Richter Scale

Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Franchiser?

Discover how the polymath and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin gave shape to one of America’s most potent business concepts.

Credit: Stephan Richter/The Globalist (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Takeaways


  • Franklin was a practical man of action, often weaving civic responsibility (setting up fire departments) with a mercantile aspect (establishing fire insurance).
  • How many print shops could markets like New York and Philadelphia sustain? Not very many, unless one wanted to face ruinous competition.
  • As a printer in Philadelphia, Franklin trained a lot of young men who would be qualified to run rival shops. That meant the city would have a glut of printers.

We all know that Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, was a polymath, a multitalented man who left his mark on a broad variety of fields. But few people realize that Franklin, whose primary trade was that of a printer, was also a very successful franchiser.

How did that come about? As the Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World exhibit (currently on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) makes clear, young men of Franklin’s era were eager to start out their careers by learning a real trade. They became apprentices, as early as the age of 12, and toiled away in a craftsman’s shop for years to learn the trade.

In fact, fathers often had to pay for their sons to be accepted as an apprentice. In a tell-tale sign of the deep roots of capitalism, the more promising and lucrative the trade their children were learning (and hence the higher its potential earnings), the higher the fee those fathers had to pay to the shop owner and master craftsman.

Franklin spent the first 20 years of his career in the printing business, a trade he was so proud that, despite all his other accomplishments, he most wanted to be remembered as “B. Franklin, Printer.” Born into an extremely large family of modest means (Franklin was the 15th child of his father, Josiah Franklin, a soap and candle maker in Boston), he focused on becoming wealthy in the process.

As a result of the wealth he acquired, he could indulge in many gentlemanly pursuits in his later life, including a deep involvement in the sciences, civic action, diplomacy and nation-founding. In addition, he was a prolific writer and pamphleteer.

In today’s parlance, we would probably have to call him the colonies’ most successful commercial blogger, because he opined on virtually everything and knew how to turn his “blogging” (such as Poor Richard’s Almanack) into significant revenue streams.

The amazing thing about Franklin, however, was that when he saw a problem and put his mind to it, he could — pretty much without fail — either invent something or set up a civic organization to fix it. He was no mere talker, but a very practical man of action, often weaving civic responsibility (as in setting up fire departments) with a mercantile aspect (such as establishing fire insurance).

Thus, a key dimension of his success was not just his genius and relentless industriousness. He also knew how to mix up personal business interests with politics — that is, reaping the benefits of high office.

A far-flung network

Beginning in 1730, with his election as official printer of Pennsylvania, Franklin’s public career began to take off. In 1737, he was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia. While in office, he also set up a network of printing shops along the East coast of today’s United States and in the Caribbean. As the National Archives exhibit illustrates, Franklin’s business network tracked very closely to the key locations of the budding nation’s postal map.

But just why was Franklin so keen to set up such a far-flung network of printing shops, centuries before Kinko’s and electronic data transmission? To Franklin, it was self-evident. As a printer in Philadelphia, he had trained a lot of young men over the years who would be qualified to run rival shops one day.

This glut of qualified printers was a potential problem. After all, how many print shops could markets like New York and Philadelphia sustain? Not very many, unless one wanted to face ruinous competition.

And this is precisely the reason that led Franklin to becoming what seems like the first successful franchiser in the history of the United States. He provided these young men with start-up capital, equipment, advice and access to his wide network of connections, provided they packed up and opened their shops somewhere else in the colonies, far away from Philadelphia.

And, of course, as any good businessman would, he collected a percentage of the new operations’ profits.

Hence, an anti-competitive move in one locale — a town that was then the de facto capital of the United States — led to a skills dispersion and a multiplying of profit opportunities across the emerging nation. That is precisely what franchising is all about — and reason enough to bestow another honorific on Franklin as the emerging nation’s first franchiser.

And one more feather in his cap. It was Franklin, posted in Paris, who negotiated an agreement with the French to provide material and financial support to the American revolution. All told, he managed to extract $13 billion dollars out of French coffers.

A lot of money then, a lot of money now. But Franklin made sure that his mission was accomplished. The war of liberation the French financed for the Americans was indeed necessary and turned into one of the more spectacular human ventures of modern time.

The exhibit Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, currently on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., will end its five-city run on May 6, 2012.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist.

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