Let’s Talk Ketchup

I was in a conversation yesterday about a forecasting tool we use to manage our sales pipeline in Application Development at OST. I’m frustrated about some of the tool’s limitations, and I was ranting to one of my peers, Rob, that I wanted to throw it out and build something new.

Rob tilted his head to me and gave me a narrow gaze. “Or…”, he offered. “You could just find a way to make it better.”

And that’s something, I am embarrassed to say, that hadn’t occurred to me. As a self-proclaimed smart guy who sometimes wears the mantle of leader, I all too often feel like it’s my job to generate new ideas, to create new solutions, to invent my way out of any issue, dilemma or challenge. Because what’s more American than creating things, am I right?

Which makes me think about ketchup.

What’s more American than ketchup? We put it on our burgers, we put it on our fries, on our eggs, our hash browns, and in our macaroni and cheese. We serve it with our breakfast, our lunch, and our dinner. No less than 45 American companies manufacture and distribute their own variations of ketchup to every corner of the globe. The red on the American flag might as well be painted with it – it’s that American. When was the last time you went to a casual restaurant or “American Bistro” and they didn’t have a bottle at the ready, or pre-set at your table?

It’s as American as apple pie. More! As American as freedom! Ketchup is the liquid equivalent of a bald eagle clutching a McDonalds bag as he soars over the Rocky Mountains and into the setting sun. It’s that American! But where did this stuff come from, this American red gold?

Does it matter?

Let’s dig a bit and see. Ketchup came to the Western world in the late 17th century, given to European traders in their travels to the Far East. There are stories dating back to 1690 which describe a vinegary, pickled condiment found in the Fujian region of coastal China reportedly called “ke-chaip”, and similar stories from 1710 and ’11 describing an Indonesian “brined” sauce referred to sometimes as “kecap” and sometimes as “ketjap”.

Nobody knows what it was about this exotic condiment that westerners found so intoxicating, but we sure did love it. We were making catchup in Great Britain as early as 1727 – nearly 50 years before the American Revolution! The condiment was so important and pervasive that it had already found its way into a “new world” cookbook as early as 1801. In America, catsup (apparently it was Americanization that changed catchup to catsup) was made regionally and sold by farmers across much of the 1800’s.

In 1876, the H.J. Heinz company started mass-producing their own unique blend of catsup, and – in the hopes that it would make their product stand out from the farmer’s alternatives – they decided to call their sauce ketchup. Over the next 10 years, every other manufacturer followed Heinz’ lead, and as the manufactured food industry exploded in the new world so did ketchup.

Fast forward a hundred and twenty-five years, your local grocer probably stocks between ten and twenty brands of ketchup (some even spelling it catsup again) – all manufactured in the U.S. and distributed to every country in the world. There are 196 nations on the face of our planet, and the one thing they have in common – all hyperbole aside – is the presence ofketchup.

Weird, right?

Americans didn’t discover or invent ketchup. We weren’t the first to create it, the first to document it, the first to fine-tune it, the first to trade it, or the first to sell it. We just took something good and made it better. We looked at what we had, and – through trial and error, through experimentation and discovery – we turned it into something better.

Which brings me back to my conversation with Rob.

We’re often in the situation that we need to determine whether to make something or to take something that already exists and make it better. In Application Development, we’re probably in this situation more than most; but I think everyone can relate: Fix the deck or build a new one? Steam-clean the couch or buy a new one? Sand and re-stain the table or buy a new one? When we’re in those situations, it almost always seems like the “best” choice is to make something new instead of taking something that already exists and making it better.

The next time you’re in that situation – and the next time I’m in that situation – consider this:

EASIER DOES NOT EQUAL BETTER

Just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s better. Just because you want to doesn’t mean you should. Just because you thought of it, that doesn’t make it the right choice. Maybe take a moment, the next time you find yourself facing a make it better moment, to dip your decisions in ketchup, that uniquely American condiment. Americans didn’t make ketchup, We just made it better.

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