Stories of Entrepreneurship from the Cotton Gin to Broadway’s Hamilton
Foreword by Laura Asiala
What do Eli Whitney, Willis Carrier, Elizabeth Arden, Emily Rochon, and Brenna Berman have in common? These are among the folks that Eric Schultz has invited to his imaginary ‘happy hour’ to explore multiple aspects of innovation, in an engaging, conversational, and enlightening way, in his new book, Innovation on Tap.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to have these inventors and innovators join a conversation today—trading the kind of ‘behind the scenes’ stories that only seem to be revealed with a glass (or two) of beer or wine? How would they frame their opportunities and obstacles? What qualities and circumstances contributed most to their success? Are any of them still relevant today?
Schultz invites all of us in to network with these 25 remarkable characters, discussing innovation in mechanization, mass production, consumerism, sustainability, and digitization, with a surprise guest that will keep us all ‘in the room where it happens:’ Lin Manuel Miranda, highlighting his model for innovation and community.
Spoiler alert—here are the lessons that emerge across the ages: first, “There is no substitute for a profitable, scalable business model. Before entrepreneurs can worry about leadership, team building, technology deployment, or customer growth, they need to get the business model right and reassess it continually.” In other words, it’s not (only) about the product: important but insufficient. Secondly, no man—or woman—is an island. “A strong personal network is the most striking attribute and powerful resource of a successful entrepreneur.” In America at least, we continue to tell the story of a ‘self-made success.’ It’s a myth. There is no such thing (and for more perspective on that, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers). Thirdly, ‘entrepreneurship is pervasive and unbounded,’ and should be regarded with as much imagination as the product or service itself. And finally, when I read about the challenges faced by these pioneers, I find myself agreeing with Schultz: there has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur, which is a good thing, because we need many of them.
What follows is an excerpt of Innovation on Tap: Stories of Entrepreneurship from the Cotton Gin to Broadway’s Hamilton by Eric B. Schultz, to be published October 2019 by Greenleaf Book Group Press.
Innovation on Tap: Stories of Entrepreneurship From the Cotton Gin to Broadway’s “Hamilton”, ©Eric B. Schultz
It all started in a bar, like many good stories do. Or rather, a makeshift bar in the lobby of a venture capital firm in Boston, just as an after-work presentation by a group of start-up CEOs had concluded. Asked to profile their companies, these leaders stood before investors and peers and gave glowing accounts of their progress. Revenue growth would soon resemble a hockey stick. Product development was on schedule. The competition was a year behind. Prospects had never been rosier. Now, however, with the pressure off, standing in a circle and sipping drinks as the day wound down, their stories took on a different tone.
Several CEOs were racing the clock for new financing. One was threatened by a competitor that had appeared from nowhere three months earlier. Another had lost two of her star software developers to a rival, and a third feared he was about to lose his largest customer.
Around that time, I happened to be reading a biography of Eli Whitney (1765–1825), learning about some of the challenges he had faced launching a start-up two hundred years earlier to market his revolutionary cotton gin. Whitney had barely survived a shipwreck, smallpox, malaria, a devastating factory fire, the untimely death of his partner, the theft of his core technology, years of patent litigation, and a near nervous breakdown. Later, as he launched a second enterprise to manufacture muskets, he had weathered the embargo of 1807, the War of 1812, the Panic of 1819, and, throughout, a nation being fractured by slavery.
Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, if Eli Whitney could have joined us at the bar that evening, just so we might all compare notes? And maybe we could have invited someone like Alfred Sloan (1875–1966), the fabled CEO of General Motors, who lived midway in time between Whitney and today’s entrepreneurs. How had Sloan managed through World War I, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, and World War II? In what ways would entrepreneurs of different eras have framed the opportunities and obstacles encountered during their careers? Is there a consistent set of qualities that has contributed to entrepreneurial success in America? And most interesting of all, are these qualities still relevant to today’s entrepreneurs?
Is there a consistent set of qualities that has contributed to entrepreneurial success in America? And most interesting of all, are these qualities still relevant to today’s entrepreneurs?
To answer these questions, I began to assemble just such a virtual barroom conversation between the living and the dead. The idea was to survey America’s entrepreneurs from the Revolution to the present, trying to determine if history might “rhyme” in a way that would be meaningful to modern entrepreneurs. As I accumulated these fascinating stories—some gathered from historical archives and some from interviews over coffee—I was able to assemble a framework of six interrelated and roughly chronological themes that helped to shape entrepreneurial activity throughout America’s history. I was also able to identify a handful of strengths that seemed uncommonly common among successful entrepreneurs, regardless of their backgrounds, personalities, industries, or eras.
The fun part, then, was “introducing” these remarkable people to one another and watching what would happen as they met around our virtual bar. To be honest, I wasn’t sure myself. What developed, however, was an evening full of surprises, more than a few rounds of beverages consumed, and above all, the telling of some of the most extraordinary stories of entrepreneurship the world has ever known.
The stories that unfold in Innovation on Tap reveal five distinct themes that intersect and build upon one another over time, and a sixth that runs alongside and throughout. The oldest of these themes is mechanization, the ability to automate processes that had been performed traditionally by hand. Next in time came mass production, a system of manufacture that enabled factories to produce hundreds of the same item quickly and efficiently.
Consumerism emerged in the early twentieth century to focus America’s business leaders away from what they were making to whom they were making it for. Sustainability, the concept of maintaining ecological balance, became a pressing concern in a twentieth-century culture where overconsumption and fossil fuels threatened the environment. Digitization also arose at mid-century, allowing for the capture and exchange of information in ways that improved the production of physical goods and created new virtual products and services. Running side by side with these five dominant themes, social and cultural entrepreneurship has inspired new business models designed to reshape our concept of community and the ways in which Americans live and work together.
Running side by side with these five dominant themes, social and cultural entrepreneurship has inspired new business models designed to reshape our concept of community and the ways in which Americans live and work together.
Thinking back to my evening in Boston, armed now with twenty-five stories of disposable razor blades and company towns, rooftop gardens and cybersecurity, I would reinforce these three principles: First, successful entrepreneurs never stop building and cultivating community. Second, they focus obsessively on the health of their business model. And third, they are unafraid to think expansively about innovation, looking well beyond the day’s dominant narrative.
It is the first principle that is the most important lesson, however, and the ironclad takeaway.
Bill James was once asked what he learned about success from his work consulting in Major League Baseball. “The most surprising thing,” he said, “was an understanding of how many people contribute to a championship. Literally, it’s impossible to explain to an outsider how many people it requires, doing how many different jobs at a high level, in order for a baseball team to win a world championship. The number of little streams that feed into that river,” he concluded, “is almost incalculable.”
Likewise, our stories suggest that each river of entrepreneurial success is fed by an incalculable number of little streams. These streams flow from the talent, resources, wisdom, and luck generated by the community each entrepreneur works to assemble. Our virtual barroom of entrepreneurs, encompassing three centuries and delivering innovations as different as the cotton gin and Hamilton, would undoubtedly endorse this truth: the stronger the community, the greater the chances for success.