How to Build Skills That Are Valuable: Lessons Learned From Selling Matches

In the early 1940s, a young boy was growing up in the small county of Almhult in southern Sweden. Within a few years, he would impact millions of people. At the time, however, nobody knew his name.

The boy was occupied with a small and relatively simple project. He had recently discovered that it was possible to buy boxes of matches in bulk from Stockholm, which was a few hours away from his small town. He could get the matches for cheap and then sell them individually for a nice profit, but still at a reasonable price.

Pretty soon, he was riding around town on his bicycle and selling matches one by one to anyone who needed them.

Once the matches began selling well, the young boy expanded his tiny operation. Before long, he added christmas ornaments, fish, seeds, ballpoint pens and pencils. A few years later, he started selling furniture.

The young boy’s name was Ingvar Kamprad and when he was seventeen, he decided to name his business. He called it IKEA.

In 2013, IKEA made over $37 billion dollars. It’s amazing what you can do with a few matches.

Selling Matches and Building Skills

Everybody is obsessed with building their IKEA. Nobody is focused on selling a few matches. We live in a society that values skills, but everyone is obsessed with results. The problem with this is that it can become really easy to get trapped focusing on results when you should really be building your skills.

It’s really easy to focus on the dream of building a successful business. What entrepreneur wouldn’t want a company that makes $37 billion per year?

But that’s not how Ingvar Kamprad started. He started by building his skill set. He started by selling one book of matches at a time. He focused on a small problem and then used the skills he developed to solve a bigger problem (just like cancer researchers do).

Focus on Getting Good, Not Making It Big

Ingvar Kamprad focused on getting good at business before he tried to get big at business. Think about that for a moment.

Many people (and I’ve been guilty of this as well) want to get big more than they want to become good. The new photographer wants to be published in National Geographic or win that big photo contest, not shoot in relative obscurity while mastering his craft. The new writer wants to hit the best-seller list, not become an expert of prose. The young basketball player wants to be in the starting lineup, not become the best dribbler on the team.

But if you only focus on these results, then it can be very easy to get distracted from doing the volume of work required to build the skills you need to succeed. And it’s the volume that matters. The process is more important than the goal. This is especially true in the beginning. Focus on getting good before you worry about getting big.

In fact, most of what you create early on — even if it’s good — probably won’t be that good. In a previous article, I shared a research study that analyzed over 70 famous composers and revealed that not a single one of these musical geniuses produced a famous musical piece before year 10 of their career. This period of little recognition and hard work was referred to as the “10 years of silence” and it’s very similar to the period that Ingvar Kamprad spent selling matches. Different industries, same dedication to developing skills.

Think about what you want to be good at. How can you start selling matches?

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64 Comments

  1. Thanks again for remainding us the value of process instead of goal.

    Sometimes it seems to me if i do not start big, i am failure but it very difficult to maintain the speed and get going.

  2. This is a timely reminder. Also, it should never be regarded as too late to adopt this good-sense principle. I am in the process of winding up a business. Out of this closure, my years of skill-acquisition are being injected back into another, existing business. Integration into a new business is a gradual and sensitive process: the shake down period is critical. The good thing is that my new boss is not demanding results, results, results. He acknowledges my skill-base (networking, in my case) and that it will reap benefits to all as time goes by. And along the way, we are all getting to know each other and really having fun (yes, fun!). You are quite right, James, results are not the first requirement. These take time, and patience. But they will come. Keep writing: it’s all good, common-sensical stuff!

  3. Hi James – I came across your website randomly and am so glad I did! I really enjoyed today’s post and think it is so true that building your skill in obscurity is one of the most important disciplines. Like they say, it’s what you do when nobody is watching that is the most relevant. I often find it humbling when I run a workshop with just a few members, and it can be the most beneficial to me and my journey. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Well put James! I teach photography as well as practice the discipline and it is amazing the number of photographers that will spend thousands on the latest hardware or software to “perfect” their photography, yet not consider investing a few hundred dollars to perfect their skills in the technical and creative foundation of the craft. They ignore the fact that education appreciates in value while equipment and software depreciate at an ever increasing pace. Convincing those, who’ve bought into the trade’s manufacturer’s manipulative marketing message of this, is unfortunately an uphill slog. They want fame and fortune today. For them this is achieved in the shape of a nice new shiney toy, not through understanding and mastering the craft itself.

  5. Insightful post! First time I’ve read this story about IKEA and its pretty interesting how these small events led to where he is today. I’m one of those people who likes to focus on the result and not the process. :P

  6. James, recently I discovered your site and signed up for your newsletter. I find your content insightful and relevant to my life. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and thoughts.

    This article is quite apropos to where I’m at in my life right now. First I’ll give you an extremely brief summary of my life: When I was young, it was my dream to be a professional nature photographer. Stuff happened and I put the down the camera, and threw away 15 years of my life being mediocre, having no goals, and wasting time on useless activities. Fast forward to 3 years ago, I had an epiphany and committed myself to constant self improvement, developed a life philosophy, and set up some very lofty goals which call on my full potential. One of those goals is to fulfill my destiny as a nature photographer.

    One of the things I’ve struggled with the most, is the disappointment of the 15 years wasted. Had I used the time wisely, I would probably be living my dream right now. I’m 34 years old now. That is extremely old for just starting this goal of being a professional nature photographer. Most people who go pro in this field start in their early teens. Thus, I have a tremendous sense of urgency about everything. It’s a nagging feeling that I have so much to do, and so little time. I’d imagine I have at least 8-10 years to go before I can make a full-time career and make a living off being a nature photographer, assuming all of that time is spent going full out 110% on everything I’m doing in life and my goals. You can probably imagine how it feels to think about that.

    Anyway, just the other day, I came to the realization that I’m spending too much time researching things, trying to learn about business, planning stuff out in advance, and doing things that should really come “next.” In other words, it dawned on me that I need to get into the field more and really put the time in to just take photos, get experience, build my portfolio, and become a more competent, masterful photographer, capable of teaching other people. When I do that, I can then be in the position to bring business into the mix. Obviously, my point is that this article totally relates to my recent realization. It’s nice to have that coincidental affirmation that I am now on the right track in my thinking and procedures.

    I’d post a link to my photos online, but that would be too spammy, so I’ll refrain.

    Thanks for the great article!!

    • I would also like to see a post on late bloomers. So many entrepreneurial sites hype up young people who are already succeeding, and combined with the knowledge that it takes 10 years to get good at something that leaves a lot of us feeling like it’s hopeless to even start if you’re 30. This post is about someone who got started as a boy. It’s a great story for inspiration or as a parable, but… The IKEA website says he started selling matches when he was 5 years old and it took 6 decades to build into a retail chain. How many 5 year-olds are reading this website, and how many readers have 6 decades of life left?

  7. Good morning James,

    A quick note of appreciation.

    Whatever I am doing at the time, I always stop and read your emails when received.

    They are always thought provoking, inspiring and motivating.

    Thank you and best wishes.
    Anthony

  8. I completely agree with you James. I have been an entrepreneur for now 10 years, I now understand better my business and can take a bigger challenge.

    Awesome article.

  9. Great post

    Everybody can check himself by drawing a tree.

    You can see how the drawing reflected the way people deal with goals and how they navigating their way to successes.

    You can ask some people to do it and I can explain as a type of people, so everybody could define their tree.

    Dan

  10. Hi James,

    Brilliant–I read your article and gained so much from making the link to my own ten years in my job. I am in academia and particularly this year have come to recognise how much it is a craft to be practised. I’m sharing your emails with students too as they are so encouraging. Thank you.

    Jayne

  11. I think the problem comes when you sometimes get ahead of yourself in a craft and then there becomes an expectation of you to be better than you feel you are (if that makes sense)

    In the photography world (that I’m in) although I have put the time in to get where I am, I feel a little trapped in the fact that I can’t act like an amateur and put the work in at a lower level as there’s an expectation that I’m a professional and at a certain level of proficiency even though I sometimes feel like a fraud. So I shoot a great wedding (through being good at what I do) it sets the bar higher for anything I share in the future. Which is obviously great for improving, but then I feel like I can’t work on the basics because I should already be good at them.

    It’s difficult to then go back to basics and share that struggle in some of the more basic aspects of photography with viewers who are of the opinion my work should be at a certain standard.

    I often sometimes wish I could get back to basics and learn from scratch all over again without the expectation. My website implies I am at the level that is past the learning and now I’m at this level it’s difficult to share that journey of getting better at the basics. Perhaps it’s a journey I shouldn’t be so eager to share and should be the “years of silence”

    • I totally understand this viewpoint. I found that it helps to create personal projects….keep working for your clients and doing your good work, but pick something that you feel needs improvement in your photo skills and make it a project. Maybe use a friend or family member to experiment or practice on… Or connect with other photographers and help each other. I tried this with a photographer friend whose daughter was my subject and also my sons or husband as my guinea pigs before I do anything of the sort with a real client! Plus, it is fun. Hope this triggers some ideas. Have fun!

  12. I have been a “Silent” script writer for 13 years completing 5 scripts. In a few weeks I will write “The End” on the one script I was destined to send out into the world. I know it is my best work. I am proud of it. When I read the words I can hardly believe I gave this script life . . . it has been well worth the journey gaining the skills I have needed to get to this moment. The progression of a skill set takes time . . . moving from student to teacher to professor is the road less traveled especially when on your own . . . Finding mentors . . . seeking wisdom . . . and entertaining new forms of learning in this fast paced environment will supplement but never take the place of determination, effort and persistence.

  13. Great article, James. Many of us are really in a rush to make it quickly to the top…but step by step with intention and determination, help from others and our own unique talents, we will get there if we stay focused on our goals. Thanks again!

  14. There is a religious leader I admire. She is nationally known and people call her a prophet. She didn’t start that way. She started caring for people who were dying of AIDS, when nobody else would do that. She housed them, fed them, washed them and drove them to the hospital. One time, one men died in her car on the way there. She held funerals for them and spoke the truth about them when many family member would not.

    She washed them. She didn’t start out as a prophet.

    Thank you for this.

  15. Excellent article and I agree with your message. But we still have to eat and pay some bills while we work on improving our skills.

    That is why I believe many of the gurus who advocate abandoning a job, throwing caution to the winds and starting an on-line business to quickly make enough income to survive, are doing their followers a disservice.

    Thanks for bringing some sanity back into the world.

  16. James, thank you so much for your posts. They do so much for me! You emails make me thing in many different ways, they inspire, make me laugh, they clarify and simplify. I can’t tell you how many times I have researched subjects to get detailed information because of something that you wrote. Right now I am reading “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday and it seems to fit with your weekly posts. Thanks again and please don’t stop.

  17. Your article is spot on. In other words, before anyone can achieve extraordinary skills and expertise, he/she must invest at least ten thousand hours perfecting the skill/expertise. Thank you for your most valuable articles.

  18. That’s a great story. It reminds me of a classmate from college. At that time, I was really surprised to find out he had built a small business for himself by collecting clothes hangers and selling them to clothing manufacturers in LA’s garment district. I think he delivered them by way of a cart attached to his bicycle. Where ever that young man is, I hope he is doing really well.

  19. Reading The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, which makes the point of learning the small steps really, really, really well be it chess, martial arts or anything. This will lead to mastery.

    As always great insights and thank you.

    Kind regards
    John Keating
    West Cork, Ireland

  20. I agree with you, James. We are too focused on results that we forget the journey between where we are now and where we want to be. But maybe that’s the way we’re wired. For instance, a marketing copy sells better if what’s written are the results, not the process. The results are the exciting part; the process, not so much. We need a lot of patience and hard work to really become great at something, and unfortunately, not all people have those things.

  21. This was profound. Thank you so much for sharing! I am now sitting down writing a list of skills I want to have, and thinking of how I can stop obsessing about results.

  22. I was with you (again) until we hit the what do you want to be good at part.

    I haven’t a clue. No idea at all.

    Sure, I have natural talents, but I wouldn’t be caught dead using them to earn a living since that discourages me even more and takes what little fun I have left out of an already interesting life.

    Still, I’m sure this will work for someone, right?

  23. Very interesting article on IKEA.

    I feel it is also important to stress the positive mind set and belief in himself this young man had. He was able to create a vision of his outcome.

    We all must be an apprentice before we become a technician.

  24. James, what a wonderful article! And truly terrific insights. We often get caught in the pursuit of Success instead of Skill, it is the trap of the glamour and “get rich and famous quick” generation we are in. Thank you for the timely reminder to put in the hard yards and persevere without giving up.

  25. Hi James. Thank you for this timely reminder. I am studying and trying to build my business at the same time and often get overwhelmed by the enormity of what lies ahead. This article resonated with my coaching session this week – grow myself to help others grow. Enjoy your work. Thanks.

  26. I really like reading your stuff James. It’s easy to assimilate and informative. Keep it up.

    I learned a very important lesson a while back, and you summarised it well here and in other places. I tried to start two businesses because I though I could make it big. But I didn’t actually enjoy running those businesses and they didn’t fit in with my lifestyle.

    Now I concentrate on being a landlord (I have three properties and a fourth one on the way) and I quite enjoy doing that. And more importantly I enjoy doing it without having any grand ideas about being rich. I’m focusing on (and enjoying) the Process.

    Cheers,

    Ed.

  27. Thanks for this one, James CLEAR. I’ve thrown out to the universe WHAT I want to do with the skills I have honed (that I didn’t even realize I was honing over the last twenty-five years). And, it seems, each day the universe tells me, GO FOR IT. Whether it’s through inspiration, admiration of my existing “product” or articles like yours–that seem to provide just the words so many of us need to read–I move forward, ever closer to launching my business.

  28. Dear Mr. James,

    Thanks for the great story you shared. It’s a great motivation for me to keep on keeping on with small things until I get the bigger things to achieve. God bless your thoughtful heart.

    Best Regards,
    Beth

  29. Very true James, focus and try to solve or get adjust to a small problem than trying to solve a big problem should be the right attitude of us to succeed it. Matches or macaroni be it anything dream big achieve small things big will be on its way.

  30. Once again perfect timing! My take-away is, one client at a time. There’s also the opportunity for me to be really be present with one person at a time as I network, rather than the frenzy it can be sometimes :) Be present to the process…

  31. Hi James,

    This affirms exactly what I believe as a life coach! I’m investing in the craft and my focus is delivering high quality content and services for every single client. Although some are pushing me to ‘go bigger’, it’s more important to me right now that I focus on helping my individual clients get results. I find that greatly rewarding, and I trust there will be more and more clients in the future!

    Thanks for sharing,
    Linda

  32. A slogan I saw in an auto repair shop stuck with me and applies here: First we’ll be the best, then we’ll be the first.

  33. I enjoy all your articles but this one really hit me like a ton of bricks. Thanks for the insight. I am going to share it with my students.

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