A long time ago, a guy flew a kite in a storm. When lightning struck it, the current traveled down the string of the kite to a key, giving the victim a jolt of electricity. Who was that famous scientist?
Jacques de Romas.
Wait, that’s not right. Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin?
Well, not according to historians. The Bordeaux Academy and The French Academy both credit de Romas for successfully being the first to complete The Kite Experiment. Even Mythbusters believe they’ve busted Franklin’s claim–the shock from the reported key would have easily killed him.
So what’s the point? Franklin didn’t do the experiment–in fact, he didn’t even discover electricity. A guy named Thomas-François Dalibard had proven a month prior to Franklin that lightning was electricity through an experiment similar to The Kite Experiment (but he used a lightning rod, which probably explains why he lived to describe the experiment).
So why aren’t grade school kids taught about Thomas-François Dalibard’s discovery. Why isn’t de Romas flying the kite in that painting? Why is Franklin so famous for something he probably didn’t even do?
I enjoy helping entrepreneurs figure out how to start and grow businesses. And I’ve had a chance to work with some new entrepreneurs at Starter School here in Chicago. At a recent talk I gave, one question stuck in my mind. The young entrepreneur asked, “Now that I’ve built a product, how do I get it to spread?” This entrepreneur recognizes that having a good idea and building a great product isn’t enough.
In a paper studying how we can predict success, researchers found that given a market where people are trying to pick things that are of good quality (e.g., movies, music), as soon as you give consumers extra social information (e.g., number of downloads, likes, stars, votes), the success of good products becomes unpredictable.
We can’t predict successful things just based on how good they are. Our social influence over each other messes up our ability to choose. So how do we get our products to spread if it’s not enough to rely on making something great?
I believe we can find some answers if we explore why Benjamin Franklin is so famous for his mythical kite.
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, and already at 12 years old he was learning how to build an audience.
He became an apprentice to his brother, James, who taught him the printing business. And when Franklin was 15, James founded a newspaper, The New-England Courant. Franklin wanted to write for the newspaper, but James wouldn’t allow it. So the rebellious teenager just wrote under a pseudonym, Mrs. Silence Dogood.
He was hooked. He kept on writing, and working in the printing and newspaper businesses.
Let’s look at this quote from Mythbusters about how The Kite Experiment myth began:
The American legend likely sprang from an article Franklin wrote for the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1752 describing a theoretical kite-lightning experiment.
There’s Franklin writing an article for the Pennsylvania Gazette. But Franklin wasn’t just an occasional writer there. He owned the Pennsylvania Gazette! And the Pennsylvania Gazette was the most read newspaper of the American colonies.
Franklin knew the power of writing and owning ways to distribute his messages. So he spent significant time writing for newspapers, publishing books, even running a newspaper–in other words, building an audience before he even had much to spread.
So when Franklin was writing about theoretical experiments, it was his name that traveled far and wide because of the audience he had spent years cultivating.
You’ve likely heard of a recent startup called Product Hunt, a popular site listing new product launches. Its founder, Ryan Hoover, is frequently appearing in technology news and popular blogs, and getting some nice TV coverage.
Most people see the “overnight success.” But if you peek just a little bit further back, you’ll see Ryan doing something similar to Benjamin Franklin.
He was writing.
Ryan was a product manager at a company called PlayHaven. And during his time there, he knew he wanted to create a business, he just didn’t know what it would be. But instead of squandering his time dreaming about starting a business, he built an audience.
He put a ton of effort into his blog, Twitter, and getting articles in popular online magazines like PandoDaily and Fast Company, writing about other people’s products and what made them successful.
And his audience grew.
When the time finally came to tell people about a product he built, he didn’t have to go looking for a way to spread it, he already had it.
Look at one of the first articles talking about Product Hunt on Fast Company. Who wrote it? Ryan Hoover. And editors at other magazines were happy to spread Ryan’s news… because he had already been helping them.
Benjamin Franklin also had another genius idea to help spread his work–he created a hub of smart people interested in helping each other out, the Junto.
Look at some of the questions Franklin created to guide a Junto meeting:
- In what manner can the Junto, or any of them, assist you in any of your honourable designs?
- Hath any body attacked your reputation lately? and what can the Junto do towards securing it?
- Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto, or any of them, can procure for you?
The Junto was created to help spread the ideas of Franklin and his fellow members.
Before Product Hunt was created, Ryan was creating his own group, Startup Edition. He asked a group of like-minded bloggers, including myself, to blog about the same topic each week. We joined because of our interests, but also because of a slightly selfish reason–the extra value the group brought to each other: shared traffic. If someone like Adii Pienaar wrote a great post, then the rest of us enjoyed benefiting from his blog traffic as he linked back to the group.
And when Ryan had built a product of his own, the folks in Startup Edition were some of the first people to spread the word.
If you’re dreaming about your own business, but reading this while working for someone else, or maybe you’ve already started something, but it’s far from being ready or good, don’t squander this time. Don’t wait. Start writing, teaching, and publishing today. Form groups of like-minded people and friends. So when you do have something of your own to spread, you’ll already have an audience happy to help.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. –Benjamin Franklin
And Franklin did both.