Under the Influence

Products you own that started off as useless junk

How Vaseline, rubber bands, IKEA furniture and other everyday products started out life completely worthless.
From worthless to priceless. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

In the world of marketing, some products go from worthless to priceless.

And if not exactly "priceless," it's safe to say these products go from worthless to a valuation in the tens of millions of dollars...

A Stretch of the Imagination

Ever thought about the lowly rubber band? It quietly holds a lot of our lives together.

An item found in almost 100% of homes and businesses - created from a worthless product.

The history books tell us that British inventor Stephen Perry patented the rubber band in 1845. But his rubber bands were huge and used mostly for industrial use.

An everyday item that started out worthless. (New Atlas)
Zoom ahead to 1923.

William H. Spencer lived in a town called Alliance in the state of Ohio. One day, he was looking at some rejected inner tubes from the Goodyear Tire Company. They were destined for the garbage dump.

As he stared at them, he had an idea. He took them home and cut them into thin bands in his basement.

Then he took a box of these elastic bands and tried to sell them to office supply stores. But didn't have much luck. Then one day, a gust of wind dropped an idea at his feet.

The Akron Beacon Journal newspaper had blown across his lawn. As Spencer ran around picking up the pages, he had a thought.

He went to see the folks at the Beacon and persuaded them to roll their papers up with his rubber bands so when they were thrown on a driveway or a doorstep, they wouldn't blow away.

That idea worked beautifully.

With that success, he talked another newspaper into doing the same. Not long after, he persuaded grocers to start using rubber bands to secure broccoli, carrots and asparagus in their produce aisles.

He started marketing his rubber bands as solutions to many industries.

Soon, William Spencer had rubber band factories in his hometown of Alliance, Ohio, as well as Arkansas, Kentucky and California.

Today, the Alliance Rubber Company produces two million pounds of rubber bands. Per month.

From worthless to valuable.

All because William Spencer looked at rejected inner tubes and stretched his imagination.

Odds and Ends

Ingvar Kamprad was an entrepreneur. He sold books of matches door to door. And turned a nice profit.

He was six.

At age ten, he crossed the neighbourhood on his bicycle selling Christmas decorations, fish and pencils.

When he turned 17, his father gave him a small sum of money for doing well in school. With that money, he started a business in 1943.

Kamprad's entrepreneurial mind saw potential. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)
He named his company after his initials, the first letter from the name of his family farm, and the first letter of his village. Together, it spelled IKEA.

Later in his 20s, Kamprad was visiting sawmills. While there, he saw something most people would have ignored.

He looked at the offcuts. The waste wood that was left over from the sawmill. He wanted to know what the most regular shapes of those offcuts were.

He wondered what he could make out of all this discarded wood. That led to furniture making. He also started selling furniture from local manufacturers at a very low cost.

His thinking was that it was easy to build expensive furniture, the real challenge was building affordable furniture for the many, not the few. And in the 1940s, not many had big money to spend.

He was always looking to make a little go a long way.

Then in 1955, the manufacturers began to shun Ikea, protesting his low prices. That's when Kamprad moved everything in-house – from furniture design to furniture making. He would innovate flat packaging and design furniture that customers assembled.

Soon, he opened his first store, and the rest is IKEA history.

A Pain in the Rig

One day in 1859, English chemist Robert Chesebrough spent his life savings on a ticket to Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Chesebrough's area of expertise was oil. And he wanted to learn more. So he traveled to the "Oil State" to meet with oil barons and take a tour of their fields.

From pain to gain.
It was there he noticed a rigger scraping thick, black goo from the machinery.

When Chesebrough asked about the gunk, he was told  it was a by-product of the crude oil, and that it had to be scraped off regularly or it would literally gum up the works.

But some workers, he was told, believed that when the substance was applied to skin, it could help cuts and scrapes heal faster.

So, Cheseborough left the oil fields that day with a bucket full of the worthless goo.

He took it back to his lab and began to analyze it. It took him a few years to clean, clarify and perfect the gunk into a household product.

He named it Vaseline. The name came from the German word for water: wasser, and the Greek word for oil: ládi.

Today, Vaseline has hundreds of uses. From protecting wounds, to preventing diaper rash, to removing makeup, to moisturizing dry elbows.

When Robert Chesebrough died in 1933, it was revealed he ate a spoonful of Vaseline every single day.

You might think "yuck." But he lived to 96.

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Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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