The Color and Power of Focus

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the name Crayola. It is the most popular and recognized crayon brand in the world. Every year, Binney & Smith, the company that makes Crayola products, manufactures nearly 3 billion crayons, at a rate of 12 million a day. That’s enough crayons to circle the globe six times!

The company was founded by Joseph Binney in 1864 as the Peekskill Chemical Works. In 1885, the founder’s son, Edwin and his cousin, C. Harold Smith, became partners and changed the company’s name to Binney & Smith. Up to the turn of the century the company focused on producing items such as red pigments for barn paint and carbon black used in making lamp black and automobile tires. And their primary method of product development? Simple: ask their customers about their needs and then develop products to meet those needs.

In 1900, the company began making slate pencils for the educational market, and they found that teachers seemed happy to tell company representatives what they desired. When teachers complained about poor chalk, Binney & Smith produced a superior, dustless variety. When they complained that they couldn’t buy a decent American crayon (the best were imported from Europe and very expensive), it developed the Crayola. The company introduced the product to the market in 1903, as a box of eight colors that cost a nickel.

Once the company found its niche in the children’s market, it became incredibly focused. For a hundred years it has manufactured superior art supplies for children. Today it dominates the market – even in the face of the electronic revolution. In The Five Faces of Genius, Annette Moser-Wellman assessed the company by saying, “The biggest threat to Crayola’s business has been the entry of computer games for kids. Instead of drawing and coloring, kids are tempted by video games and more. Instead of trying to dominate gaming, Crayola has chosen to flourish within their limitations. They do children’s art products better than anyone.”

Binney & Smith could have lost focus in an attempt to chase new markets and diversify itself. That’s what toy manufacturer Coleco did. The company started out in leather goods in the 1950s and then switched to plastics. In the late 1960s it was the world’s largest manufacturer of above-ground swimming pools. It had found its niche. Yet in the 1970s and 1980s, it chased after the computer game market and then low-end computers. (You may remember ColecoVision.) Then it tried to capitalize on Cabbage Patch dolls. This ultimately drove the company into bankruptcy.

It would have been easy for Binney & Smith to chase after other successes, but it didn’t do that. The company has remained focused. And as long as it does, it will continue to excel and sell more crayons and children’s art supplies than any other company in the world. 

Peter Spellman is a career transition specialist helping people discover and develop their next calling. Find him at nextcalling.org.