Monday Mornings with Madison


It’s been said that “timing is everything in life.” The meaning is that in addition to having good ideas, good positioning and good execution, success is also predicated on not only being in the right place but also being there at the right time. There are countless examples of how timing was an important factor in the success of a business venture or invention. 

Case in point. Good timing played a role in the spread of the edible waffle ice cream cone. Before the cone, ice cream was typically licked out of a small glass or dish.  The customer would lick the ice cream off the dish and return the dish to the vender, who washed it and filled it for the next customer. As you can guess, hygiene was a problem. An even bigger problem was that the ice cream vender couldn’t wash the dishes fast enough to keep up with demand on a hot day. While there were reports of travelers in Europe eating ice cream out of edible cones in the late 1800s, the edible waffle cone had not yet become ubiquitous. However, by the mid 1920s, it was a household item worldwide. How did it become a global staple? It had everything to do with good timing. According to the story, a Syrian-born immigrant pastry maker named Ernest Hamwi was selling zalabia (a crisp pastry cooked in a hot waffle-patterned press) at the World Fair in Chicago in 1903. A neighboring ice cream vendor had run out of dishes and Hamwi had a solution. Hamwi rolled a warm zalabia into a cone that could hold ice cream. It was a hit. He not only had a good idea, good positioning and good execution, but he also had good timing.  He went on to establish the Cornucopia Waffle Company. By 1928, the ice-cream cone industry was producing some 250 million edible waffle cones a year.

Another example of good timing can be seen in the advent of mega icon Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney’s creation of the Mickey Mouse animated cartoon, and ultimately the Disney empire, was as much a matter of good timing as it was creativity. Disney created the first ‘animated cartoon’ in 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression and World War II. At a time when people desperately wanted fantasy to distract them from economic worries and war, animated cartoons offered an inexpensive break from reality. Then, in the 1950s as the economy surged, Disney created the first theme parks that catered to family vacations just as people could afford vacations. In addition to a good idea, good positioning and good execution, Disney also benefited from excellent timing.

Another case in point. Good timing played a part in the creation of Quantas Airline. Wilmot Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness, two Australian Flying Corps officers, were commissioned in 1919 to survey a remote part of Australia on behalf of the Defense Dept. The study involved travelling from Longreach, Queensland to Katherine in the Northern Territories – a journey of some 2,000km. Instead of flying, the pair commandeered a Model T Ford and set off on their arduous trip. Fysh and McGinness arrived in Katherine 51 days later, traveling an average distance of only 39km per day. The journey convinced both that an ‘air service’ was the only answer to avoiding such grueling trips across the outback. On their journey back to Longreach, McGinness considered ways of securing financial backing for the idea.  Along the way, they met Fergus McMaster, a wealthy grazier, whose car broke down near the town of Cloncurry. McGinness not only fixed McMaster’s vehicle axle but told him about their idea. McMaster then persuaded a number of business acquaintances to invest. It led to the purchase of one Avro 504 aircraft and the formation of what eventually became Quantas Air.

Of course, if good timing is important to success, then how might one go about improving their ‘timing’? Can a person’s timing be improved? Some might argue that good timing is serendipitous; a matter of luck. Others might see good timing as simply the implementation of a preordained heavenly plan. Either way, if timing is a matter of luck or destiny, then it would be impossible to improve one’s timing in life. Whether opportunities are fated or random, there are some things a person can do to improve their general ‘timing’. While not an exact science, improving one’s timing might be simply a matter of preparation, planning and common sense. For example, no one would argue that it is important to choose the right moment to broach an important or delicate topic with one’s boss. Asking for a raise right after a company laid off 20% of its employees would certainly be an example of poor timing… and poor judgment.

Here are few steps you can take to improve your timing.

  1. Be alert to new opportunities. Always keep your eyes open for a way to solve a problem, answer a question or provide for a need. What good is it to be in the right place at the right time if opportunities pass you by unnoticed?
  2. Put effort into being near as many pertinent opportunities as possible. Putting yourself in places that are ‘right’ or ripe with possibility will increase the likelihood of being in the right place at the right time to capitalize on a sudden opportunity. As the saying goes, “You cannot catch a fish without being near the water.”
  3. Keep up with what is going on in the world around you. The pace of change is fast and you may miss the boat on opportunities because you came up with an idea a day late.
  4. Consider all the facts of any situation before proceeding with any decision that is delicate, important or financial. Ask yourself, “Is this the best time to proceed?”  While this tip may be so clear as to be obvious, many people act without thinking or considering ‘the bigger picture.’
  5. Persistence improves the odds of good timing. Most people give up long before they should. Being in the right place at the right time involves being in a lot of places at a lot of times that might seem inconvenient or even painful. Every successful person has come very close to giving up, looked failure directly in the eyes and said, “not yet.”  “If you do not fish often, the fish have little chance to bite.”

Certainly Julia Tuttle must have understood the importance of timing, or so the story goes. It seems Miami business entrepreneurs in the 1890s were desperate to increase the accessibility of the southernmost parts of Florida by railway. Oil tycoon Henry Flagler, who later in life became a railroad and hotel magnate in Florida, was reluctant to extend his railway, the Florida East Coast Railway, further south than Palm Beach. However, after two unexpected freezes throughout most of Florida one winter, Miami landowner Julia Tuttle –a young Miami widow and development advocate – took that opportunity to send Flagler a crate of fresh orange blossoms as proof that the freeze had left southern Florida untouched. Great timing. Though previously intractable, Flagler suddenly decided to extend the railway further south. By1896, Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway reached Miami. The rest is history.

The next time you have a good idea, good positioning and the opportunity for good execution, make sure you also have the benefit of good timing. It may just mean the difference between failure and success.

“Observe due measure, for right timing is in most things the most important factor.” Hesiod

© 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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