Benjamin Franklin, Printer
One of America's Founding Fathers started from humble beginnings and became wealthy through business. He can teach you a few things.
“Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706 – April 17, 1790) was an American polymath who was active as a writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, printer, publisher, and political philosopher. Among the leading intellectuals of his time, Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a drafter and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the first Postmaster General.” - Wikipedia
Also from Wikipedia, a polymath is “an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.” Loosely translated as someone who can do a variety of high intelligence things. The page includes many examples of polymaths throughout history, but Franklin is the only one pictured, which, to me, is a show of respect, like Arnold Schwarzenegger having the first photo on Wikipedia’s bodybuilding page.
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But before he signed the Declaration of Independence, before he invented bifocals and the lightning rod, before his study of electricity and other sciences, before he founded the nation’s library system, before he founded the University of Pennsylvania, before he was the first U.S. ambassador to France, and before he became (according to Walter Isaacson) “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become,” Benjamin Franklin was a printer.
He was twenty-two when he launched his printing business with a friend. He composed an epitaph in the same year that began, “The Body of B. Franklin, Printer.” He expected to be remembered by his trade, meaning he hoped (or expected) to find success through that trade. He did find success, but the epitaph he wrote as a young man was never used. The only figures etched on his Philadelphia tombstone are bare facts: the year of his death, his name, the name of his wife.
Franklin prospered in his trade, so much so that by the time he was 42, he was able to “retire” a wealthy man, free to pursue other interests in the second half of his extraordinary life. If I had lived in colonial Philadelphia and had him over shortly after the sale, say to a dinner party, I would’ve introduced him to any young entrepreneur who was present: “This is Ben. He just sold his printing business. You should talk!”
Because Franklin has a lot to offer anyone trying to succeed in business, through his personal story of success and his ideas on the subject. His thoughts and writings are clear, sensible, old-fashioned, and, yet somehow, modern. That’s perhaps not so surprising given his writings have found fresh audiences for nearly three hundred years. Stories and ideas have to have something essential to offer successive generations and changing times if they’re to survive. They have to stay true.
I think Franklin’s ideas will continue to hold up. Learning about his life in business and his thoughts on the subject of business have been well worth the time I’ve spent reading him. I’ll try here to capture the essentials in what I’ve read these past few days.
A disclaimer before I start. I’m basing most of what follows on Franklin’s Autobiography and his other writings (Way to Wealth and Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One). I know that autobiographies often leave out the “complicated” parts of the subject’s life. I’ve skimmed his Wikipedia page, but, otherwise, I haven’t read third-party accounts of his life. I’m only trying to capture what struck me as I went over his authored materials, and only those highlights that seemed relevant to entrepreneurial and small business life.
Franklin credited his father, Josiah, with “bringing up thirteen children reputably.” Josiah worked as a tallow chandler (someone who makes and sells candles) to support his family. Money was tight, and Josiah could only afford to provide his youngest son with a basic education before bringing him into his trade.
But ten-year-old Franklin disliked his father’s work; at the time, he was dreaming of a seafaring life as his future. Despite the disconnect, he had real fondness for his father and was open to his direction and guidance. He wrote that he had sympathy for the “straitness of his [father’s] circumstances,” a wonderful phrase that suggests the compassion and devotion that sons sometimes feel for their fathers when they start to see them as distinct individuals, with a history and a fate.
Josiah’s “strait” circumstances didn’t lower his standing in his community, however. Franklin recalled that the leading townspeople would visit and consult his father’s opinion on public matters and that they would respect his judgement and advice. His father was a frequently sought after arbitrator of disputes among private parties. And he kept an open table, enjoying conversation on “ingenious and useful” topics with neighbors and friends, conversation “which might tend to improve the minds of his children.”
In this, Franklin was lucky. His not well-off father wasn’t lost or broken by the pressure of providing for his large family. He didn’t hate or retreat from a world that hemmed him in; he played a willing part in it. “He was a pious and prudent man” who stayed alert to the lives entrusted to his care. He took an interest in his youngest son’s path, encouraged his talents (Ben was an avid reader: “all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books”), and tried to situate him to suit his “bookish inclination.” Providing a solid foundation for children to build their own lives and being sensitive to each child’s nature is basic good dad stuff.
His method for becoming a writer
Due to his interest in books, twelve-year-old Ben was indentured (a common labor arrangement in colonial America) to his brother, James, who had “returned from England with a press and letters to set up his [printing] business in Boston.” Franklin quickly “made great proficiency in the business, and became a useful hand to [his] brother.”
He continued to read avidly. He developed an increasingly better eye and ear for language, and he soon started to write. He tried his hand at poetry at first. Despite some early success, he was strongly discouraged from continuing by his father: “verse-makers were generally beggars” was Josiah’s view. So Franklin moved on to try to understand and emulate the best pieces of prose writing he came across.
His method for improving as a writer was to first, after having read a piece that he admired, make “short hints of the sentiment in each sentence” and set these aside for a few days. Then, he would attempt to reconstruct each sentiment “as fully as it had been expressed before” using only the hints and “any suitable words that should come to hand.” Once he finished, he would compare his version with the original, discover his faults, and correct them.
With this method, he forced his brain to fill in the details of an argument, a description, or a story he had read (and could only partially remember) from a limited representation of the original. He was trying to think the idea again as though it were his own, to figure out the sense and rhythm of it — reassemble it piece by piece until it seemed complete. And he used feedback to guide his brain to identify and focus on the most significant aspects of the original article, the most important steps in its development. (Remember that he was still in his early teens, with maybe two years of formal schooling.) He practiced this method for years. He was determined to be a writer. And, over time, he did improve. Not only did he add to his stock of “suitable words,” he learned how to deploy and arrange those words with variety and effect. This skill he patiently and systematically developed (without encouragement or direction) proved very useful to him throughout his life.
Systems for self-improvement are everywhere you look now. Workouts, study hacks, healthy habits, makeup tutorials, six easy steps for financial success, one weird trick to building a business, books, apps, websites, videos: we look to people who seem to be good at the thing we want to be good at to show us how to be good at it ourselves. Our world has lots of folks who want to show how, lots of folks who want to know how, and lots of channels to connect the two groups up.
Franklin had to rely on himself to improve himself. He couldn’t look to anyone else. He couldn’t participate in the formal schooling system. His brother James, his employer, couldn’t tolerate his independent and intellectual streak. And he was too young to find or form a group of like-minded peers (though he would do exactly that when he was few years older). So he invented his own (very sensible) system for learning: a method that boiled down to choosing exemplars, imitating the exemplars, practicing, being honest in assessing his performance, learning from his mistakes, and making corrections where necessary.
Self-improvement projects often fail. Motivation plays a big role; it’s hard to know if it’s really worth it or if you really have it in you. It’s hard to stay consistent, easy to lose interest. Life gets busy; life’s full of distractions. Old habits die hard. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Franklin hints at that struggle and writes about what helped him keep going: the occasional moments when he felt he expressed himself better than his exemplars. This encouraged him “to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.” The lesson for us could be to pick only those goals that really matter (the ones for which we’re “extremely ambitious”), and to celebrate the small gains that encourage us to keep going.
Applying his learning method directly to small business life is tricky. It’s hard to follow some other entrepreneur’s exact footsteps to find our own way. Outside of a franchise, we can’t imitate our way to success. It’s not a recipe, it’s a story. Stories may sound similar, but the details are different (different ups, different downs, different people experiencing the ups and the downs), and it’s the details we entrepreneurs most struggle with.
On the other hand, the shape of success always looks the same when you look at financial statements. You have to have earnings, cash flow, return on invested capital, and growth. The ingredients all have to be there. It’s just a difference of degree. So, following Franklin’s exemplar method, the goal for an entrepreneur might be to imitate the more successful version of their business as laid out in the financial statements. Fill in the details to produce the same results from the business that you have, compare the actual results to the target that you want, make an honest assessment and correct your mistakes. Then keep at it.
His method for persuading others to his point of view
Franklin learned how to get the better of people in debates by using the Socratic method to play “the humble inquirer and doubter.” He found he could trip people up and draw even experts into concessions, “the consequences of which they did not foresee.” But he gradually recognized that, by this powerful method, he would often obtain victories that neither he nor his cause deserved. It was a party trick. After a few years, he gave it up, “retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence.” Rather than expressing his thoughts as absolutes or beyond dispute, he instead took to saying “I conceive a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.”
He goes on to write:
This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag'd in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention… And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.
I admit not knowing what to make of this. It seems out of step with the times. We’re a confident, sorry, not sorry people. Everyone seems to have their elbows up, in open ice, in the corners, even in our private spaces. No giving an inch, no showing weakness. Being confident and expressing yourself confidently is a primary virtue, a good way to win. Not being confident and expressing yourself weakly, hemming and hawing? That’s a good way to lose.
But Franklin lived in a world where he met and spoke with people to receive “information or pleasure.” He visited, had people over, small talked, did things, hung out. Really, that world still existed up until a few years ago, the dawn of the social media and smartphone era. Maybe his persuasion technique (advancing sentiments with modesty rather than “a positive and dogmatical manner”) still applies, but on a person to person basis. I mean getting trapped in a one-sided conversation with a strangely too eager but also too confident person who offers neither “information or pleasure” but has a lot to say will always feel unpleasant. The only thing the experience will persuade you to do is to avoid that person in the future.
Striking out on his own
Franklin was well regarded by some of the gentlemen who came to his brother’s printing shop. They were impressed by his intelligence and hard work. Where they could, they supported his efforts to improve himself through reading. His brother, James, had some “ingenious” friends who contributed little articles for his newspaper, the New England Courant. Those friends would gather in the shop and, now that they were published, discuss and compare how well their articles were being received by the public. Hearing their conversations, and still very eager to be a writer, Franklin decided to submit a letter to his brother’s paper under a pseudonym. His brother’s friends approved of the piece when it appeared and wondered who in the community could’ve written it. Franklin was pleased. He submitted several more letters anonymously before revealing himself to be their author. His brother’s friends were impressed. James, his brother, was not.
Franklin describes their working relationship thus:
Though a brother, he considered himself as my master, and me as his apprentice, and accordingly, expected the same services from me as he would from another, while I thought he demean'd me too much in some he requir'd of me, who from a brother expected more indulgence… But my brother was passionate, and had often beaten me, which I took extreamly amiss; and, thinking my apprenticeship very tedious, I was continually wishing for some opportunity of shortening it…
Franklin eventually decided to break his indentures and leave his brother. “I fancy his harsh and tyrannical treatment of me might be a means of impressing me with that aversion to arbitrary power that has stuck to me through my whole life.”
I’m pretty sure this last sentiment resonates with many an entrepreneur who left the corporate world and its “arbitrary power” to start something on their own. The sometimes tricky part is to avoid creating a smaller version of that arbitrary corporate world when they become the boss.
James, the (potentially misunderstood) villain of this act played to part when Franklin told him of his plan. “When he found I would leave him, he took care to prevent my getting employment in any other printing-house of the town, by going round and speaking to every master, who accordingly refus'd to give me work.”
Franklin had to leave Boston to find a future, which he did. He eventually ended up in Philadelphia, on his own at the age of seventeen. He had very little means, but he had his trade, he was able, and he supposed himself a good workman.
Learning how to run a business by seeing how not to run a business
Philadelphia had two established printers by the time Franklin arrived: Bradford and Keimer. “These two printers I found poorly qualified for their business. Bradford had not been bred to it, and was very illiterate; and Keimer, tho' something of a scholar, was a mere compositor, knowing nothing of presswork.” Demonstrating his experience and talent for the printing business to both men, Franklin ended up taking a position with Keimer.
Keimer was a poor operator and a poor financial manager, incapable of steering his business to lasting success. During a second stint of employment, Keimer trusted much of the running of the printing business to Franklin but he also resented him for it. They argued. Keimer would say unpleasant things. The situation was untenable.
Franklin’s friend Meredith, a young man also working under Keimer, convinced him to be patient. He suggested, that with his father’s help, they could start a competing printing business in Philadelphia. Meredith reminded Franklin that “… Keimer was in debt for all he possess'd; that his creditors began to be uneasy; that he kept his shop miserably, sold often without profit for ready money, and often trusted without keeping accounts; that he must therefore fall, which would make a vacancy I might profit of.”
Franklin himself described Keimer thus: “In truth, he was an odd fish; ignorant of common life, fond of rudely opposing receiv'd opinions, slovenly to extream dirtiness, enthusiastic in some points of religion, and a little knavish withal.”
Keimer wasn’t cut out for business. He was anti-social, rude, bad with money, and incapable of rallying and organizing effort to achieve a distinct goal. So when the opportunity with Meredith presented itself five years later, the opportunity to start a new printing business in Philadelphia, Franklin was ready. He understood the business, the product, the market, and his competition.
In the last act of Keimer’s story as told by Franklin, he is indeed forced to sell his printing house to “satisfy his creditors.” He goes to Barbados, where he “lived some years in very poor circumstances” as a journeyman in other men’s struggling printing shops. One of his employers was his former apprentice. Very poor circumstances for sure.
Learning how to run a business by seeing how to run a business
Governor Keith of Pennsylvania took an instant liking to Franklin when they met. He persuaded Franklin to establish himself independently and start his own printing business. Keith promised to support him financially as well as through his influence and connections. The older man made a strong impression on the younger one.
Franklin soon sailed to London to buy type and equipment to get started. Keith, unfortunately, turned out to be flaky: once in London, Franklin had no money, no contacts, no letters of introduction. He had been duped by a well-intentioned but ineffectual old man. Still, he was forgiving in his assessment. “[Keith] wish'd to please everybody; and, having little to give, he gave expectations.” I’ve known some Keiths. If you’re an entrepreneur with a few years under your belt, I’m sure you have too. Usually, Keith is the primary contact in a business you’re trying to land. Having little to give, he’ll give expectations.
People deal with professional disappointment as their nature and experience allows. Franklin, though young, was used to setbacks. Maybe it helped that he was young, and, having little to lose, he never felt he’d lost much. So he never seemed to experience despair or bitterness — or fear. He regrouped, persevered. Franklin’s character was such that he also seemed to attract the attention of people who were in a position to help him when he needed help. Something like his father, I imagine.
In this case, having docked in London, he was shortly able to find work at his trade. He spent a couple of years in the city making and losing friends, becoming more capable in his field, observing his fellow workers, and avoiding the traps, financial and moral, that they often fell into. He was careful to play by their accepted rules. When he was promoted from pressman to compositor, his new colleagues demanded he pay five shillings from his wages for the group’s drinking money. He refused; he was careful with his money and he avoided drink. And the owner backed him.
I stood out two or three weeks, was accordingly considered as an excommunicate, and had so many little pieces of private mischief done me, by mixing my sorts, transposing my pages, breaking my matter, etc., etc., if I were ever so little out of the room, and all ascribed to the chappel ghost, which they said ever haunted those not regularly admitted, that, notwithstanding the master's protection, I found myself oblig'd to comply and pay the money, convinc'd of the folly of being on ill terms with those one is to live with continually.
Now that he was on a “fair footing” with his colleagues, he “soon acquir’d considerable influence. I propos'd some reasonable alterations in their chappel laws, and carried them against all opposition.” Remarkable. He goes from being an “excommunicate” alone in a strange business in a strange land to being a leader who could see his proposals carried “against all opposition.” A reversal of fortune that demonstrates Franklin’s skills at reading situations and winning friends and influencing people.
He returned to Philadelphia via an offer to serve as a clerk in a merchant’s planned dry goods store. The merchant, Denham, had a business in Bristol that went bankrupt and left him unable to pay back his creditors. He went to America and “There, by a close application to business as a merchant, he acquir'd a plentiful fortune in a few years.” He returned to England in the same ship as Franklin, gathered all his former creditors together, and repaid them “the full amount of the unpaid remainder with interest.”
He propos'd to take me over as his clerk, to keep his books, in which he would instruct me, copy his letters, and attend the store. He added that, as soon as I should be acquainted with mercantile business, he would promote me by sending me with a cargo of flour and bread, etc., to the West Indies, and procure me commissions from others which would be profitable; and, if I manag'd well, would establish me handsomely.
When they returned to Philadelphia, “Mr. Denham took a store in Water-street, where we open'd our goods; I attended the business diligently, studied accounts, and grew, in a little time, expert at selling. We lodg'd and, boarded together; he counsell'd me as a father, having a sincere regard for me.”
Being inside a well-run business (“attending the business diligently” and “counsell’d” by the owner as a “father”) is, to me, invaluable experience for anyone who sets out to start their own. You can only learn so much from observing chaos and incompetence, how not to do things. At some point, you need actual working models of the various parts of a business to base your own systems on. Otherwise, with no precedents, you’ll be solving well-solved business problems from scratch, which is a recipe for false starts, stalls, and reversals.
A program of self-improvement
Franklin had a large capacity for self-reflection. He also set high standards. “I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time.” He attempted to systematically develop good habits and break bad ones. He listed for himself thirteen virtues that he felt were necessary and desirable (temperance was at the head of the list “as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head, which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up”). Recognizing the difficulty of taking on everything at once, he decided to focus his attention on one virtue at a time, and, only once he felt he had mastered it, move on to the next.
To track his progress, he would use a notebook with each page containing thirteen rows for virtues and seven columns for days of the week. He would “mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.” He would give each virtue a week of attention.
Proceeding thus to the last, I could go thro' a course compleat in thirteen weeks, and four courses in a year. And like him who, having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and his strength, but works on one of the beds at a time, and, having accomplish'd the first, proceeds to a second, so I should have, I hoped, the encouraging pleasure of seeing on my pages the progress I made in virtue, by clearing successively my lines of their spots, till in the end, by a number of courses, I should he happy in viewing a clean book, after a thirteen weeks' daily examination.
There’s so much here that overlaps with what I’ve read on habit formation, willpower, and, again, learning through feedback. It feels like Franklin was experimenting the way we do, looking for hacks and systems to give a better shape to his life. We, of course, aren’t as comfortable talking about virtue anymore. That’s seen as trying to live to some external standard. The priority now is to live our best life, whatever that may be.
What good shall I do this day?
The precept of Order (one of his thirteen virtues) “requiring that every part of my business should have its allotted time” led Franklin to create and follow a daily schedule:
5-7 Rise, wash and address Powerful Goodness! Contrive days’ business, and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study, and breakfast.
12-1 Read, or overlook my accounts and dine.
6-9 Put things in their places. Supper. Music or diversion, or conversation. Examination of the day.
In the morning, he would ask himself, “What good shall I do this day?” And, in the evening, “What good have I done to-day?” Mayo clinic defines mindfulness as “a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.” By that definition, I don’t think Franklin was practicing mindfulness; both those questions he asked himself involve interpretation and judgment. But he was trying to be “intensely aware.” Perhaps not of what he was sensing or feeling, but of where he was going, what he was doing and achieving. The project of the self.
Franklin does admit struggling with keeping his schedule, however, in a nod to the demands made upon him by his position in the world. “I found that, tho' it might be practicable where a man's business was such as to leave him the disposition of his time, that of a journeyman printer, for instance, it was not possible to be exactly observed by a master, who must mix with the world, and often receive people of business at their own hours.”
He didn’t beat himself up over falling short though. He wanted to be honest and self-critical, but he was able to keep the criticism in check. “But, on the whole, tho' I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.” Seems to be a healthy attitude, doesn’t it?
No one wins alone
Franklin’s life finely illustrates this principle, the title of Mark Messier’s autobiography, although in a different way than the sports and leadership contexts that Messier uses. Franklin certainly had the natural abilities of a leader. But his beginnings were humble. His progress depended on the concern and support of others. He needed friends and allies (and, eventually, customers). So he worked diligently at being the kind of person that others would support. Happily, this was also the kind of person he wanted to be, moral and capable. Again and again in his early career, he relates how people he met responded to him as a person, gained confidence in him or joined him, opened doors for him, and kept him moving forward.
His apprenticeship with Denham came to an end less than a year in when both of them fell ill. He writes:
I suffered a good deal, gave up the point in my own mind, and was rather disappointed when I found myself recovering, regretting, in some degree, that I must now, some time or other, have all that disagreeable work to do over again. I forget what his distemper was; it held him a long time, and at length carried him off. He left me a small legacy in a nuncupative will, as a token of his kindness for me, and he left me once more to the wide world; for the store was taken into the care of his executors, and my employment under him ended.
Franklin returned to his trade under Keimer, who was looking for an experienced hand to train the “raw, cheap hands” that he had hired for his printing shop. Franklin guessed that once the training was done, Keimer planned to send him packing. “I went on, however, very cheerfully, put his printing-house in order, which had been in great confusion, and brought his hands by degrees to mind their business and to do it better.” One of those hands was Hugh Meredith, a thirty-year-old Welsh Pennsylvanian, who was “bred to country work; honest, sensible, had a great deal of solid observation, was something of a reader, but given to drink.”
When the inevitable falling out occurred with Keimer, Meredith, who had “conceiv’d a great regard” for Franklin, proposed that they enter into a partnership and set up a printing house of their own. Meredith explained that his father also had a high opinion of Franklin and that he was willing to provide the capital to get them started. “I am sensible I am no workman,” Meredith told him. “If you like it, your skill in the business shall be set against the stock I furnish, and we will share the profits equally."
Franklin worked one last important job for Keimer, printing some paper money in New Jersey. It required skill that, of Keimer’s crew, only Franklin possessed. He traveled to Burlington for the assignment, where he “made an acquaintance with many principal people of the province,” men who came to oversee the printing process and ensure that “no more bills were printed than the law directed.”
They were therefore, by turns, constantly with us, and generally he who attended, brought with him a friend or two for company. My mind having been much more improv'd by reading than Keimer's, I suppose it was for that reason my conversation seem'd to be more valu'd. They had me to their houses, introduced me to their friends, and show'd me much civility…
One of these men was Isaac Decow, the surveyor-general, “… a shrewd, sagacious old man, who told me that he began for himself, when young, by wheeling clay for the brick-makers, learned to write after he was of age, carri'd the chain for surveyors, who taught him surveying, and he had now by his industry, acquir'd a good estate; and says he, "I foresee that you will soon work [Keimer] out of business, and make a fortune in it at Philadelphia."“
Franklin further writes of the men he met in Burlington: “These friends were afterwards of great use to me, as I occasionally was to some of them. They all continued their regard for me as long as they lived.”
Imagine that. Someone impressing you so much that you continue to hold them in regard for as long as you live. It’s a high bar, isn’t it? Here’s what Franklin writes about his state of mind with respect to his principles and morals before entering his public business life. “I grew convinc'd that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I form'd written resolutions, which still remain in my journal book, to practice them ever while I lived.”
Franklin later captures perfectly that moment when an independent business owner makes the first sale, a moment made possible in his case because an acquaintance sent business his way:
We had scarce opened our letters and put our press in order, before George House, an acquaintance of mine, brought a countryman to us, whom he had met in the street inquiring for a printer. All our cash was now expended in the variety of particulars we had been obliged to procure, and this countryman's five shillings, being our first-fruits, and coming so seasonably, gave me more pleasure than any crown I have since earned; and the gratitude I felt toward House has made me often more ready than perhaps I should otherwise have been to assist young beginners.
The year before he entered into business, Franklin also organized “a club of mutual improvement” called the Junto, which included most of his “ingenious acquaintance.” They would gather on Friday evenings to discuss and debate on topics of “Morals, Politics, and Natural Philosophy” in the “sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory.” The relationships formed here extended beyond their regular meetings; club members would support each other’s projects; they would promote their “particular interests in business by more extensive recommendation” and “increase [their] influence in public affairs.”
The Junto proved so useful and satisfying to its members that, despite the rule for keeping their institution a secret, many wanted to introduce their friends. The group decided that, rather than expand the membership of the original, each member would be free to form a subordinate club.
The advantages proposed were, the improvement of so many more young citizens by the use of our institutions; our better acquaintance with the general sentiments of the inhabitants on any occasion… [and the increase of] our power of doing good by spreading thro' the several clubs the sentiments of the Junto.
Franklin sums up the early benefits of this project to his fledgling business: “But my giving this account of it here is to show something of the interest I had, every one of these exerting themselves in recommending business to us. Breintnal particularly procur'd us from the Quakers the printing forty sheets of their history, the rest being to be done by Keimer; and upon this we work'd exceedingly hard, for the price was low.” His Junto social network was bringing him his first customers, although he “the price was low” comment at the end suggests, like many early stage businesses, he wasn’t making much in the way of profits.
The industry of that Franklin
In The Way to Wealth, Franklin’s protagonist Father Abraham is asked by the crowd that has gathered for an auction for advice on how to cope with the heavy taxes that were ruining the country. Abraham responds that “We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly… God helps them that help themselves.” He tells them to stop worrying about taxes eating away at their wealth and, instead, to focus on four things if they want to build it: industry, attention to one’s own business, frugality, and, in a nod to the ultimate contingency of life, humble prayer.
Franklin practiced what Father Abraham preached. On a job he received from the Quakers to print forty sheets of their history (the rest being done by Keimer), he writes: “I compos'd of it a sheet a day, and Meredith worked it off at press; it was often eleven at night, and sometimes later, before I had finished my distribution for the next day's work, for the little jobbs sent in by our other friends now and then put us back… and this industry, visible to our neighbors, began to give us character and credit.” One neighbor, Dr. Baird, contradicted the general opinion that Franklin and Meredith’s business would fail, given that there were already two printers in Philadelphia: “For the industry of that Franklin is superior to any thing I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed.”
People know that the first years of any new business are hard, but everyone underestimates how hard, in terms of the long hours and constant, complete focus required. It’s an incredible feeling when someone on the outside notices and tells other people about what you’re up to and what you have to offer. “I mention this industry the more particularly and the more freely, tho' it seems to be talking in my own praise, that those of my posterity, who shall read it, may know the use of that virtue, when they see its effects in my favour throughout this relation.”
Making money moves
The only newspaper in town, printed by Bradford “was a paltry thing, wretchedly manag'd, no way entertaining, and yet was profitable to him.” Franklin knew he could do better and told others he intended to start his own and soon. Keimer got wind of the plan and decided to launch a paper of his own first. This provoked Franklin to contribute “several pieces of entertainment” to Bradford’s paper to ensure that the attention of the public was turned away from Keimer’s venture. Here, Franklin shows his chops as a strategist and tough competitor: “… after carrying it on three quarters of a year, with at most only ninety subscribers, [Keimer] offered it to me for a trifle; and I, having been ready some time to go on with it, took it in hand directly; and it prov'd in a few years extremely profitable to me.” In business, it’s OK to have a little ruthless mixed with the pious. It’s business, after all. There are winners and losers.
Our first papers made a quite different appearance from any before in the province; a better type, and better printed; but some spirited remarks of my writing, on the dispute then going on between Governor Burnet and the Massachusetts Assembly, struck the principal people, occasioned the paper and the manager of it to be much talk'd of, and in a few weeks brought them all to be our subscribers.
Their example was follow'd by many, and our number went on growing continually. This was one of the first good effects of my having learnt a little to scribble; another was, that the leading men, seeing a newspaper now in the hands of one who could also handle a pen, thought it convenient to oblige and encourage me.
Writing, communication in general, can be such a force multiplier in business, so it’s no surprise that Franklin’s determination to become a good writer paid off. I think, in the larger picture, startups benefit from (and really demand) all of their founders’ talents and experience. I hesitate when I hear you shouldn’t be defined by your work. Maybe. You obviously shouldn’t label yourself a failure if your business isn’t working out, although you should probably do some soul-searching. But, while you’re engaged, I think it’s better to engage the whole you. If you’re willing to only venture a part of you, then let your part be money, and partner with someone who’ll venture more.
The break up
Most things were going Franklin’s way, except his partnership. “Meredith was no compositor, a poor pressman, and seldom sober.” What’s more:
Mr. Meredith's father, who was to have paid for our printing-house, according to the expectations given me, was able to advance only one hundred pounds currency, which had been paid; and a hundred more was due to the merchant, who grew impatient, and su'd us all. We gave bail, but saw that, if the money could not be rais'd in time, the suit must soon come to a judgment and execution, and our hopeful prospects must, with us, be ruined, as the press and letters must be sold for payment, perhaps at half price.
Many (most?) entrepreneurs will face this existential crisis, the knife’s edge of solvency. A customer doesn’t pay on time, an investor or the bank calls a loan, the economy shuts down. Getting through it is a combination of resilience (you can’t shut down), luck (you always need luck), and a network you can rely on (no one wins alone).
In this distress two true friends, whose kindness I have never forgotten, nor ever shall forget while I can remember any thing, came to me separately, unknown to each other, and, without any application from me, offering each of them to advance me all the money that should be necessary to enable me to take the whole business upon myself, if that should be practicable; but they did not like my continuing the partnership with Meredith, who, as they said, was often seen drunk in the streets, and playing at low games in alehouses, much to our discredit. These two friends were William Coleman and Robert Grace.
Franklin came to an agreement with Meredith, who could “see this is a business I am not fit for. for. I was bred a farmer, and it was a folly in me to come to town, and put myself, at thirty years of age, an apprentice to learn a new trade.” Franklin bought out his partner’s share by repaying his father the money he had advanced, paying off his personal debts, assuming all of the business debts, and giving Meredith “thirty pounds and a new saddle.”
As soon as he was gone, I recurr'd to my two friends; and because I would not give an unkind preference to either, I took half of what each had offered and I wanted of one, and half of the other; paid off the company's debts, and went on with the business in my own name, advertising that the partnership was dissolved.
And he will have abundance
Wikipedia defines the Matthew effect as “the tendency of individuals to accrue social or economic success in proportion to their initial level of popularity, friends, and wealth.” The concept is named according to a parable of Jesu found in the Book of Matthew: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The second part is mysterious and terrible to contemplate, but I think most would agree with the truth of the first part: success follows success.
Having established his reputation through his character and hard work, and no longer hindered by a weaker partner, Franklin grew his printing business and expanded to open a stationer’s shop. With profits on the rise, he gradually paid off his debt to his friends. All along, he was always careful with his image.
In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went out a fishing or shooting; a book, indeed, sometimes debauch'd me from my work, but that was seldom, snug, and gave no scandal; and, to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchas'd at the stores thro' the streets on a wheelbarrow.
As Franklin’s business grew, Keimer’s declined, and he was soon forced to sell. Keimer’s apprentice, David Harry, set up his own shop but fared no better: “He was very proud, dress'd like a gentleman, liv'd expensively, took much diversion and pleasure abroad, ran in debt, and neglected his business; upon which, all business left him; and, finding nothing to do, he followed Keimer to Barbadoes, taking the printing-house with him.”
That left Bradford as Franklin’s sole remaining competitor. Bradford was already rich and satisfied though, and not overly anxious about the business. So Franklin’s path was clear, and he ably seized the many opportunities he found along the way, one of which to set up the first franchising system in America by entering into partnerships with his apprentices who wanted to strike out on their own. Franklin would furnish them with equipment and send them off to a new territory. In exchange, he would receive one-third of the profits of their businesses. Some of these bets didn’t work out, but more than enough did.
“There are no gains without pains,” Franklin had written in The Way to Wealth. Charlie Munger says the first $100K is the hardest to earn: “It’s a b----, but you gotta do it. I don’t care what you have to do — if it means walking everywhere and not eating anything that wasn’t purchased with a coupon, find a way to get your hands on $100,000. After that, you can ease off the gas a little bit.”
Franklin submitted to the pains and kept pressing forward until he accumulated enough gains that a different set of rules began to apply. Franklin himself describes the dynamic well in his description of the “prolific” nature of money in Advice to a Young Tradesman:
Remember that Money is of a prolific generating Nature. Money can beget Money, and its Offspring can beget more, and so on. Five Shillings turn’d, is Six: Turn’d again, ’tis Seven and Three Pence; and so on ’til it becomes an Hundred Pound. The more there is of it, the more it produces every Turning, so that the Profits rise quicker and quicker.
Having risen to the leading ranks of colonial society, and having achieved wealth through business, Franklin’s interests widened. To free up his time further, he took on “a very able, industrious, and honest partner, Mr. David Hall, with whose character I was well acquainted, as he had work'd for me four years. He took off my hands all care of the printing-office, paying me punctually my share of the profits. This partnership continued eighteen years, successfully for us both.”
“He that hath a trade, hath an estate,” Franklin wrote. Not every trade lives in a large house on an extensive area of land in the country. Perhaps Franklin intended a more spiritual meaning — that a trade, a skill, the means of supporting oneself and one’s family, gives a person dignity: dignity is the estate. Or perhaps he meant that the potential to rise, as he did, is always there once you have a trade, an expertise in how some small part of the world works — that, after that, it’s up to you to make your own estate, your own “place in the country,” out of it.
One last pearl from his highly readable autobiography:
Human felicity is produc'd not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But doesn’t it also sound deep? For me, the more time passes, the more experience accumulates, the more the two qualities, simple and deep, seem of a type.
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