In 1833 Frederic Tudor, a Boston merchant, shipped New England ice to hot, humid Calcutta in India. Nearly half of the cargo arrived intact after a voyage of several months. The story of Tudor is a lesson in how to overcome failure and get a business off the ground.
It was on a trip to Havana with his brother John Henry in 1801 that Frederic got the idea of sending ice to the tropics. Where others saw a ludicrous fantasy, he saw a lucrative market. And he persisted through a decade of adversity. Newspapers and family friends mocked him. Tudor spent time in jail for failure to pay his debts. He fell into a depression. But he died a millionaire.
His problems on the way to getting rich were plentiful. Once Tudor got the ice to hot places, consumers did not know how to preserve or even use the novel product. He turned to what social media today would call influencers and gave away free ice to local bartenders in the Caribbean islands. After creating demand and when faced with competitors, he would sell below cost, waiting for other traders to literally melt down.
But before he could even think about reaching consumers, he had to organize production and delivery. Tudor partnered with Nathaniel Wyeth who invented an ice-plow pulled by horses with spiked shoes. He bought up the land around ponds and won the case for giving rights to the ice based on shore ownership. He convinced investors to build railroads from Boston harbour to the ponds and got rid of his six-horse teams. Timber icehouses replaced the more primitive underground vaults, with the very dry ones able to maintain ice for several years. On the ships sawdust protected the merchandise from the equatorial heat.
As much as partnering is important for start-ups, Tudor persisted alone when needed. At first no shipowner wanted this unpredictable cargo. What would happen to the stability of the vessel if the ice turned into water? So Frederic bought a ship to show that it could be done. When local sales agents proved to be unreliable for securing trading rights and constructing good warehouses, he went out himself to fix it.
Young entrepreneurs are advised to think in new boxes and find the next big idea. But Frederic Tudor imitated an existing business model. The tombstone of William Fletcher, who died in 1853 and was burried on Arlington’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, mentioned that he was “the first man that ever carried ice to Boston for merchandise”. Tudor’s genius came from the simple idea that warmer places would appreciate ice even more. And so he turned a local product into a global commodity by doggedly clinging to this initial vision.
Frederic, to his father’s dismay, dropped out of his Harvard preparation at the Boston Latin School at the age of 13. He was a trial and error man, not a student. When starting his business, he barely knew how to harvest or store ice, and he did not have a solid plan for distribution in his new markets, which accounts for his initial bankruptcy. Winters would not only produce his goods but also block boats from sailing, denying Tudor counted on cash.
Clearly luck could have been on the other side. What if the 1812 war and its trade embargoes had lasted longer? Like many entrepreneurs today Tudor struggled to find finances, and it was through pure chance that he obtained the money for his breakthrough at the very last minute. If not and in spite of his stamina and guts that made him into a tycoon, Frederic Tudor could have gone down in history as the failed businessman who squandered good money on a foolish idea.
Thanks to the fantastic Robbins Library in Arlington, MA. Gavin Weightman wrote a book called the Frozen-Water Trade published by Hyperion.