For some people, life consists of correcting the mistakes of others. Some even make a living at it—proofreaders and copy editors come to mind, and there are professionals in all corners of life who essentially feed on errors.
It can be a good gig, but it’s rarely a great way to get rich. Unless you’re Bette Nesmith Graham, who invented the ultimate vehicle for erasing mistakes: Liquid Paper, aka “white out.”
She called the product Liquid Paper, but most of us know it by its colloquial name. What many people don’t realize is that Bette Nesmith Graham managed to amass a fortune of $47.5 million off her invention.
From Secretary to Correction Goddess
So how did this happen? Innocently enough, for the most part. Born in 1924, Graham was a single mom from Texas who got her lightning-strike idea while working as a secretary.
Graham quickly proved she was far more than “just” a secretary, however. Some people who had the kind of idea she had wouldn’t have acted on it, or they would have floundered bringing it to fruition and selling it.
Not Graham. She proved herself to be something of a marketing genius in the decades that followed her discovery. Bette identified a need in the market, grew her business organically, fought off the competition and proved her expertise as an entrepreneur.
Early on, though, she displayed little of the talent necessary to do those things. Graham was strong willed and independent, however, so much so that she dropped out of school at 17, married a soldier named Warren Nesmith and had a boy with him.
Divorce quickly followed, and Graham was left to raise the boy on her own. Which was how she ended up working as a secretary at a bank for the princely sum of $300 a month.
Graham quickly rose up through the secretarial ranks to become an executive secretary, and ironically it was the flaws of the IBM Selectric that “inspired” her invention.
The electronic typewriter had several issues that led to ongoing errors, so she employed a strategy she’d learned while painting windows as a side hustles the bank: “An artist never corrects by erasing but always paints over the error.”
Correcting typewriter errors wasn’t exactly art, but it sure did pay well as a business. Graham developed the formula for Liquid Paper on her own, and when word got out about how well it worked she found herself selling 100 bottles a month to her secretarial colleagues.
She then offered it to wholesalers, but when they passed Graham decided to market it herself. The bank found out what she was doing and fired her, which actually turned out to be her big break.
A Fortuitous Name Change
There was more to her break than that, though. Graham initially named her product “Mistake Out,” a clunky name that she changed to Liquid Paper when she filed for a patent in 1958.
From there Graham proceeded to put on a marketing clinic. She bought advertising and opened a manufacturing facility in Dallas, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Her rags to riches story does come with a dark ending, though. She married a frozen food salesman named Robert Graham who tried to take over the company, but she was able to fight him off and maintain control.
The fight was costly, though. Graham sold Liquid Paper when her health began to fail to the Gillette Corporation in 1979. Six months after the sale went through for $47.5 million, she died after suffering a stroke.
The strangest twist in the story is that she left her money to her son, which wouldn’t be so odd if he wasn’t Michael Nesmith, a founding member of the world’s most famous fake band, The Monkees. Nesmith used the money to found PopClips, a music video company that was a predecessor to MTV.