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Ben Franklin Rewrite a Powerful Primer (In the News)

Jan. 23, 2006

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Ben Franklin rewrite a powerful primer

Simple, imaginative ploys helped early entrepreneur build his business image

By Greg Stricharchuk

January 22, 2006

There on the bottom row of the book shelf at the Goodwill store was the title: World's Greatest Literature: Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Price: $2.

Its pages were yellowed, musty, and from what I could tell, never read.

My expectations were low, but I soon realized that Franklin's autobiography was America's first business management book in disguise.

We learn not only how Franklin starts a printing trade and a newspaper when some believed the colonies could only support one, but how he builds a reputation and an image so important to business success.

For example, Franklin makes an effort to show how hard he works by coming to work early and burning a light into the evening (hence his Poor Richard's Almanac saying "early to bed, early to rise ... ).

Franklin pushes a wheelbarrow down the street to cart things back to his shop, creating an image of himself as a hard-working stiff--not a proprietor unwilling to get his hands dirty.

Such displays helped him land more business and, in turn, key contacts in business and government. Later, he financed other printing businesses, becoming one of America's first franchisers.

"This is the best business book I've ever read," I told my wife. "Someone should compile his business ideas into a simpler format and target the business audience."

Blaine McCormick, a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Baylor University's business school, has done just that, smoothing out the bumps in Franklin's narrative and translating his 18th Century expressions into modern English.

"Ben Franklin: America's Original Entrepreneur," released in October, can be found in the business book section at bookstores. I interviewed McCormick by phone as he was headed to Philadelphia to celebrate Franklin's 300th birthday this past week.

McCormick stumbled onto Franklin's book much like I had. In the fall of 1996 he listened to a library copy of the book on tape during commutes to and from Pepperdine University, where he was then teaching.

"I had read the book in high school, but didn't recall anything about it," he said. "As I listened to it, I felt it was one the most amazing business stories in history."

Franklin, who began writing the book as a letter to his son about 18 months prior to his death, helped teach the American colonies the principles of business leadership, McCormick said.

"It was his first great gift," he said. Franklin's writings, McCormick added, also influenced inventor Thomas Edison, who mentioned it to biographers, and to Dale Carnegie, of "How to win friends and influence people" fame; the autobiography was provided to people taking Carnegie courses.

To McCormick, Franklin's greatest accomplishment was pushing the concept that human beings have the freedom to chart their own course, that their lives weren't preordained.

"The idea that you can finish better than your beginnings was a radical idea," McCormick said.

Franklin believed in self-education, and early in life scrimped on food to buy books. Through reading he taught himself several languages and how to write more effectively. The fact that he could discuss books and ideas helped him gain access to people key to his business and political success.

One of my favorite tips from Franklin is how to phrase disagreement without saying the other person is wrong. He suggested saying "it appears to me ... I imagine it to be so ... if I am not mistaken. If you desire instruction and improvement from others, you should not at the same time express yourself fixed in your present opinion," he wrote.

I wish I had learned that at least 20 years ago; some of my relationships wouldn't have been so adversarial.

Such wisdom aided Franklin in building alliances that helped create America's first public libraries and fire departments. In other words, he was a team-builder before that description made it into hundreds of business books.

McCormick's book does a masterful job of grouping Franklin's stories under chapter headings like: "How to displease your superiors" and "A strategic response to a competitive betrayal." Poor Richard sayings are used to bolster chapter themes.

Near the end of the interview, one question nagged at me: Did McCormick have ethical qualms about profiting from rewriting Franklin's book? I told him I realized that it wasn't protected by a copyright.

McCormick pointed out that Franklin himself collected Poor Richard sayings from a variety of sources, including the Bible, and rewrote them to make them easier for people to remember.

What McCormick didn't say is that Franklin truly believed in serving the public good. For example, he invented a stove that changed how early Americans heated their homes. But he never patented his invention because he believed it belonged in the public domain--sounding like an unheralded contributor to the Internet.

"I think Franklin would have approved of my adaptation," McCormick said. "I think he would have been pleased."

I would have to agree.

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gstricharchuk@tribune.com

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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