Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 5, 2019
I am in love with my whiteboard.
This is a serious commitment. I am willing to stand under the huppah (Jewish bridal canopy) and swear that I will never look at another board. I promise to erase you in sickness and in health. Even when the proposed deal written in multicolor dry-erase ink craters and the hopes, dreams and numbers on the board begin to fade, I will never leave you for a blackboard. Never.
A few deals ago, I covered the entire board in my conference room (it is 11 feet long and 5 feet high) and the investor said he wanted a copy for his wall — it reminded him of a Jackson Pollock painting.
I have had a conflicted relationship with the infamous blackboard. When I was an adjunct graduate business school professor in entrepreneurship at San Diego State University in the early 2000s, only a few classrooms had whiteboards. When the assignments came out, I got a nice room with a blackboard — and a box of chalk. I was unhappy and decided to appeal to a higher court. I told the university that I would buy two (total length 16 feet) whiteboards at my cost and have them installed in this classroom for all future teachers. As you might surmise, the bureaucracy turned me down — something about university policy.
The “blackboard problem” was mired in chalk dust and hard to erase. As is often the case, the solution to that problem was invented by mistake. In the late 1950s Martin Heit, a photographer, was on a phone call, had no paper, so he took notes on a strip of his negatives and then found it easy to erase them later. He developed and patented a film-based board and was preparing to unveil it to the world at the Chicago Merchandise Mart later when fate played a hand. The showcase that had his boards burned down the day before the opening of the event. He was depressed, and he sold the patent to an obscure company (Dri-Mark), which soon became the leader of the whiteboard revolution.
Note bene: Like many startups, the true value of the whiteboard did not emerge until something else appeared — when dry-erase technology was created. This is classic startup stuff. You need to have X in order to make Y valuable. There are numerous examples, (one small company in town starting with Q is an example.)
But then another pretender to the throne emerges, Albert Stallion, who is also credited as the inventor of the whiteboard. He worked at a steel company that made enameled steel sheets. He told his bosses that this could be big in the writing board market; they told him they had no interest in his idea, and he told them goodbye (or words to that effect) and went off to start his own company, MagiBoards.
Note bene: My first software company was saved and sold for millions because one of the junior engineers suggested we put the software in a hotel room. Good ideas do not come only from the top.
But broad adoption of my beloved whiteboard was slow until an unrelated, orthogonal event, the environment, reared its ugly head — turns out the chalk dust was found to cause serious allergies, so ironically, in the end, it was the enviro-tree-huggers that catapulted the mainstream adoption of the whiteboard technology into the conference rooms and classrooms of America. (I should have gotten a doctor’s note and sneezed for the management at SDSU.)
Finally, the wonder of the whiteboard is that it always starts out blank. It offers infinite possibilities. It invites creativity and even better, it allows you to quickly acknowledge that you were totally wrong and then you can erase your errors and false assumptions before anyone can catch you. I love that I can draw lots of lines and numbers and symbols and hope that the result might make sense to someone. The marker glides smoothly and ideas emerge easily. It is always the blank canvas that calls out the intense demand to be filled with creative markings — like the cave dwellers before us.
Rule No. 621