2 Philadelphia giants provide great entrepreneurial inspiration

By Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry

First published in UT San Diego, August 28, 2012

On our recent trip to Philadelphia, we met two fascinating entrepreneurs — who ironically lived across the street from each other. One was Albert C. Barnes, M.D., and the other was Benjamin Franklin. While both are not alive, their entrepreneurial legacy lives on.

Barnes was a physician and chemist — he never practiced medicine but rather was a lab rat — who in 1912 invented an early anti-gonorrhea drug called Argyrol, and it proved to be efficacious and valuable. It made Barnes at the age of 40 an extremely wealthy man, and he set out to amass the world’s largest single collection of Impressionist paintings — which is exactly what he did.

Note to entrepreneurs: He did not patent the formula. Instead, he relied on the principle of trade secret protection and sold the product directly to physicians. Right before the stock market crash and the Great Depression, he sold the company for $6 million cash. It was also right before the advent of modern antibiotics.

Rule No. 201: Never ever discount the power of timing and good fortune.

Barnes started his art collection by giving $20,000 to William Glackens, his high school chum and painter, and told him to go to Paris and buy some paintings. After that initial foray, Barnes personally picked out the next 811 paintings. He became a connoisseur.

What made Barnes exceptional was that he did not just hang the paintings on the wall; he arranged them in ensembles — large groupings of six to 10 paintings, so that you both looked at the single paintings and at the entire group.

Then he exhibited one of the most salient features of entrepreneurship: control. He did not open his museum to anyone other than art students or people he knew and liked. In the early days, it was only open 2½ days per week.

Barnes refused to be impressed by the rich and famous. Once, he received a letter from J.P. Morgan, who asked to come see “his most amazing collection,” and the letter was signed and sent by Morgan’s secretary. Barnes wrote back that he was busy “trying to set the goldfish swallowing record,” and he signed it as the “third assistant secretary.”

Rule No. 105: Even the rich and powerful can be held at bay by the conviction of a single person. And the corollary: Always send your own letters.

Barnes had another entrepreneurial trait: a healthy sense of humor. In a room ensemble, he would place a lovely wooden chair under a painting of a voluptuous nude by Renoir, with the obvious connection being that this might be where she could sit down.

The history of the Barnes Foundation is fraught with intrigue and mismanagement. Barnes himself forbade any changes of any kind to his art collection, which initially was located in the Philadelphia suburbs. But a new museum was built in downtown Philadelphia, suggesting that no man can legislate from the grave.

As for Ben Franklin, one can only marvel at his inventions — electricity was a nice one. What moved us was the Franklin Institute. Like our own Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, it provides science education for young people. It was nice to pretend to be a child again and wonder at the world — also an entrepreneurial trait.

We particularly liked the Baldwin locomotive, the largest ever built in the world, but was a failure because it weighed so much that it broke the tracks.

Rule No. 126: Measure twice, cut once.

At the planetarium, we watched a movie about stars, galaxies, black holes and singularity. One comes away with one key thought: We cannot be the only intelligent life in the universe. It is a really big place. And what it tells all entrepreneurs is that there are no boundaries.

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