Lessons learned from Columbus

Cristóbal Colón, marketer.

Columbus failed early and often.
He failed when he joined in the attempt to conqure the Kingdom of Naples. Later, he was captured by Portuguese ships as he escorted an armed convoy. He was wounded. And he never did get to India. The fact that he didn’t give up and become a shopkeeper after this rough start was critical to his success.

Columbus was a thief. He didn’t invent the idea that the world was round. In fact, Ertosthenes, Aristotle and Ptolemy pretty much made it an established fact among educated people long before Columbus was born. Just because he didn’t invent the idea doesn’t mean he couldn’t use it.

Columbus didn’t do his research carefully, reinforcing his optimism. He thought that calculations of the size of the Earth were in Italian miles, not in the longer Arabic miles. The correct calculations would have ‘proven’ he should never have left.

Columbus took advantage of human nature. The rulers of Spain were desperate to find an edge and Columbus offered them a quest that could address their state of emergency.

Columbus was persistent. It took him seven years at court in order to get funding.

No one really believed that Columbus would change everything
. His contract with the king included huge bonuses for success, largely because they were pretty sure that he would fail.

Columbus didn’t consider side affects until it was too late. In order to help repay his investors, Columbus took slaves (the first person to do so in the New World) and in one notorious case, arranged to cut the hands off of each Haitian adult male who failed to bring a minimum amount of gold to his ships.

Ultimately, in death, Columbus became a brand, a story bigger than his own facts. Buried in Spain, moved to Santo Domingo, then to Havana and then back to Spain. Namesake of the Knights of Columbus. Honored by statues and streets and even cities. In many ways considered the "first American," demonstrating vision, persistence, insight, brilliance, bravery and world changing paradigm shifting… almost none of it true, of course.

I think the lesson of Columbus Day is a marketing lesson. Successful marketers allow people to tell themselves a story they want to hear. Columbus did that his entire life, and especially in death. Great marketers then do work that they’re proud of, using their leverage to create things that people might not want in the short run, but are delighted in later on. I think Columbus was certainly successful. I wonder what would have happened if he had been great.