George De Mestral – Inventing Velcro

George De Mestral was lucky he was born in Switzerland. Because when the whole of Europe was under Hitler’s fire, De Mestral had the good fortune to be bugged by seeds.

Everytime he went for a walk, Burdock plants’ seeds would stick to his woollen socks and coat. And on his dog’s fur. And these seeds would be hard to remove.

Out of curiosity, De Mestral took a seed and viewed it under a microscope. And he was very surprised with what he found. To the naked eye, the seed looks like a small spiky ball. But under the microscope, the spikes contained many tiny hooks. It’s because of these hooks that the seeds would attach to animal fur. And be transported and seeded elsewhere. Nature’s way of propagating the seed.

De Mestral was fascinated by this seed’s hooks. Such tiny hooks exerted such amazing stickability. He thought of recreating it out of cloth. He thought that he would be able to replace the buggy zips with this mechanism.

Biomimicking a seed

Being an engineer, he quickly devised a plan for how the hook and loops mechanism would function. He then went out searching for a weaver who could help him create it. And was laughed out of the door by everyone he approached.

Except for one weaver in France. Who helped him create a prototype out of cotton. One strip containing hundreds of very tiny hooks. Another containing loops. It was a good first attempt but cotton was a bad idea. Too flimsy and soft. It broke down if used more than a couple of times.

After a lot more trial and error with many different materials, De Mestral figured that nylon would be more durable and strong.

Scaling production

De Mestral then had to figure out how to create a new loom – something that would help mass produce his product. This took him many more years. It was in 1955, 14 years after he observed the seed under a microscope, that he finally had his product in hand. He filed for patents and formed a company. He called his company Velcro. A portmanteau of velvet and crochet.

Anticipating to become rich overnight, De Mestral took out a loan for $150,000 to open offices to start selling Velcro. But the reception was poor. Fashion designers didn’t want to use it and replace the zips. Because – frankly – velcro looked ugly.

The turnaround happened slowly. But before we get to it, let’s delve a bit deeper into the mechanism of how velcro works.

Finding the optimal density of hooks

During the prototype process, De Mestral found something intriguing. He had to have a minimum of 300 hooks per square inch of cloth. 300 was the magic number. It was the density at which the Velcro was strong enough to stay fastened. And yet easy enough to pull apart when needed.

Multiple touchpoints create better stickability

It’s the lesson Mark Zuckerberg stumbled upon with Facebook. When analytical data showed that if a person does not follow 7 people within 10 days of signing up, they would not use the platform.

Or when Twitter found that people needed to follow 30 accounts or else they would not return. Stickability had to be optimized. If people followed 30 users, they would experience a lively feed. And use Twitter everyday.

Thats why Twitter came up with the idea of showing popular user accounts during the onboarding process. 

Before social platforms, banks had found a similar thing. If the customer used only one banking product, chances of retaining them for longer was just about 5%. But if they used 4 or more banking products, they would almost always never leave the bank. Chances of retaining them would rocket to 95%!

Create more touchpoints

Velcro today is ubiquitous. You will have at least one product in your wardrobe that uses Velcro. Either shoes, or jacket, or a bag. But in the 1950s, it had seemingly failed to gain traction. De Mestral’s “zipperless zips” campaign had failed. And no fashion designer was using it.

Until someone at Nasa came across it and found that Velcro could be used to keep objects from floating in zero gravity. 

And then the military started using it to secure their gear and uniform. Followed by skiers. And scuba divers. And paragliders.

Slowly one by one, Velcro improved their density with the consumers by focusing on one niche industry at a time. And then Puma started using Velcro instead of shoelaces on some of their shoes. Which made De Mestral a millionaire.

Action Summary:

  • Stickability needs optimal density. Find your right minimum number. And then do everything to reach that number. One by one, build up to that density till your product hits the tipping point.