Guide to Small Business in History – Small business information, insight and resources | Thu, 14 Feb 2019 18:32:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 157446745 10 Amazing Facts About George Washington’s 2nd Most Successful Startup Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:00:02 +0000

On this President’s Day weekend, it’s appropriate that we take time to honor George Washington’s role in founding what is among the most successful startups in history, the United States of America. It is also worth noting that when not fathering a country, Washington was an active investor in  other startups ranging from canals (a bust) to a distillery (a huge win). To help celebrate Presidents’ Day, here are 10 amazing facts surrounding Washington’s role as a founding  father of America’s Distilled Spirits industry. 

1 | George Washington was the only founding father to start and operate a distillery.



Despite many of the nation’s founders being planters and large land owners, Washington was the only one to start a commercial distillery.

2 | George Washington didn’t start his distillery until he was 65 years old.


Washington in 1797, age 65, approximately when the distillery was open. (Portrait: WikiMedia Commons)

At this time in Washington’s life, as his second and final term as President was coming to an end, he was actively trying to simplify his farming operations and reduce his expansive land holdings. Always keen to enterprises that might earn him extra income, Washington was intrigued by the profit potential that a distillery might bring in.

3 | Before launching his  distillery, Washington had no personal experience distilling.

While he had no background in distilling, Washington was always open to innovative and creative farming practices of the day. He decided to invest in a distillery at the urging of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who had experience distilling grain in Scotland and Virginia. In what we’d call today a “startup pitch,” Anderson convinced  Washington that Mount Vernon’s crops, combined with its large commercial gristmill and the abundant water supply, would make the distillery a profitable venture.

4 | Within a year, Washington’s distillery became one of largest in the country.


The Mount Vernon Distillery and Gristmill as it would have appeared in 1799. (via:

In 1799, two years after he launched it, Washington’s distillery produced almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey. By comparison, the average Virginia distillery produced 650 gallons of whiskey per year. While there were thousands of distilleries at the time Washington started his distillery, the great majority of these were in small out-buildings about 800-square feet in size, with one still that produced a few hundred gallons of spirits during one month of operation. By comparison, Washington’s distillery measured  75 x 30 feet (2,250 square feet) operated five copper pot stills for 12 months a year.

5 | Like most successful startups, timing played a key role in the success of Washington’s  distillery.

Until the 1790s, rum was the American drink of choice. Starting in the 1790s, tastes began to shift to whiskey, prompting a boom in distilling.

6 | His distillery was part of a larger plan by Washington that included the freeing of his slaves.

Washington, a slave-holder until his death, nevertheless was the only major planter among the seven founding fathers to emancipate his slaves. The distillery was part of his effort to diversify his operations and create non-farming revenue streams. By moving away from labor-intensive activities, Washington  hoped to clear the path to freeing the more than 300 slaves who worked on his widespread land. While his will designated their emancipation upon the death of his wife, Martha, she freed them sooner, 12 months after his death.

7 | Washington’s whiskey was very different from today’s whiskey.


(Photo: David Barrett via Flickr)

Unlike the requirements of the distillation process of whiskey today, Washington was able to streamline production and distribution of his product because it was not bottled, branded, or aged. It was sold by the barrel  to merchants and nearby planters.

8 | As President, George Washington signed into law a federal tax (and led a military campaign to enforce its collection) that would make him one of the nation’s most-taxed business owners.


George Washington and his troops near Fort Cumberland, Maryland, before their march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. (via: WikiMedia Commons)

Not only did Washington sign the tax into law, he led a militia of 12,000 into western Pennsylvania to put down an insurrection now known as the Whiskey Rebellion and, in doing, established the right of the federal government to tax its population.

9 | Washington’s distillery lacked the succession planning necessary to keep it operational.

George Washington’s death in 1799 halted the brief success of the distillery. Sold soon after his death by an heir, within a decade, the building fell into disrepair and many of the stones were taken away to use in local construction projects.

10 | Mount Vernon has reconstructed a working distillery on the spot where it originally existed.

While the distillery building burned in 1814, knowledge of the operation was preserved in Washington’s writings. The land on which the building stood is  owned today by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The organization that manages Washington’s home and plantation, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, entered an agreement with the state to restore and manage the park in 1995. The site of the Distillery was excavated by Mount Vernon’s archaeologists between 1999 and 2006 and reconstruction began in 2005 and was completed in 2007. Learn more about tours of Mt. Vernon  and the distillery on The association even sells  limited batches of  whiskey each year.

(Information for this post came from three sources: The book, Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry, by Dr. Dennis Pogue, a historian and archaeologist who worked on the excavation and reconstruction of Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery; the paper,  “A Pretty Considerable Distillery: Excavating George Washington’s Whiskey Distillery” by Eleanor Breen, assistant archaeologist and Esther C. White, director of archaeology at Mount Vernon; and the informative website of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the non-profit organization that preserves and maintains Mount Vernon.)

(Originally published on on February 15, 2014)

9 Small Business Lessons From Christopher Columbus Mon, 10 Oct 2016 09:00:49 +0000 Today is Columbus Day, a U.S. holiday set aside to remember that Christopher Columbus was the first European of the modern era to sail into the New World on his way to India.  This is the day we praise Columbus for his courage and determination, or vilify him for just about everything wrong in the world today. We’ll let others argue over that. However, we think the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus provide many lessons for small business owners and managers. While our intention was to list 1,492 of them, we settled for these nine:

1. Learn a trade.


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

And by trade, we mean actually learning to trade. Columbus was a trained trader. Columbus began his apprenticeship as a business agent in 1473 and spent years trading along the coasts of West Africa.

2. Do your research.


(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Columbus learned Latin, Portuguese and Castilian, and read widely about astronomy, geography, and history, including the works of Claudius Ptolemy, Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi, the travels of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, Pliny’s The Natural History, and Pope Pius II’s Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum.

3. Fulfill a customer need.


(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Sure, there was a need for better trade routes to Asia, but the real need Columbus discovered was European monarchs’ need to replenish their war-depleted bank accounts.

4. Have a plan and know where you’re headed, but know that you’ll end up somewhere else.


While Columbus knew lots more than we learned in grade school (for example, that the earth being round was no secret), he was far off in his predictions of the size of the earth and never quite bought into the notion that the New World was not part of Asia.

5. Raising capital is never easy, and some investors will never be pleased.


If you raise outside capital, expect years of pitching, dealing with committees, rejection after rejection, failure, last-minute changes and then, if you are successful, a lifetime of lawsuits.

6. Find an opportunity where the wind is at your back.


(Photo: Wikipedia)

While the earth being round was not a breakthrough idea, Columbus benefitted from his knowledge of and use of trade winds. (Remember, he was a tradesman.)

7. Execution is everything.


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sure, the history books are filled with people who had the exact same idea as Columbus, but are we celebrating today with parades named after them?

8. Hire good lawyers.


In that poem about Columbus sailing the Ocean blue in 1492, they left out the verse where he was arrested and thrown in jail by his investors and he and his heirs spent years fighting over his backers reneging on their commitments.

9. And then, one day, when you’re invited to make a TED Talk, dazzle the audience.


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Some people will throw parades in your honor each year, while others will devote their careers to writing books equating you with all that is wrong in the world. But no matter what, start a blog and get your side of the story out there.

This Sixth-Generation Family Business Lights Up the 4th of July Sky Fri, 01 Jul 2016 14:47:12 +0000

During the next few days, millions of families in the U.S. will be taking part in an annual tradition: celebrating Independence Day by viewing a fireworks show. Some shows will be small (and dangerous) events put on by families in the neighborhood  while others will be gigantic extravaganzas staged by one of four multigenerational family businesses like Fireworks by Grucci.

Grucci is a sixth-generation, family-owned and operated company. Known as “America’s First Family of Fireworks,” the Gruccis have transformed the night skies to the delight of millions across the globe since 1850. As with any family business that has survived so long, there have been challenges and set-backs along with the successes and accolades. Most tragic was an explosion that leveled the company’s factory in 1983, killing two family members. Rising from the ashes with help from other companies, the family persevered so that today, it still excites and inspires millions of families who see their shows each year at events around the world.

A few of the historic events which have featured Fireworks by Grucci

  • Seven consecutive U.S. Presidential inaugurations
  • Olympic Games Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Lake Placid
  • Centennial of the Statue of Liberty
  • Centennial of the Brooklyn Bridge
  • 200th Anniversary of the National Anthem

See a Grucci Fireworks show | Upcoming shows

Other multi-generational fireworks families

july 4 fireworks in nashville tennessee
In addition to Grucci, there are three other family businesses going back five generations that stage major fireworks shows. Each one is over a century old and, like Grucci, were started by Italian or Portuguese immigrants. The photo above was taken during a July 4th Zambelli Fireworks display in Nashville, Tenn..

Also on

For 309 Years, This Small Business Has Chiseled American History in Stone

This American Small Business Celebrates Flag Day All Year

(Photo: Paul Polichronakis via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)


This American Small Business Celebrates Flag Day All Year Tue, 14 Jun 2016 13:08:51 +0000 In the U.S., June 14 is designated as Flag Day. The American flag was less than fifty years old when Alexander Annin began making U.S. flags for the merchant ships in his sail-making shop on the New York City waterfront in the 1820’s.

In 1847, his sons started Annin Flagmakers. Today, it is America’s oldest and largest flag company and is still family owned and operated.

The story of Annin is interwoven with the story of America itself:

  • It was an Annin flag that flew at the inauguration of President Zachary Taylor, starting an inaugural tradition.
  • An Annin flag draped the coffin of President Abraham Lincoln on its journey from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.
  • The U.S. Marines raised an American flag made by Annin atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945
  • NASA selected an American flag made by Annin to participate in Apollo 11’s mission to the moon in 1969.

Annin is one of the founders of the Flag Manufacturers Association of America (FMAA), a not-for-profit trade association, representing United States flag manufacturers and suppliers dedicated to educating and promoting the quality, variety and proper use of flags manufactured in the United States.

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This American Small Business Celebrates Flag Day All Year

Photo: NASA

How Ben Franklin Used a 21st Century Approach to Create His 18th Century Business Success Fri, 03 Jul 2015 15:21:39 +0000

Note: The members of the fife and drum corps have declared their independence from the internet until Monday, July 6. Before marching out the door, however, we decided to leave you with something about our favorite American founding father and secular patron saint of American small business, Benjamin Franklin. Happy U.S. Independence Day.

At age 70 during the mid-summer of 1776, Benjamin Franklin was, by far, the oldest member of the committee of five–the men assigned by the Second Continental Congress to draft a declaration explaining why the American colonies were breaking away from the British Crown to create the United States of America.

Franklin would live to be 84 years old, a lifespan more typical of the 21st century than the 36-year life expectancy of the late 18th century. But Franklin seemed constantly to live in the future. In an era when wealth came primarily from birth or marriage, agriculture, the sea or was bestowed by the Crown, Franklin was able to put together an integrated network of urban businesses using a strategy that seems as “21st century” as any internet startup (but without a pitch deck to convince VCs he should be funded).

Even the rags-to-riches nature of Franklin’s rise seems in-sync with today’s American prototypical business-success dream story: He was the youngest son (and 15th child) born into a working class family. While having only two years of formal education, by his mid-40s he had made enough money to retire from his commercial endeavors and was well on his way to becoming the first North American-born colonialist to be known and admired for his inventiveness throughout Europe and beyond.

He was on his way to becoming America’s first worldwide rock star.

Here are some of the 21st century ways he used  to accomplish such success.

He open-sourced all of his inventions

As we explained on a previous Independence Day, Franklin never patented any of his inventions, choosing rather to “open source” them (long before the term “open source” existed).

Why? In his autobiography, he wrote:

“As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

(We’ve also shared Thomas Jefferson‘s attitude towards patents.)

He made his fortune from media

philadelphia gazette

Franklin made his fortune by being an 18th century version of Michael Bloomberg or Ted Turner: By creating vertically integrated media and distribution businesses in which he had ownership or control of the creation, production and distribution of news and entertainment media, or what today some would call, “content.”

Much of his writing is still popular (they’re often used as 140-character tweets) as it was when he published it in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Indeed, Poor Richard’s Almanac was the BuzzFeed of his era. To keep his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, entertaining and lively, he would even write under various pseudonyms and personas to debate “with himself.”

He was a great blogger over 225 years before blogs were created.

He mastered the technology of his profession

Printing was the trade for which he first trained. His inventiveness and his knowledge of printing gave him a unique understanding of the role of both manufacturing and distribution of “content” — the business part of content. When he faced a business challenge, he did not see it merely in terms of a hurdle, but would approach it in the same way a developer today would view a “bug” — a glitch in need of a work-around or creative solution.

He mastered marketing

poor richard almanack
In his biography of Franklin, Walter Isaacson calls him “the country’s first unabashed public relations expert.” He not only was hard-working and down-to-earth, he inherently knew that he should make those practices a part of what today might be called, his “personal brand.” In his autobiography, Franklin said he “took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances of the contrary.” He then goes on to describe his carefully cultivated image:

“I drest plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; … and to show that I was not above my Business, I sometimes brought home the Paper I purchas’d at the Stores, thro’ the Streets on a Wheelbarrow.”

He mastered distribution

Postal service in the the colonies was greatly influenced by Benjamin Franklin who was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, Joint Postmaster General of the colonies for the Crown in 1753, and Postmaster for the United Colonies in 1775.

Through Franklin’s efforts, the length of time for mail service between major cities in the colonies was cut in half. While applying his intelligence and inventiveness to improving mail service, which benefitted everyone, historians have noted that his role as Postmaster of Philadelphia, helped him increase the circulation of his Pennsylvania Gazette as the position allowed him to easily deliver his newspaper via the city’s postal service. (The previous postmaster of Philadelphia was also a publisher and a competitor of Franklin.)

He created an “ecosystem” that supported his core business

Perhaps Franklin never saw the connections, but think about some of his best-known inventions, discoveries and civic service in the 18th century, and a 21st century understanding of what is now called an “ecosystem” will emerge: a quality core product, innovative manufacturing, new publishing formats and models (he missed by one day being publisher of the first magazine in the American colonies), the invention of bifocals, the creation of better ways to heat (the Franklin stove) and make homes more safe (lightening rods and the establishment of trained, volunteer firefighting units), lending libraries and more efficient postal service.

Franklin’s creative eye and inventive mind provided him the ability (perhaps sub-consciously) to identify the needs of his customers: the readers of his publications. He knew, for instance, that far-sightedness made reading difficult for aging eyes, so he created bifocals. And for evening reading, his “Franklin stove,” while never a successful venture for him, would usher in an era when warmer homes meant the ability to stay up and read publications like his Poor Richard’s Almanac by candlelight.

He created a model for business: Serve your community, and your world

Like small business owners today, Franklin understood the vital role community — both locally, regionally, nationally and worldwide — plays in success of all kinds. In his later life, his role in representing the fledgling United States to France, and the world beyond, helped spread the hope of a new form of liberty throughout the world.

Happy Independence Day!

Illustrations and art: Print by Currier & Ives.
Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait by David Martin, 1767, Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.


8 U.S. Presidents Who Started and Ran Businesses Mon, 16 Feb 2015 06:01:40 +0000 When it comes to institutions that people trust, surveys show that dramatically few people trust the government and elected officials, while small businesses are trusted at a level right up there with Mom and apple pie. (No wonder politicians, despite continuously displaying they are clueless about the impact their actions have on small businesses, claim to be the friend of small business whenever and wherever they can.)

While plenty of governors and members of Congress come from a small business background, a surprisingly small number of U.S. presidents have family businesses in their background.

Here are 8 presidents and the businesses they started.

1. George Washington, distiller


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to being Father of the Country in his time off from farming and other business interests, Washington not only put down the Whiskey Rebellion, but he also started a distillery during his retirement, making him the Founding Father of the craft distillers movement. (For more about Washington’s Distillery, see: 10 Amazing Facts About George Washington’s 2nd Most Successful Startup)

2. Abraham Lincoln, general store owner


Lincoln was a successful lawyer for railroad clients at a time rail roads were like Silicon Valley tech firms today. However, some earlier business attempts, like buying a general store with a partner, ended in failure. Indeed, for some, he’s become a symbol of perseverance and rising above failure.

3. Warren G. Harding, newspaper owner


(Photo: WikiMedia Commons)

When he was 19, Harding and two partners scraped together the $300 necessary to purchase the failing Marion (Ohio) Daily Star. Soon he owned 100% of the paper. Due, in large part, to the business acumen of his wife, Florence, Harding eventually turned the Marion Daily Star into a profitable business.

4. Herbert Hoover, mining engineer


(Photo: Wikipedia)

Recognized as a gifted mining engineer early in his career, Hoover opened a mining consulting business in 1908 that soon made him a wealthy man. His wealth also grew from mining-related investments and ventures ranging from ownership of Burmese silver mines to earning royalties from writing the leading textbook on mining engineering. Of course, since the debut of the Broadway musical “Annie,” Hoover has been known primarily as the president who engineered the economy into the Depression.

5. Harry Truman, haberdasher

Harry Truman Habedasher

(Photo: Truman Library)

The word haberdashery would be long gone from American English were it not for the brief stint spent by Harry Truman and a partner running a men’s clothing store.

6. Jimmy Carter, peanut farmer


(Photo: Carter Library)

While many presidents before him had been farmers, Jimmy Carter’s southwest Georgia peanut-producing background caught the nation’s post-Watergate fancy. However, during his presidency the best-known Carter business venture became his service-station-owner brother’s endorsement of “Billy Beer.”

7. & 8. The George Bushes, oil and gas barons, baseball team owners

Screen shot 2013-09-27 at 12
(Photo: Wikimedia commons)

While presidential politics was the actual family business, the Bushes, father and son, started various oil- and gas-related ventures independent of one another. And while he didn’t start it, George W. Bush’s 2% ownership stake in the Texas Rangers provided a return on his investment that was worth a lifetime supply of peanuts and Cracker Jacks.

This article first appeared on on February 16, 2014


(Featured image: Truman Library)

Lessons From Two Failed Small Businessmen Who Won the Civil War Mon, 06 Oct 2014 14:14:37 +0000 This year (2014) marks the 150th anniversary of several major turning points in the American Civil War that would lead to its conclusion the following spring. Symbolic of the coming end to the war were the selection of the two men who would lead the Union to victory in April of 1865. In March of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was appointed general-in-chief of the Union Army. And on November 9 of that year, Abraham Lincoln was reelected as President and, of course, commander-in-chief.

That these two men would together lead the North to victory and restore the Union is all the more amazing when one considers their prior failures in business. Grant failed repeatedly and Lincoln failed at business and politics, repeatedly. (He did enjoy success as a lawyer, however.)

This week, our Monday Motivation is a brief look at how these men were able to put failure behind them, and to learn from lessons they taught that still can inspire us 150 years later.

Ulysses S. Grant: Keep moving forward

Prior to the Civil War, Grant was a serial business failure. He failed at farming, bill collecting and leather tanning. But he became a living example of a philosophy that teaches steadfastness and refusal to let failing define one as a failure. He was the embodiment of what, 80 years later, would be implored  by Winston Churchill during World War 2, when he said, “never give in, never give in, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Grant served as the general who, for Lincoln, never gave in. When the Union needed someone to step up, to lead the Army, it was Grant who Lincoln looked to, and who, finally, carried out his wishes.

But even after his promotion, he still failed miserably at the battle of the Wilderness, suffering heavy losses and coming under media fire for being a “butcher.” But unlike other Union generals before him, Grant did not let defeat stop him. As Ken Burns wrote in the script of his 1989 documentary, The Civil War, “What was different about Grant became clear the next morning, when he gave the order to march. For the first time after a defeat, the Army of the Potomac was moving forward.”

Lesson: Keep looking for a way to make it work. Don’t stop when a battle is lost. The war can still be won.

Abraham Lincoln: Lead with dignity, humility and humanity

Though the degree of Lincoln’s pre-war failures is still debated, his ability to overcome many challenges during his life surely contributed to his genius as a leader during the war. While books have been written with long lists of examples of such leadership, here’s one any business owner or manager should know, and be inspired by.

In her biography of Lincoln and his war-time cabinet, Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talks of Lincoln’s use of “hot letters” — angry missives he would write in the wake of some failure he would observe by those under his command. But unlike those of us who are quick to hit “send” on an angry email, Lincoln would put such “hot letters” aside. She gives as an example the refusal of Gen. George Meade to pursue the retreating Robert E. Lee after the Battle of Gettysburg:

“Later that afternoon, Lincoln wrote a frank letter to General Meade … (stating) that he was ‘distressed immeasurably’ by ‘the magnitude of the misfortune involved in (Gen. Robert E.) Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.’ Before sending the letter, which he knew would leave Meade disconsolate, Lincoln held back as he often did when he was upset or angry, waiting for his emotions to settle. In the end, he placed the letter in an envelope inscribed: ‘To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed.'”

Lesson: In this era of Twitter, you have limitless opportunities to make your disappointment known by everyone. But should you? Rarely in the heat of the moment. “Never sent, or signed,” is often the better mark of a great leader.

(Feature image via Wikipedia)

]]> 11855 Thomas Jefferson’s Views on Patents and Intellectual Property Rights Fri, 04 Jul 2014 13:45:32 +0000

Originally published on July 4, 2014

As part of this week’s lead up to today’s U.S. Independence Day, we noted that Benjamin Franklin, a member of the Committee of Five responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence, opposed patents and never sought one for his long list of inventions, nor did he copyright the writings that were the source of much of his wealth. Thomas Jefferson, another member of the Committee of Five, and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was, like Franklin, a prolific writer, scientist and inventor. However, Thomas Jefferson’s views on patents and intellectual property rights were more nuanced and evolving than Franklin’s.

Also on | Ben Franklin Never Sought a Patent or Copyright

According to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, a resource of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, in 1787 Jefferson’s opposition to monopoly in any form led him to oppose patents. But by 1789, Jefferson’s firm opposition had weakened. Writing to James Madison that year, Jefferson said he approved the Bill of Rights as far as it went, but would like to see the addition of an article specifying that “Monopolies may be allowed to person for their own productions in literature, and their own inventions in the arts, for a term not exceeding (a set period of years) but for no longer term and for no other purpose.”

After leaving the White House (he was President from 1801-1809) and returning to Monticello, Jefferson wrote* the following in 1814, two centuries ago, this year.:

“England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices

“A man has a right to use a saw, an axe, a plane, separately; may he not combine their uses on the same piece of wood? He has a right to use his knife to cut his meat, a fork to hold it; may a patentee take from him the right to combine their use on the same subject? Such a law, instead of enlarging our conveniences, as was intended, would most fearfully abridge them, and crowd us by monopolies out of the use of the things we have.”

*From: Letter to Oliver Evans, (Jaunary 16, 1814); published in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1905) Vol. 13, p. 66.

There’s so much to learn from history | Be sure to check out our growing Guide to Small Business in History

(Jefferson portrait via Wikimedia Commons)

For 309 Years, This Small Business Has Chiseled American History in Stone Thu, 03 Jul 2014 11:15:29 +0000

Founded in 1705, 71 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, The John Stevens Shop in Newport, RI, continues to design and hand-letter one-of-a-kind inscriptions in stone, practicing a craft and using methods and tools that date back to the Romans. Nicholas Waite Benson, 49, has been the owner and creative director of the business since 1993. A MacArthur Fellow (sometimes called, “the genius grant”), Nick began working at the shop at age 15 with his father, John Everett Benson. In turn, John Everett Benson learned stone carving from his father, John Howard Benson, at the age of 15.

How to keep a business running for 309 years

The work of Nick Benson and his staff will be around for centuries. It seems only appropriate that the company creating that work has been around for centuries as well. After John Stevens founded the shop, it was maintained by six generations of Stevenses, until Nick’s grandfather, a printer, artist and stone carver, bought it in the 1920s. It is one of the oldest continuously-operated business in the U.S..

According to Nick, he wasn’t all that interested in the family business during his childhood. “I began carving lettering in 1979, but I didn’t give it much thought until I got to college, and that’s when I realized what an interesting place the shop was,” he said in a 2013 interview with American Spirit magazine. His family’s reputation helps his business secure major jobs like national memorials and famed architectural work. “My grandfather’s Iwo Jima Memorial designs helped my father get involved with the JFK Memorial in Arlington Cemetery, which is how I got involved with the World War II Memorial.”

“If you devote yourself to producing the highest standard of work, the business will follow. Never compromise on standards,” he told

The work of the John Stevens Shop

john stevens shop

Some of the monuments and memorials where you can see the hand- lettering of the craftsmen of the John Stevens Shop:

  • Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
  • The John F. Kennedy Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia
  • The Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama
  • The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Roosevelt Island, New York, New York
  • The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial,  Washington, DC
  • Gravestones for Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and George Balanchine
  • The Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts
  • The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • The Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas
  • The Chicago Mercantile Exchange Center, Chicago, Illinois

Featured Photo: (L-R) John Benson and his son, Nicholas Benson. Photo via:

Benjamin Franklin Never Sought a Patent or Copyright Tue, 01 Jul 2014 16:38:26 +0000 It’s fairly common knowledge that Ben Franklin, a member of the Committee of Five responsible for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, was one of America’s first great entrepreneurs. From an extremely humble background (the youngest son of 17 children of a candle-maker), his businesses and inventions made him the first worldwide celebrity born in the American colonies. He was wealthy enough to retire at age 42 and to devote the rest of his life to scientific and public service  endeavors.

Here are some of Franklin’s inventions and discoveries

  • Bifocals
  • Lightning Rod
  • Franklin Stove
  • Mapping of the Gulf Stream
  • Properties of Electricity
  • Swim Fins
  • Library Chair
  • Street LIghting
  • Glass Armonica (musical instrument)
  • Flexible Urinary Catheter
  • Odometer
  • Long Arm (to reach high book shelves)

There’s so much to learn from history | Be sure to check out our growing Guide to Small Business in History

However, Franklin chose never to patent any of his inventions or register any copyright

In his autobiography he wrote:

“As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

In his book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, author Lewis Hyde explains that Franklin believed that any claim to own his ideas and inventions could only lead to the kind of disputes that “sour one’s Temper and disturb one’s Quiet.” It was for that reason, Franklin never took a patent or registered a copyright. (Ironically, others received patents for his inventions in other countries. And some have pointed out the ironic inclusion of a copyright message at the bottom of this Boston Globe website page.


Also on | Thomas Jefferson’s Views on Patents and Intellectual Property Rights

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