Back to insights
The Banana Man
retro train

The top businesses in the world garner advantages from the seemingly small things they’ve learned to do exceptionally well. And they’re always looking for more of these little edges found in what most would consider to be nuances and tedious aspects of the business. These advantages are derived from cheaper fulfillment costs, speedier delivery times, developing proprietary marketing channels, reducing storage costs, signing the most affordable lease rates, lowering lead generation costs, a recruitment advantage, and the like. It’s rarely the obvious stuff, such as having the world’s most technologically advanced product, that makes a business extremely successful over the long term.

Elite entrepreneurs who’ve built multi-faceted businesses that are entrenched within a sector got to that level because they’ve analyzed their companies and industry down to the most minute detail. For years, they’ve garnered boots-on-the-ground knowledge about the mechanisms of the sector, where log jams occur, and customer pain points and frustrations with competing offerings. 

Having this expert knowledge comes from loving what they do. When you love what you do, you geek out on every little thing relating to that passion — things others overlook or wouldn’t even know to look for. 

Think about some of your best offerings…

I bet if you look back on some of your early or great successes, they came from making slight tweaks to pre-existing offerings, not from making massive changes. One seemingly subtle iteration to a product marketing campaign and conversion rates increase 40-50%, potentially taking a ‘failed product’ into best-seller status.


The Banana Man

I recently read a fascinating book about an early-twentieth-century entrepreneur titled ‘The Fish That Ate The Whale’ by Richard Cohen. The book is a story about Samuel Zemurray, aka ‘The Banana Man.’ 

Immigrating from Russia to the US in the late-1800s, Zemurray obsessed over achieving entrepreneurial success. He was a poor kid with incredible ambition. Tough as nails, too. His story echoes the classic tale of rags to riches, except the scale Zemurray reached and the odds he had to overcome were in a class almost all to their own.


Sam Zemurray the Entrepreneur

Along his entrepreneurial journey, Zemmuray discovered a massive opportunity in the banana business. The only problem was it was essentially controlled by a cartel, led by the United Fruit Company and dictators. But that didn’t deter Zemmuray, despite scaring virtually every American entrepreneur away from the industry… 

He decided to learn the game from the ground up — literally jumping on trains departing from banana plantations and heading to distribution hubs to understand the logistics of the game. Once he felt comfortable with that aspect, Zemurray launched his ‘beachhead’ by buying brown spotted bananas that other distributors didn’t want because they assumed there was no market for them (aesthetically weren’t as nice as solid yellow bananas). 

Zemmuray saw things differently. From hopping on rail cars full of bananas all the time and talking to everyday workers, he knew that if he could transport at a slightly quicker pace than the competition, the spotted bananas could be delivered to consumers before turning completely brown and being undesirable. He also learned from his rail car experience that demand in the US was snowballing for bananas as they had become a delicacy and were considered a status purchase. Consumers would make concessions and eat them regardless of whether or not they looked perfectly yellow.

What started out as selling brown spotted bananas quickly grew into an empire for Zemmurray. He went on to buy massive swaths of land in Honduras for his own plantations and continued to improve the overall efficiency of the banana business.


Success Came from Obsessing over the Details 

Zemurray’s success never came from having the world’s best bananas – far from it. He was merely selling a commodity. The advantages arose, and his wealth grew because he knew how to win all the little battles and run a more efficient company than the biggest player in the game… 

As an entrepreneur, Zemurray found how best to ship products, improve crop yields via a unique drainage system, and minimize waste or crop loss by developing irrigation and support systems for banana plants to make them more resilient in volatile weather. He learned these seemingly minor tweaks, which had a massive impact on his banana business, because he was obsessed and paid attention to all the details of growing, shipping and selling bananas… 

There was no job too small for Zemurray to learn if it was about bananas. 

In the end, Zemmuray’s business became so successful that it grew into a headache for the giant of the industry…

He was so efficient at logistics and other seemingly minor details of the banana business, Zemmuray’s venture ended up being acquired by United Fruit, which would be the equivalent today of starting an online marketplace for goods and being bought out by Amazon.

Stay hungry,