Of all the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin is probably by far the most entrepreneurial. Because of the breadth and depth of his interests, his rise to wealth and influence, and his iconic status then and now, he can easily be viewed as a sort of colonial amalgam of Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.
Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin ended his long and productive life in 1790 in his adopted home of Philadelphia. Over the course of his remarkable 84 years, he became a publisher, printer, statesman, scientist, diplomat and inventor. He assisted Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence and was a leading signer. A prolific and much-quoted writer, and one of the best-known and best-loved of all the Founding Fathers, he was known for his wit, erudition, and ingenuity.
Here are just a few facts about Franklin that define him as one of the most insightful, successful, and emblematic entrepreneurs in American history.
1. He rose from humble beginnings.
Benjamin Franklin was one of 17 children and the youngest son of a poor soap and candle maker. His formal education ended at the age of 10. He first worked as his father’s assistant and at the age of 12 he was apprenticed to his older brother James, a printer. Franklin was a young prodigy and became a master craftsman by the age of 17. He remained proud of his professional achievements as a printer until the end of his life.
2. He valued education and was largely self-taught.
The universities of his time valued Franklin’s scholarship so much that he received a number of honorary degrees from institutions such as Oxford, Yale and Harvard. He was almost entirely self-taught. As the teenage apprentice of his strict older brother, he spent as much time as he could, voraciously reading and educating himself in a variety of subjects. He even began writing articles under a pseudonym for James’ newspaper – the Silent Dogood letters– which were so well received for their wit and erudition that no one initially suspected the young Ben Franklin as their author.
3. He started his own business early on.
At the age of 17, Franklin fled bondage to his brother and made his way to New York. Unable to find work there, he settled in Philadelphia, which was known for a broad spirit of tolerance not found in Boston. His skills as a printer impressed the governor of Pennsylvania, who offered to help him start his own business. Sir William Keith sent Franklin to London so that he could select his own typefaces and printed materials and establish contacts with leading booksellers and stationers. Back in Philadelphia, Franklin and a friend set up their own printing business and were sole proprietors by 1730.
4. An early break led to success.
Franklin’s first big break as the owner of his own printing shop was a commission to print paper money for the state of Pennsylvania, and he continued to print books and pamphlets issued by the government. He then accepted public printer positions for Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. He entered the newspaper business with the highly successful Pennsylvania Gazette in the late 1720s and began issuing Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1732 and maintained the series for a quarter of a century.
That gazette was one of the first colonial newspapers to develop into a profitable business enterprise. That almanac It typically sold about 10,000 copies a year, and the pithy sayings Franklin wrote for it have become part of American literature and popular culture.
Through these and other ventures, Franklin enjoyed an unusual level of wealth that led him to begin lending money at interest, buying rental properties, and opening printer franchises in the colonies and British West Indies.
By the time he hit 40, the teenage runaway was one of the richest and most influential men in America.
5. He was not above stealing business from competitors.
Many of history’s best-known entrepreneurs are known for opportunities with less than exemplary business relationships. Frankline is no exception.
His strategic and often aggressive business practices helped him put his two leading printing competitors out of business and take over their markets himself.
After Franklin moved to Philadelphia, Samuel Keimer became his first master printmaker. Keimer had been commissioned by the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers to reprint a history of their faith. The task overwhelmed Keimer, who Franklin denounced as a “pure typesetter”. In 1728 Franklin started his own firm and persuaded the Quakers to give him the job instead. He finished printing the last 178 pages of the book in just a few weeks.
In addition, it was Keimer who had started publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1728. Franklin began to publish scathing reviews gazette in an article published by Andrew Bradford. That gazette failed to increase its circulation, allowing Franklin to acquire it at a very reasonable price in 1729. Under Franklin, the Gazette became the colonial equivalent of the New York Times.
Andrew Bradford had been Pennsylvania’s only printer before Keimer came along. Bradford’s empire included positions as a stationer, government printer, book and newspaper publisher, postmaster, and more. Franklin was able to break Bradford’s monopoly on these positions and then improve the state of their operations.
In 1737, Franklin Bradford fought for the post of postmaster for the city of Philadelphia. He also broke Bradford’s monopoly on paper milling by starting his own mill and eventually became the leading paper wholesaler in the colonies.
6. He lived by a set of principles.
Franklin systematically created a list of core principles to guide him and others in the pursuit of success. He called these his “13 virtues”. A master multitasker, Franklin advocated diligence and a wise use of time. He also recommended moderation, avoiding extremes. He emphasized the need to stay organized, with everything in its right place, and diligence in planning tasks and appointments. He also praised the virtues of honesty and fairness, frugality in sparing resources, perseverance in completing tasks at hand, and the composure not to take setbacks or unfair actions of others personally.
7. His philanthropy lives after him.
At the age of 42, the wealthy Franklin transferred the day-to-day operations of his printing company to a partner to free himself up for more extensive scientific experiments. He earned more than £600 a year for the next two decades.
Although he owned slaves to work in his home and print shop, Franklin came to believe that slavery was inherently evil and began freeing his own slaves long before the American Revolution. Through his inventions and his support of community institutions, he was instrumental in improving the safety and well-being of the people of Philadelphia. He helped set up the city’s fire department, hospital, and insurance company. His participation in groups dedicated to promoting social welfare included an enterprise that started the Library Company of Philadelphia. He was also a founding member of an anti-slavery society shortly before his death.
For all of these reasons, Benjamin Franklin has inspired untold generations of serving citizens. Retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal, for example, led the “Franklin Project,” named after the founding father, whose goal was “to have 1 million young Americans complete a year of community service by 2023. The American version of voluntary but socially expected national service.” “
Benjamin Franklin has inspired me my entire life. His career has exemplified entrepreneurial leadership and exemplary citizenship. Every entrepreneur who wants to break new and revolutionary ground today would do well to follow his example.