The idea is simple. Instead of carrying something heavy, put wheels on it and pull it. It’s not genius or revolutionary. It’s obvious.
Or so it seems. But prior to the 1970s, people were carrying heavy suitcases when they traveled. Dashing through the airport to catch a flight meant huffing and puffing with a heavy suitcase cradled in your arms.
In 1970, Bernard Sadow had a revelation. While traveling, he saw someone pulling heavy baggage on a wheeled cart. It looked much easier than what he was doing. So he came up with the idea for putting wheels directly on a suitcase. He attached four wheels to the bottom of a standard rectangle shaped hard suitcase and attached a strap by which the luggage could be pulled. Then he applied for a patent. The result was a little wobbly and unstable but it was easier than the alternative.
Patent in hand, he approached several large department stores to see if they would sell his wheeled suitcases. They all declined. It was viewed as less than manly at the time for travelers to be pulling luggage that could be carried instead. Eventually, Macy’s department store bucked social convention and picked up the line, but sales were unremarkable. Sadow focused more on the patent and less on the marketing and adoption of the innovation.
Thus, it took over 15 years and a new inventor for this idea to really take flight.
Who knows more about travel and luggage than a pilot? Bill Plath flew airplanes for Northwest Airlines. Like Sadow, he had observed luggage strapped to metal carts and thought there must be an easier way to transport these bulky objects. And there was.
In addition to being a pilot, Plath was a tinkerer. He enjoyed experimenting with design at his workbench in his garage. That’s where he developed his prototype for the first Rollaboard. Instead of the 4 wheeled versions of the past, this suitcase had 2 wheels, was positioned vertically instead of horizontally, and had a long vertical handle that formed a skeleton of sorts for the bag.
Simple in design and use, Plath began using it himself when traveling. It wasn’t long before his colleagues, other pilots and flight attendants, began asking him if he could make some of these easy to pull suitcases for them as well. And he did.
As more and more of his friends asked to use this design, he began to think that maybe he was on to something. He made additional prototypes. Then he began offering his co-workers a $5 cash incentive when they secured an order from another pilot or flight attendant.
Plath was in the perfect environment for his idea to spread. Passengers began noticing that those who were travel experts (mainly pilots and flight attendants), were using this Rollaboard luggage. Envious of the ease with which the airline crew got around the airport, passengers began inquiring as to where they could purchase something similar. It was at this point that Plath moved his operations from his garage to a true warehouse. This was after about a two year journey of experimentation and marketing to friends and colleagues.
Once passengers started purchasing this luggage, the true transformative impact of this innovation was apparent. Planes were reconfigured to enable easy rolling down the aisle and storage in overhead compartments. Airport waiting areas, stores, security checkpoints, and restaurants were designed for customers rolling rather than carrying their bags. And the once vibrant skycap porter services saw their business roll right by them.
What started with a simple suitcase became a venture – Travelpro. Plath’s innovation started by grounding itself in some core effectual principles, as outlined by Dr. Saras Sarasvathy of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business:
1. Start with what you know. (Bird in Hand Principle)
Plath knew travel. While he didn’t know luggage design or manufacturing, he was a hobbyist maker and a frequent traveler and he wasn’t afraid to experiment. He observed what was happening in his surroundings and listened to how people felt about what was working and not working in their day-to-day environment.
2. Start with what you can control. (Pilot in Plane Principle)
Plath didn’t set out to revolutionize travel. He set out to make his life easier. That was a goal he could achieve. By doing that, he opened the eyes of those around him, his co-workers, to the possibilities of change. It was an incremental process and not one of overnight large-scale transformational change.
3. Start with whom you know. (Bird in Hand & Crazy Quilt Principle)
Plath’s first customers were his partners, fellow pilots. His next customers were flight attendants with whom he worked. Then it was pilots and flight attendants he didn’t know, but who were introduced to the idea through his immediate network. When they bought in, their use of the Rollaboard made passengers aware that there was an alternative to how they were dealing with luggage. As each successive group adopted the innovation, the idea spread.
An Innovation with Impact
There are a lot of inconveniences with traveling today. Long lines, delays, and crowds are just a few of the battles frequent travelers fight. But thanks to Plath’s Rollaboard, sore muscles and backaches from carrying heavy suitcases through the airport aren’t one of them.
Inc magazine has referred to Rollaboard as one of the top innovations in modern history. As Americans gear up for Thanksgiving Holiday travel, we can add it to the list of one more thing to be thankful for.
--Written by Sara Whiffen, Founder & Managing Partner, Insights Ignited LLC