, another one would appear. His venture led him to incur
massive debts, which he could hardly reimburse. Finally, his attempts
proved successful and a first run of books came out of his atelier.
1455, Gutenberg undertook to print the Bible. By then, he was already
57 years old and fully conscious of the immensity of the task that he
had set up for himself. Unabated, he hired help to compose text with
movable types, purchased materials, and began to print pages. Several
dozen Gutenberg Bibles have survived the passage of time and can be
admired today in museums around the world.
Gutenberg's ability to
acknowledge individual problems enabled him to create a book production
system that changed the course of History. He combined existing
technologies into a creative solution to a problem that few people had
perceived as acute. The printing press drove down book prices and spread
literacy to a larger segment of the population.
Problems are opportunities
Are you also
able to transform problems into opportunities? When a product or service
seems overpriced, do you try to identify the reason? Do you make the
effort to analyse disruptions? When you experience irritation, can you
name the critical elements involved?
Johannes Gutenberg's career
offers us a vivid example of an essential entrepreneurial trait: the
ability to isolate difficulties and reduce them to manageable size. Once
Gutenberg named a problem, he devised a solution, achieved stability in
that area, and moved to the next challenge.
Individuals who try
to accomplish too much at the same time frequently feel overwhelmed.
Unless you achieve success in some area, you will grow dispirited and
might even decide to quit your endeavours altogether. Instead, acquire
the good habit of making a list of pressing difficulties.
your problems, assess their relative importance, and establish
priorities. Deal only with the most critical issues until you have
achieved a tolerable level of stability. Once you have improved a
specific aspect, move to the next and build it from there.
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