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How Benjamin Franklin Got His First Fifty Customers
100 points by davemel37 1730 days ago | hide | past | web | 31 comments | favorite
It turns out, Benjamin Franklin was extremely "Normal" and relate-able.

The very valuable lesson learned below applies equally to raising money from investors, crowds of investors, or finding your first customers.

In his Autobiography he talks about starting a Public Subscription Library in Philadelphia, going door to door trying to find people willing to pay 40 shillings and commit to a subscription fee of 10 shillings a year for 50 years.It's important to note that Ben was an avid reader, and tried a shared library prior to this which ended up flopping. He also believed he was doing a great service to all who would participate and to society at large. In other words, his startup was both doing social good and creating value...

Here are Ben's words from his AutoBiography about the experience. "The objections and reluctances I met with in soliciting the subscriptions, made me soon feel the improprietary of presenting one's self as the proposer of any useful project, that might be suppos'd to raise one's reputation in the smallest degree above that of one's neighbors, when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project. I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a scheme of a number of friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way my affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practis'd it on such occasions;and, from my frequent successes can heartily recommend it."

He continues, "The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid."

This very much reminds me of the plaque sitting on Ronald Reagan's Desk that stated, "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go If he doesn't mind who gets the credit."




To adapt this to your startup: rather than selling your service as being something created by you, lie to your prospect and claim that you represent a group of web experts who thought the prospect would love the service. The little sacrifice to your ethics will be amply repaid.

[Unless, of course, he really did belong to a group of friends who founded the service and that they did specifically recommend the subscription to the prospects being sold. The text suggests a solo effort, however.]


The library was an offshoot of a small club of people called the Junto (src: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_Company_of_Philadelphia... ), which was a small group of people sharing books.


Wait, they were _sharing_ books? Sharing? Wasn't that depriving publishers and authors of revenue? Wasn't that somehow illegal? Damn revolutionary sharers!


The copyright issues caused by book post-scarcity would have been a nice problem to have in Ben's time. In the 18th century, the best printing technology was still the Gutenberg press, which could print about 240 pages an hour. Presses that could scale production to the point of common affordability (millions of pages/day) weren't invented until about the mid-19th century.


Sharing, not copying.


As far as publishers are concerned, there's very little difference.


His autobiography is full of lies. He wrote it to represent how he wanted people to believe he lived his life, not how he actually did it.

It's a wonderful book and really worthwhile, but it's not an accurate representation of his life in any way.


If anyone is looking for a more accurate biography of BF, I particularly enjoyed Walter Isaacson's. [1]

[1] http://books.google.com/books?id=L64OOJGaCKIC&printsec=f...


I would say that Ben's lies (if they are indeed so) are better than many men's truths.


Evidence, please!


It's tradition. Tesla's autobiography is also similarly... nuanced.

He claims he routinely ate rocks, iirc, among a number of other incredible claims. His tone also sounds as if he cares about convincing the reader, which is a sign that an author might care so much about persuading the reader that they might distort certain truths to be more convincing.


Ben Franklin claimed he ate rocks?


No, Tesla claimed Tesla ate rocks in his autobiography. And many more interesting claims, like that Tesla always knew his own weight to the pound, and quit smoking in a day by deciding to. (The smoking claim is actually the most believable, but it's mixed in with silly claims about eating rocks and "abs like a crocodile". I'm serious.)


On the weight thing, as a former wrestler I can always guess my weight within a pound. I'm feeling 191 ... strips naked ... 191.

Did have to strip naked to get the number I wanted though.


Gentlemen, this is about the nature of selling. First the word incorrectly infers something you do to other folks over which they have little control, providing that you select the proper words which magically enables that amazing feat to occur. Allowing you to simply charm them into giving you money for your wares. Pure BS as any thinking person can readily see.

The fact of the matter is, the customer has all of the power to decide and to pay. Your job as a salesman, is to avoid cluttering the offer with unnecessary information which can slow down or stop the person from making a decision to purchase your wares. That is exactly what Benjamin Franklin learned to do, in the little parable.

He simply made himself the messenger from a group of intelligent folks, who were in fact offering the services, which would create a desirable effect for them, which the subscribers then decided was to their benefit.

I might add that the offer would be defined as a win-win in present day terms. Personally, I might also add that it is really a win win win, since society as a whole I believe benefits from a more enlightened society.

Salesmanship has taken a bad rap from those who misunderstand the facts. You see ... sell'in ain't tell'in it's ask'in. ....


>>>and stated it as a scheme of a number of friends, who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading

Wow. That's right out of the later playbook of Edward Bernays. Set up a fictional committee that "endorses" something in order to enhance its marketing.


I think the point is less about social proof here and more about understanding that a good portion of rejection from investors and prospects could simply be the way you are pitching elevates you above their level, and their natural ego -based response will be to reject it, find holes in it, etc...

If you want to succeed at pitching investors or finding customers, it would do you well to check your vanity at the door, focus less on what you created and more on what it will do for them.

A simple adaptation would be approaching your prospects saying, "Hey I came across this interesting product and thought you would be interested in it." No need to lie, just ommit your involvement.


Yeah! That is how I read it too.

We can take a step beyond that: http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

Here, Elizabeth Gilbert is talking about an older take on genius. That genius is not any one property of a person, but rather, something that appears to the one who is prepared. It makes sense to me, considering that an innovation often occurs to a more than one people who don't have much connection with each other. The time was simply right.

Saying, "I have a genius (for the moment)" rather than "I am a genius" also takes off a lot of pressure to continually prove you are a genius. That kind of hidden agenda (Jungian shadow) covertly demands that other people sees you as the originator. It comes down to ... do you want to see this product come out into the world, or do you want glory?

In other words, there isn't a need to lie, or even omitting your involvement. "Hey I came across this interesting product" is true, not simply evasive -- the genius was gifted to you; and if you are not prepared to share it, then it will find someone else more suitable.

Besides. How can you expect a startup to mature into a business model that runs itself if you can't let go of demanding credit? If it is about the product -- regardless of credit -- then the whole team is involved -- engineers, designers, investors and customers.

Thanks for sharing this bit from Ben Franklin. Earlier this morning, I had sent out a snarky email. I was overtly saying I wanted to pass on some ideas, yet I was demanding credit in the subtext. This was not impeccable, and probably came across as creepy. Now I know :-)


Oh, and "a good portion of rejection from investors and prospects could simply be the way you are pitching elevates you above their level, and their natural ego"

A way to refine that is to say, when you pitch to elevate you above your level, you are challenging the investor or prospect and probably leaking out contempt. The investor or prospect is likely to reject your pitch to answer that challenge.

If there are no challenge, then this kind of byplay does not distract from the epic awesomeness of the idea.

"... focus less on what you created and more on what it will do for them." <-- Ha! That deepens the understanding of "Customer Development." If you're caught up with the Jungian shadows to demand credit, then you won't really try to understand user benefit or user needs since you put yourself first ahead of the customer. Cool.


That is lying. Dishonesty is effective; that doesn't make it honesty.


Oh it's all about social proof. How human beings generally operate: "What's in it for me?" and "Why should I help you?"


Completely different motive, here.


Motive doesn't matter. It's the method.


Ben Franklin attributed his initial failure and subsequent success in this venture to not "rais[ing] one's reputation in the smallest degree above that of one's neighbors". Perhaps he was incorrect in his assumption and this is simply a good example of early investors preferring to invest in a project with management team rather than a solo entrepreneur.

On another note, for those who are criticizing Franklin's integrity, should we do a comparison with the business leaders and politicians of today? I think Franklin would come out looking pretty good.


Full auto biography can be found here: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/148/pg148.html


I'm not sure this would help you with raising VC or angel money, in fact it would probably hurt you. All VCs are looking to invest in the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. They believe, probably more than they should, in the cult of personality school of investing. If anything you'd probably want to act toward them as if you did it all yourself.


Interestingly enough Ben Franklin actually agrees with you earlier in the book. "Most People Dislike Vanity in Others, Whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action."


Be strict with what you put out, be lenient with what you meet.


That is very insightful ... I am going to hold that in my heart!


I would recommend reading a biography on Ben Franklin, either his own or one done more recently. He has a lot of wisdom to share and I greatly enjoyed the reading.


And I would recommend the original vehemently!




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