Where's My Pickaxe?

Product and Service Innovation to Support the Next Big Thing

In the days of the California Gold Rush, many people believed they were going to grab a pickaxe and with one swing break into fortune. Unfortunately for most of them, their efforts were in vain, as few struck rich. In contrast, those who sold the pickaxes to the gold miners, along with food preparation, sewing, tents, laundry, clothing, and the like reaped great benefits, facilitating the livelihood and attending to the needs and wants of the incessant wave of gold miners (1). It was in this atmosphere of supply and demand that Levi Strauss had patented (2) and began selling denim overalls made out of tent material in San Francisco. This invention, which evolved out of the gold fever, became the real winner of the era. Often, the little inventions and accessories can be the hidden gems of potential riches in movements toward new trends. It’s a relationship that keeps occurring; it just changes form.

There exists a saying in the startup world that alludes to the Gold Rush, “you can mine for gold or you can sell pickaxes.”  As a member of an industrial design team that cares about the futures of the industries it services – and the thrill of designing the package or the product itself, I often find myself thinking, “Where is the gold rush of today and what are the pickaxes that we are going to sell the miners?”

Today’s Gold Rush and Pickaxes

Looking back over the last few decades, the mobile phone industry rises to the top as an example of a gold rush with a subsequent subset of complementary products or “pickaxes.” Mobile phone cases used to be very clunky because general cases were marketed to fit as many models as possible. There were also a lot fewer popular models, like the Motorola Razr or the old candy bar-esque Nokia phones. As devices grew in scope and abilities, the needs and wants of the consumers grew as well. Soon there was a secondary market with as much gusto and design language as the primary market it was facilitating.

One might argue that the mobile phone gold rush is still rushing and no longer focused on the physical phone. Rather, the 24/7 connectivity and instant access to information has become the draw. Although the invention of the mobile phone gave way to a plethora of accessories products from brands like Incase, Otterbox, Logitech, Targus, Belkin and others, it seems that the most significant pickaxes are still to come through the sophisticated accessories and intangible apps that can literally monitor every step you take from birth to death…or after with services like Yahoo Ending.

Spotting The Next Big Thing of Tomorrow

New and better ideas are emerging every day – some with the potential to be a gold rush, others pickaxes. The hurdle between an idea and success is actually getting it to market. But how does one facilitate those ideas? You could argue that the companies helping these ideas grow are the pickaxes to the gold rush of the start-ups and small companies. There are companies online that use crowd sourcing for ideas and have a group of angel investors to front the best ones. Others like Kickstarter allow for the crowd to get in on the money-fronting side and actually pre-purchase the products in order to fund development. When Apple came out with the iPod Nano, it had reached a perfect size to double as a watch. When a Kickstarter project came out with that intention, it reached $1,000,000 in backing in one month’s time and accomplished a successful product launch.

3D Printing

Looking at today’s trends, we can get a better sense of the gold rush and pickaxe relationship. 3D printing is one such trend. Once a luxury for commercial use, the decline in price is making them much more accessible for small businesses and even home use. There is one glaring question though: Are 3D printers the Gold Rush, the pickaxe or both? It is a great facilitator of new designs and concepts for the craftsmen revolution, allowing users to literally bring their dreams to reality. That said it could be the pickaxe. Yet, while users have the ability to make their objects individually and sell them, many may buy the printers out of novelty, and subsequently contribute to a “gold rush” for manufacturers of 3D printers. In addition, I imagine that we will see more and more accessories, apps and services like Thingiverse that facilitate, complement or encourage the use of 3D printers.

I often find myself discussing the ideas of today that might gain some footing in the future, especially as we get to work with a lot of companies on vetting those ideas and seeing unique visions and perspectives take form. There is a lot of excitement in the thought that we could be facilitating the gold rush of tomorrow or helping uncover the next great pickaxe.

What do you believe will be the next great gold rush or pickaxe?


(1)   Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The social world of the California Gold Rush. (2000), pp. 164–168.
(2)   U.S. Patent 139,121