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And Now for the Biggest of all Big Zigs!

And Now for the Biggest of all Big Zigs!

November 24, 2008

Ripley's Museum recently became a Gold Member and while at a convention, my son and I got a chance to tour one of its museums and it ignited my interest in its founder. Here's why...

The most famous of all Big Zigs was created by a man named Robert LeRoy Ripley. His core competency as a journalist was reporting on what was unusual and odd. It later became his full-time (and very lucrative!) career as the creator of Ripley's Believe It or Not!

He was as well known as Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum (both men who also knew the power of the Big Zig). According to the United States Postal Service, Ripley received more mail than Santa Claus and perhaps more than anyone in history. Sometimes he received over one million pieces of mail a year.

Like most, it took him a while to find his core competency, which ultimately led to his Big Zig. He played semi-pro baseball for several years and after several stints at newspapers in San Francisco, he landed a job drawing cartoons of sporting events from the New York Globe. One day, in 1918 with nothing else to draw he began creating cartoons about sports odysseys. He drew illustrations of a man who was able to hop 100 yards in only 11 seconds. Next he drew about a man who held his breath under water for 6.5 minutes. Finally, he drew about another man who had jumped rope 11,800 times without stopping.

He originally titled his cartoons; 'Champs and Chumps,' but the editor didn't really like the title. They really weren't champs and chumps. So he changed it to a wonderful name; he called it 'Believe It or Not.' By December 19, 1918 it became so popular that the editor asked him to draw all sorts of other things.

The Globe began occasionally featuring Ripley's cartoon, and as it grew in popularity, it increased in frequency. At first it ran on a weekly basis, and then daily. It started in the world of sports and moved onto other subjects. Over the years, he created over 340 categories.

Ripley received so much mail that it was like he had enlisted millions of people to work for him. He ran contests. He challenged and rewarded people. And what were the rewards? The rewards were fame and recognition; being part of something larger than themselves. He promised that when good ideas came, they would be published, and people would be recognized. (His readers actually began doing his research for him!)

He received such weird letters that they were signed in Morse code, in confederate civil code, in sign language, some were written on tin, wood, turkey bones, and once even a grain of rice. Some were addressed to the biggest liar in the world, but he took them all! The more outrageous, the better.

The way that he lived his life was a reflection of his innate understanding of the Big Zig. He relished in gaining others' attention. He used to dress wildly and colorfully. He had two-tone shoes and he would wear batwing ties. One person described his appearance as a 'paint factory that got hit by lightning.' His flamboyance extended to his homes as well, including his house in Florida, his Manhattan apartment with 13 rooms and his 28-room mansion on his own island that he called BION (short for Believe It or Not).

Maybe you're thinking. 'I need people to trust me. I can't dress in silly, flashy clothes. You're right, if you're an accountant or any other professional, take heart. Your Big Zig will manifest itself in your expertise or unique angle. More on this later.

Ripley used his articles to put challenges out to the world. He claimed that nobody had been able to invent a machine that could twist a pretzel into the shape that bakers have been doing for centuries. A company called the Redding Pretzel Machine Corp took the challenge and created a patent on the first pretzel twisting machine. This little company from Pennsylvania broke the barrier doing what no one else could ever do.

Are you challenging people? Or are you simply stating facts like a dictionary?

By the 1920s his column appeared in dozens of papers around the country, but his big break came in 1927. This is a great message of the Big Zig. Charles Lindbergh made his famous solo flight across the Atlantic and the world was in love with him, except for Ripley.

Ripley took a different approach, claiming that 'Lindbergh is the 67th man to fly non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean'. Lindbergh was simply the 'first to go alone.' This made readers crazy with anger! 170,000 people sent letters denouncing Ripley and criticizing him for picking on their hero. However, here's the instructive point: this publicity made his new book, Believe it or Not! a best seller and it turned Ripley into a celebrity of awesome status.

He was willing to put his neck on the line and say something that was controversial, something that was different. He was willing to zig when everyone else was zagging. Everybody was talking about how great Lindbergh was and Ripley took a different angle. What can you do in your business when you take a different angle?

Ripley's success made him a record holder in his own right as one of the world's most highly paid journalists. And today his legacy continues to live on in museums, books and television shows - all because he created a Big Zig that set him apart from everyone else.