John S. Barry staked his entire claim on WD-40 and the motto of keeping it simple.
After studying at the University of Minnesota, Harvard, Columbia and MIT, and duty aboard a carrier in the Korean War, Barry worked for 3M and Solar Aircraft Co. When his father-in-law died in 1969, he took over the Rocket Chemical Co., which made rust-fighting lubricants.
Barry knew a thing or two by then, but it might have appeared to the undiscerning eye that he knew nothing.
He took an already small company—$1 million in annual sales—and made it smaller, chopping the product line to one and renaming the company after that product: WD-40.
He switched to a plain blue-and-yellow can.
Then … no changes. For 25 years.
While his strategy seems simple, it’s actually pretty savvy:
• He refused to position the product. By rebuffing efforts to aim WD-40 at industrial, automotive or hardware markets, Barry made sure it was sold everywhere. “If you think of distribution as a horse race, I want to be on every horse,” he said, “because I know I’ll be on the winner.”
• He guarded his intellectual property. The packaging colors and design are legally protected, and he refused to patent WD-40 because he wanted to keep the formula out of the public domain.
• He kept things spare. WD-40’s British offices are identical to the San Diego headquarters. Its rollout in China in 2007 was pretty much the same one Barry used in 1972.
• He encouraged others. He emphasized free samples—including 10,000 sent every month to soldiers in the Vietnam War to keep their weapons dry. Under his, WD-40 collected some 2,000 new uses from enthusiastic customers themselves. (Among them: preventing squirrels from climbing into a birdhouse, freeing a tongue stuck to cold metal, and removing a python from the undercarriage of a bus.)
• He kept his life simple, too, once refusing to climb into a client’s limo. He held meetings at Denny’s.
By the time Barry died in 2009 at the age of 84, surveys showed that WD-40 could be found in as many as 80 percent of American homes.
— Adapted from “Real Simple,” Leigh Buchanan, Inc. magazine.
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