Innovation on Tap: Stories on Entrepreneurship from the Cotton Gin to Broadway's Hamilton by Eric B. Schultz (Greenleaf, 2019)
This is the book I've been waiting nine years to read. Well, it's almost that book: Apparently, this amazing man's story, of which I was hoping to learn more, got left on the cutting room floor. No matter. Actually, it does matter, but I'm sure Eric will tell the story eventually, and in the meantime, Innovation on Tap has plenty of interesting tales.
A priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk into a bar....
Oops. Wrong story. But this book is set in a bar; the premise that provides its structure being that entrepreneurs as diverse as America itself—from Eli Whitney, who was born before we became a country, to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is still making headlines—have gathered together in a bar and are swapping stories.
Innovation on Tap invites you to come on in, find an empty bar stool, and eavesdrop. Learn a little about business, learn a little about American history, and have fun!
Here's the table of contents:
- Eli Whitney: Accidental Entrepreneur
- Oliver Ames: Riding the Perfect Storm
- Against the Odds: Social Entrepreneurship in the Early Republic
PART TWO—MASS PRODUCTION
- King Gillette: Mass Production in an Age of Anxiety
- Mary Elizabeth Evans Sharpe: The Instinct to Do
- John Merrick: Building a Great Institution
- Willis Carrier: Mass Production Meets Consumerism
- Charles “Buddy” Bolden: The Sound of Innovation
- Elizabeth Arden: A Right to Be Beautiful
- J. K. Milliken: Community in a Model Village
- Alfred Sloan: America’s Most Successful Entrepreneur?
- Branch Rickey: Prophet or Profit?
- Stephen Mather: Machine in the Garden
- Emily Rochon: Giving Voice to the Environment
- Kate Cincotta: Creating Climate Entrepreneurs
- Viraj Puri: Plants Are Not Widgets
- Brenna Berman: Building a Smarter City
- Jean Brownhill: A Community of Trust
- Brent Grinna: Quietly Building an Amazing Network
- Jason Jacobs: A Cheerleader for Community
- Guy Filippelli: From Battlefield to Cybersecurity
- Meghan Winegrad: Intrapreneur to Entrepreneur
Conclusion: A Model for Innovation and Community
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton
Most of these names meant little to me before I read Innovation on Tap, the primary exception being Eli Whitney, whom I wrote about in "Sometimes Old Family Stories Are True." I learned a lot. Some of what I learned was scary—especially in the section on consumerism; no one likes feeling manipulated—but I enjoyed seeing the human face of business.
Thanks to the ability to copy text from the Kindle version of the book (which at the time was on sale for 99 cents!), the quotes are a little more extensive than they might have been had I needed to type them all in by hand. Thanks, Eric!
The crisis at the turn of the twentieth century became how to keep giant, automated factories from oversaturating their market with goods. The solution to this problem defines the third entrepreneurial theme, consumerism, a fundamental change in America from a land of sober and frugal citizens defined by what they produced, to a land of ravenous consumers defined by what they purchased. (Introduction, p. 7)
Winners are those who become skillful at situating themselves in a supportive network. Education, intelligence, courage, grit—all are secondary factors. The entrepreneurial experience in America, no matter the period, is built on this cornerstone: The stronger the community, the greater the chances for success. From Eli Whitney to Mary Elizabeth Evans to Lin-Manuel Miranda, a strong personal network is the most striking attribute and powerful resource of a successful entrepreneur. (Introduction, p. 13)
Catharine [Greene] extended her home and hospitality to Whitney while he regrouped. In turn, he made himself useful through odd jobs, including the redesign of a tambour embroidery frame that Catharine had found difficult to use. This inconsequential act would soon have historic implications. ...
With few good crop options available, some Southern farmers began to plant short-staple cotton in the 1790s, hoping a process would be developed to make it salable in quantity. ... Raising a crop destined to rot in the field or warehouse was an act of agricultural desperation. In the midst of this worried conversation, Catharine Greene introduced the group to Eli Whitney, telling the story of her new tambour frame. Whitney denied any claim of mechanical genius and further admitted that he had never seen cotton or a cotton seed in his life. However, he also sensed opportunity. (Eli Whitney, pp. 19-20)
The above illustrates the excellent point my daughter made when I mentioned the entrepreneurial strength of her husband's unusual ability to gather community around himself and his family. She acknowledged the truth of that, but added, "I've also learned that we don't all have to be entrepreneurs." It seems that Catharine Green, being herself and doing what she did best, was also an essential part of the invention of the cotton gin.
It was her grandfather Riegel who first set in motion Mary Elizabeth’s future career. “He did not approve of our buying cheap penny candy,” Evans said. “He thought it was not good for us . . . so he told us that we could have all the candy we wanted, if we’d make it ourselves.” For Judge Riegel, this dictate was common sense. In the unregulated market of nineteenth-century America, before passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, store-bought candy was often unhealthy and sometimes deadly. (Mary Elizabeth Evans Sharpe, p. 76)
Modern air-conditioning transformed twentieth-century America no less than Eli Whitney’s cotton gin transformed the nineteenth century. Consumers began to enjoy comfort air not only at the theater, but in restaurants, trains, and stores. By 1957, an Arkansas court concluded that “air conditioning is becoming standard equipment in homes, offices, and public buildings; it contributes to the comfort and efficiency of all those people who have occasion to utilize its benefits and is as necessary as telephones, heating, etc., in courthouses.” The 1970 Federal Census, sometimes called “The Air-Conditioned Census,” showed modern air-conditioning as having circulated people along with air, pushing the American population southward. Today, some 90 percent of American homes have central or room air-conditioning. (Willis Carrier, p. 110)
That so many homes are now air conditioned is still difficult for me to believe. True, we wouldn't have moved to Florida without it, but we never had air conditioning when we lived in the Northeast—not in our homes, not in our cars, and barely even in our workplaces as late as the 1980's. What brought air conditioning to the hospital where I worked was not human comfort, but the fact that the computers we had learned to depend on would not function in the hot weather. Even in 2002, our Boston apartment was not air conditioned, nor was our church. The Arkansas courthouse may have been cool in the 1950's, but at my grandparents' home in Florida, relief came from a relaxed lifestyle and a house designed to take advantage of the Atlantic Ocean breezes.
Buddy [Bolden] died at age fifty-four in 1931, leaving behind no interviews or recordings. Not until two years after his death did jazz historians even begin to recover his name and legacy. In so doing, they realized that what Bolden created between 1900 and 1906 was novel and striking enough to his contemporaries that they believed they were hearing something entirely new. Don Marquis resolved that, if Buddy was not the first to play jazz, “he was the first to popularize it and give the music a base from which to grow.” ...
As tragically as his story ends, Buddy Bolden also serves as a poignant reminder that even marginalized entrepreneurs can flourish where community thrives and where race and class are second to innovation and talent. (Charles "Buddy" Bolden, p. 117)
With the growth of cities came the rise of the department store and the growth of chain stores. Americans living thousands of miles apart were being joined together by magazines, the telephone, Hollywood, the radio, and the automobile. A journalist traveling cross-country in the early twentieth century found Americans from New York to California “are more and more coming to be molded on something of the same outward pattern.” This included their clothing, their homes, and the novels they read. A “mass market” was rising implausibly from a nation that was once a loose collection of regions and not long before at war with itself.
Having mastered mechanization and mass production, industry was suddenly faced with a new crisis. “The problem before us today is not how to produce the goods,” journalist Samuel Strauss (1870–1953) wrote in 1924, “but how to produce the customers.” (Elizabeth Arden, p. 121)
The concept of “style” arose as an important attribute of a product, and style could be manipulated. “This new influence . . . is largely used to make people dissatisfied with what they have of the old order,” advertising executive Earnest Calkins (1868–1964) wrote, “still good and useful and efficient, but lacking the newest touch.” ... Academics disagreed about who was responsible for this phenomenon of consumerism. Some saw its birth as the result of a generation of high-quality, low-cost product being available in the market. Americans had come to expect the newest and best, all at an affordable price. ... Others believed that business was more responsible, more manipulative, having found ways through clever marketing to create new demand.... The journalist Mark Sullivan (1874–1952) believed that new demand was created by businessmen who realized that “if the old could be made to seem passé . . . the new could be sold in profitable quantities.” For Sullivan, consumerism was the result of a calculated push from producers.
Pull or push, consumer or producer, the transformation was real. When Robert and Helen Lynd took a detailed look at attitudes in the town of Muncie, Indiana, in 1929, they found residents being informed by their local paper that the “citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer. Consumption is the new necessity.” Consumer credit soared among young people. So did a signature cultural innovation of the age: planned obsolescence. “We are urged deliberately to waste material,” one commentator wrote. “Throw away your razor blades, abandon your motor car, and purchase new.” Style over function, credit, and obsolescence had all become virtues—a way to keep the giant factories of automation humming along, but a complete about-face from the frugal world of the previous century. (Elizabeth Arden, pp. 122-123, emphasis mine)
As with air conditioning, this was not my world, growing up. It's barely my world now. Frugality, making do, wasting nothing, caring for the environment—that was, and is, the the backdrop of our lives. I am not at all happy that Microsoft pulled the plug on Windows 7....
"It is astonishing what you can do when you have a lot of energy, ambition and plenty of ignorance," [Alfred Sloan] concluded. (Alfred Sloan, p. 141)
One GM executive wrote, “The question was no longer ‘can I afford an automobile,’” but—thanks to the marketing brilliance of GM and its leader, “‘can I afford to be without an automobile?’” (Alfred Sloan, p. 152)
While the term sustainability would not become common until the 1970s, the need to balance growth with resource conservation is the fourth important entrepreneurial theme in America. Sustainability would come to address pollution, overconsumption, and climate change, but its roots were set in the conservation movement that sprang up in the early twentieth century. (Stephen Mather, p. 163, emphasis mine)
This was my world. I've never quite been comfortable with what has been called "environmentalism," but "conservationism" was as much a part of my youth as our beloved Adirondack Mountains. Certainly both involve politics, and I can't deny that the environmentalist movement has facilitated much good, but in my gut it feels like anger and violence, whereas conservationism feels like love and respect and good times with friends.
The national park system is an American crucible, facing the irreconcilable mandates of providing a world-class experience to every visitor who enters while leaving the park and its resources unimpaired. The American consumer experience appears to have reached its limit in places like Yellowstone and Yosemite. “These are irreplaceable resources,” says retired park superintendent Joan Anzelmo. “We have to protect them by putting some strategic limits on numbers, or there won’t be anything left.” (Stephen Mather, p. 177)
“The predominant narrative that you hear when somebody puts solar on their rooftop is, ‘If you’ve gone solar and I haven’t, you’re free-riding on the system, and you’re shipping costs to me.’ You hear that here in the US, in Europe, in Australia. It’s a common refrain,” Rochon says, promoted by utility companies. “It’s black and white and very persuasive: You’re not paying utility bills so you are cheating the system.”
Her counternarrative redefines those who adopt solar as responsible stewards of the grid. People who invest in their homes, adding solar panels, air-source heat pumps, and insulation have, Rochon says, “prepaid their electricity bill for the next ten years. When the sun is shining and everybody has turned on their air-conditioning, their house is not part of the problem. We need these people to participate.” They spend private dollars at no risk to others, generate clean local power, support the economy, and create jobs. (Emily Rochon, p. 185)
I wonder where this "predominant narrative" is heard? It's new to me. I only hear praises for those who are investing in alternative energy for their homes. At worst I hear complaints about taxpayer-funded subsidies that they take advantage of.
Fundamental to Rochon’s work in both Europe and the United States is the creation of new entrepreneurial opportunities and attractive business models, and helping to spread best practices. “If you give renewable energy developers in the US the right framework and right incentives, they can solve almost any problem. You don’t see that same level of creativity in Europe,” she says. “It doesn’t have the same capitalist roots. But the story that I tell is that you just need to give the market the right framework and let the forces innovate. Renewable energy developers everywhere can be extraordinarily clever, creative people if you give them the space within which to do that stuff, and the guidance to ensure it happens responsibly.” (Emily Rochon, p. 186)
“Everyone’s got their stuff; they just need to be self-aware, find things that make good use of those skills, and put the right people around them.” (Jason Jacobs, p. 247)
Pitting start-up entrepreneurship against big-company “intrapreneurship” may be the wrong debate, however. Innovation is successful when delivered as part of a compelling business model, and when its sponsoring entrepreneurs have the support of a robust community. These qualities can be found in start-up ecosystems, but they also exist in large, well-run organizations. (Meghan Winegrad, p. 260)
Steve Jobs has observed that “creativity is just connecting things.” This suggests that entrepreneurs with rich life experiences have a distinct advantage. The more time spent listening, observing, reading, experimenting, sharing, and living—the more “things” they ultimately have to connect, and the more opportunity they uncover. ...
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. (A Model for Innovation and Community, p. 273, 284)
This would suggest that extroverts have a decided advantage in the world of entrepreneurship, and it may very well be true. But introverts bring their own collections of "listening, observing, reading, experimenting, sharing, and living" that should not be underestimated.
Moreover, for extroverts and introverts alike, it is an encouraging truth that many important life experiences look very much like failures. I'm not of the school that believes failure, per se, to be a prerequisite for success, but the entrepreneurs in this barroom prove that repeated failures, enormous disadvantages, and even mental illness and early death don't disqualify one from making important contributions to the world.
I have but one complaint about Innovation on Tap: the use of the term, "people of color." I can't wait for this to go the way of other, now-outdated designations that wrongfully categorize people. As if the world consists of but two classes of people: People of Color and ... what? The Colorless? It has already become a meaningless term, with people now being told, "You're not really a Person of Color because you are: rich, successful, Republican, anything that makes you one of Them." I've felt this myself, as a woman—not being "really a woman" because I don't toe someone's party line—and it stinks. Then there was the American schoolteacher on a Kilimanjaro hike, who couldn't believe her guide was "really African" because he was a Roman Catholic (instead of "worshipping spirits") and had never heard of Kwanzaa. (Yes, I said schoolteacher!) I'm done with this nonsense.