How Joseph Bazalgette saved the city of London (Or how to use the repurposing strategy to succeed)

London stinked. The middle of the 19th century was unbearable in London. They called it the Great Stink! The city had grown a lot because of the industrial revolution. Indoor plumbing was catching on. But all the plumbing directly emptied themselves in the river Thames. Houses that didn’t have indoor plumbing still used chamber pots which were emptied on streets.

The number of horses on the roads increased. And so did horse manure. London also had a livestock market right in the middle of the city adding to the stench. All the new factories emptied their waste directly into the river Thames too. And Thames is a tidal river – which means the waste wouldn’t ride itself to the sea. It would come back in when the tide fell. 

Cholera became rampant and London saw a huge epidemic in 1831. Thousands of people died due to Cholera and other diseases year after year! Because drinking water for the whole city came from the river Thames itself! (People didn’t understand germ theory at that time and didn’t truly know that Cholera was caused by polluted water.)

To top it all off, London witnessed a heat wave. And the stench became unbearable.

But yet nothing was done to get rid of the stench!

The government knew something had to be done. And a few tiny sewers were built here and there. But for the most part, nothing was done to get rid of the stench for close to 50 years! The stench just became worse and worse.

Many engineers proposed a unified sewer system that would flush out the crap and get it away from London. But nothing was done. Why? Because the cost was extremely prohibitive! Imagine building a sewer system without a lot of the modern digging and boring tools!

Finally building the super sewer

Joseph Bazalgette changed that! His sewage proposal was finally given the green signal! Bazalgette built 1800km of street sewers that kept the London streets clean. And 132km of underground sewer that took the crap away and stored it in tanks – which were emptied into the Thames only during high tide. Pumping stations were lined up to get the sludge as far away from London as possible – right to the mouth of the river Thames! 

Cholera became a thing of the past. Londoners could breathe again!

But why was Bazalgette’s sewer plans approved when other engineers’ plans didn’t pass muster? Bazalgette managed to build the sewer for a cost of  £4.2 million (approximately half a billion pounds in 2021.) But that was still an order of magnitude cheaper than any other plan which was proposed.

Bazalgette reduced the price of building the sewer system because of one ingenious idea. Bazalgette saw that a number of tributaries fed into the river Thames. And he decided to simply cover many of these tributaries and convert them into sewers! 

The art of repurposing: converting waste to gold

The art of repurposing can be extremely profitable. Bazalgette got his insight of repurposing the tributaries into sewers in a spark of genius. And that allowed him to build the super sewer at a fraction of the cost. 

At around the same time as Bazalgette’s repurposing, John D Rockefeller did some repurposing of his own! Most oil refineries would convert 60% of their oil into kerosene and discard 40% of it as waste. But Rockefeller dug in and started repurposing the waste. He created 300 products out of waste: everything from petroleum jelly to tar for pavements to lubricating oil! Because of which, he could make more money from his refineries.

In 4 short months in 1872, Rockefeller went and bought 22 of his 26 competing refineries in Cleveland because he could quickly turn them around and make more money from the same refineries! 

Repurposing to avoid a bankruptcy

In 1979, when Elvis’s wife Priscilla Presley became the second executor of his estate, she found the estate at the verge of bankruptcy. The estate was still earning half a million dollars in royalty every year. But more than that was spent behind the upkeep of Elvis’s mansion and 13.8 acre estate in Memphis! And the government was behind the estate to pay a 10 million dollar tax, even though the estate was losing money!

Everyone recommended Priscilla to sell the mansion. But instead, Priscilla repurposed the mansion. And converted Graceland into a museum! Today, Graceland attracts over 650,000 visitors a year and is a huge money maker!

So how can you learn to repurpose yourself?

Roland Frasier – a serial entrepreneur teaches a nifty trick. He asks everyone to create a list of their top 7 expenses. And then check if you could repurpose those expenses and convert it into a profit center. 

Frasier had outsourced producing content for his websites to a team in the Philippines. Even though the cost was $50,000 a month, Frasier was saving a lot of money because the Philippines was just cheaper!

But one day he had a bright idea. He hired a HR director and started offering the content services to other businesses. Instead of having an expense of $50,000 a month he was now earning $100,000 a month!

One of the biggest companies in the world used the same playbook to grow. Amazon earns half their operating income not from retail or digital sales or even their Prime loyalty program – but by renting out their Amazon Web Services. Where other companies can use Amazon’s infrastructure to host their websites and apps on the cloud. By opening up their infrastructure to the world, Amazon converted one of their biggest expenses into a profit center!

Repurposing is nothing but finding new uses for old things.

  • Make two lists. One of all your assets and one of all your expenses. 
  • And then one by one, go through it and ask if that can be repurposed. If new uses could be found for them.

But if you go about repurposing everything, won’t you diffuse your focus?

Yes absolutely! Every new activity you do requires a part of your attention. But repurposing strategy allows you more flexibility in improving your core purpose. Repurposing helps you reduce your costs or find new profit centers. It’s a creative way of growing thriftily without exhausting your resources. 

What you’ve got to do is learn from the bees. 95% of the bees in the beehive follow the same path and go to the same flowers day in and day out. But 5% of the bees are scout bees who fly randomly to find new rich resources of pollen. That’s what you’ve got to do. 90-95% of the time focus on your core activity. But spend that 5-10% of time finding and chasing new ideas. And start your chase with the repurposing strategy.

Action Summary:

Find new ways to use old things and you’ll become more efficient and create more breakthroughs.

Create a list of your biggest expenses and ask if others would pay for it too. Convert your expenses into profit centers.