The Brown Paper Bag Theory - Janelle Zwiren

I learned why one should listen if you want to grow your company. It was taught to me by my first boss, the President of SmithKline.

Point of View
6 min readNov 11, 2020
Janelle Zwiren

Philadelphia gained its early reputation as a city of medicine through the development of hospitals and medical schools. The founding of Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751 (America’s first general hospital) was an indication that by the mid-eighteenth century, Philadelphia had grown into a substantial urban complex with needs for services beyond what family and church could provide.

It was here that I learned of Philadelphia’s medical institutions and how they never lost their reputation for the highest quality training of medical students, residents, nurses, and pharmacists; in fact, the attraction grew as the major centers expanded. By the later decades of the twentieth century, “health care” and health-care education became the region’s dominant industry. White coats, short and long, continued as an enduring visible attribute of the city and region.

I never intended to start a career in a pharmaceutical company.

I learned to appreciate the head of Consumer Products for SmithKline of Philadelphia, the man who gave me my first job, fresh out of Wharton, who used a physician’s black leather bag as his briefcase. So steeped was the idea of health and medical professionals in the city of Philadelphia and SmithKline (now GlaxoSmithKline).

In fact, it was Peter Godfrey, who taught me ‘The Brown Paper Bag Theory’ — which he never wanted me to forget, and it has shaped my business career thereafter.

Why did Peter Godfrey of SmithKline want me to know that story?

Because he learned the story when he was working in the Rx team on new drug therapies.

It’s a simple story but the impact of it, I hope, will impact the readers of this article with how you treat people on the other end of a “cold-call” or a “prospecting letter” or a chance encounter that leads to a huge growth potential for your firm.

Theory Backstory:

Years ago, Peter told me that a smallish-in-stature gentleman from Europe, sat in the lobby of the then, Smith Kline & French company at their headquarters in Philadelphia.

He had a small brown paper bag folded neatly in his hands and sat patiently as the receptionist tried to call various departments to see him. He did not have an appointment. But he had something important in that brown paper bag.

He had an invention with him, and a patent, and said he was a research scientist.

Peter said to me, “most likely he asked to see the head of Research & Development.”

No one was available. No matter who the receptionist called.

Again, he did not have an appointment. He did not have the exact names of people he wanted to see.

But he knew in Philadelphia this was a great company that was known for discoveries and he had something he discovered.

Each day he came back and sat in the lobby. His brown paper bag neatly folded.

Each time he asked for R&D leadership to see him. No one did.

One day he even asked if he could see “the head of the company.”

Denied the opportunity to tell his story and explain his invention, he eventually stopped coming.

Who was this man — sitting in the lobby of Smith Kline — a man with a neatly folded brown paper bag holding the formula to his discovery?

He was one of the Discoverers of the Birth Control Pill.

And he ended up as one of the inventors at Syntex, Inc of the original prototypes for contraception.

But he always attributed a fellow Austrian, with the title of ‘grandfather of the pill’ for having demonstrated, in 1921, the value of progesterone for contraception, thereby attracting the pharmaceutical industry to contraceptive development long before World War II.

What did Peter tell me to do in my career?

To learn the art of listening to someone who takes the time to reach out to you or the company you work for — but that you might not know. Why?

“Because you never know, said Peter, “where a Million Dollar or even a Billion Dollar idea might come from.”

According to analysts, the 2025 global contraceptives market is forecast to reach about 38.5 billion U.S. dollars. That’s $38,500,000,000.00. And just maybe part of that forecast could be part of the portfolio of GlaxoSmithKline today … instead of in a brown paper bag held by a man who no one had the time to see.

The Brown Paper Bag Theory

is as disruptive a force as big data today

pointing the way for a new direction of growth.

It is a Call to Listening for C-Suite. (CTL).

Imagine the surprise when the CEO calls you because you wrote to them. The Chief Creative Officer calling you back. The Head of HR taking your call! The Operating Partner of a well-known Private Equity company agreeing to give you 15 minutes in an email!

Practice CTL and you will open your mind to someone with an idea — who sees and knows things you don’t know.

Do not assume you know what they know … until you speak to them. Or see them.

Give them 15 minutes of your time. You will never regret this if you know how. Here’s a few suggestion

Here’s what the Theory taught me by a firm I will never forget.

  1. Practice the art of listening to someone who tells you they have a big idea. Even if you don’t know them.
  2. Take the call. Answer the letter. Set aside time.
  • Especially if they have credentials in the industry in which you compete.

3. Set up time on your calendar, every day, to give 15 minutes per discussion (in person, on the phone — or via a video conference) of someone you don’t know who reaches out to you.

4. Be comfortable with the art of saying “no” if you’re not interested. But, say why you’re not interested, politely.

  • You never, ever know that one day this person might be a competitor or someone who hires you!
  • Believe me…. I have stories of people I worked with — and for — in my career, who ended up hiring me as a consultant.

5. Never lie and say, “we’re already working on that” at our company if you know you are not. Somehow, idea people will know.

6. If, after the call or Zoom meeting, you’re interested, get an NDA signed. So you can have an honest conversation.

7. After that if you are interested and the idea(s) are revenue drivers/growth drivers — you’ll work it out. Or say no but again, politely say why.

From a Brown Paper Bag True Story to the Digital World of 2020 — the concept is still the same.

Today, people outside of your office can find you and reach out to you. They can get your direct dial work number, your email and more. Today the ideas you should listen to might come over a smartphone, or in a letter, but not in a brown paper bag. The world of growth is always generated by the minds of men and women who want to share their ideas and if you grow, they want to grow as well.

All you have to do is listen.



Point of View

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