Remembering Bernard A. Goldhirsh, the entrepreneur extraordinaire who founded Inc.
Unless you were born before, say, 1957, you probably don't remember when it was not considered a compliment to be called "entrepreneurial." Back in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, entrepreneurs were generally looked upon as shifty characters with little or no redeeming social value. The media ignored them, and academia deplored them, and their companies got no more respect than they did. When people talked about business, they were referring to large, well-established, publicly traded companies. Smaller, private companies were regarded as fringe elements, and therefore unimportant by definition.
All that began to change in the early 1980s, in no small measure because of the influence of one man, Bernard A. Goldhirsh, the founder of this magazine, who died on June 29, 2003. He had been battling brain cancer for more than three years. He was 63.
Inc. seemed like a long shot when Bernie published the magazine's first issue in April 1979. Prior to the launch, he hired a couple of industry veterans as consultants, and they'd assured him there was no market for such a publication. Bernie's own market research told him otherwise, however, as did his personal experience. Indeed, the idea for Inc. had come, he said, from his frustration as the founder and president of a rapidly growing publishing company, a business he had started almost by accident.
An ardent sailor, he had knocked around the Caribbean following his graduation from MIT in 1961. Later he chartered a ketch and took paying student sailors to South America. After returning to Boston, he began producing educational booklets on sailing, which -- by 1970 -- had evolved into a magazine called Sail. After Sail came Motor Boat, and Marine Business, and Bernie suddenly found himself with a real company to run. As sales grew to $12 million, he was confronted with management issues he'd never thought about before. In vain he scoured the business press for articles that would help him deal with them. Figuring that others must be searching for the same type of information, he decided to start Inc. His instincts were soon vindicated. The launch of Inc. was one of the most successful in magazine history. Using an unorthodox strategy, Bernie built a subscriber base from a controlled (that is, unpaid but targeted) circulation of 400,000 in 1979 to a paid circulation of 650,000 less than six years later. (He financed the growth by selling Sail.) Even more remarkable, the magazine was profitable within two years of its founding.
I had the good fortune to go to work for Bernie in 1983, first as a senior editor, then as executive editor of Inc. Those were heady times. The personal computer revolution was just beginning to unfold. A whole generation of great new companies -- from Ben & Jerry's to Microsoft to Patagonia -- was being born. As for the magazine, it was growing like crazy. We would frequently be told a few days before closing that our sales people had sold more advertising than expected, and so we had to come up with additional editorial material to fill the extra pages. It was chaotic, thrilling, maddening, and exhilarating -- just like the start-up experiences we were writing about in the magazine. We did not, in fact, have to go far to learn about the world we were covering. We were living in it. Our particular corner of that world was located in a building Bernie owned on Commercial Wharf in Boston, a piece of the waterfront he'd acquired long before it became prime real estate. From our offices, we could hear the call of seagulls and the sound of halyards slapping against the masts of sailboats docked alongside the wharf, one of which belonged to Bernie and was available for our use.
Bernie himself was like no one else I'd ever worked for. Although he was definitely in charge, he didn't fit my image of the boss. He had a Woody Allenish quality -- short, Jewish, a little eccentric, very sharp but also somewhat absent-minded, prone to drawing odd connections between remarkably disparate things. An intensely curious person, he loved to get into long, rambling conversations about sailing, modern dance, inner-city entrepreneurship, the writing process, Buckminster Fuller, mathematics, celestial navigation, the challenges of parenthood. He wore chinos, a polo shirt, and Topsiders with no socks to work -- and he had little regard for rank or status. He took a personal interest in whomever he came in contact with, be they Nobel laureates or maintenance personnel.
"You're not just writing for a rational person. You are writing for someone who has the soul of an artist, and his expression is business."
Unusual for a magazine owner, Bernie seldom interfered in editorial matters. He liked to say that he'd built the stage on which the editorial staff could perform. That is not to say that he did not exert a profound and enduring influence on the product. In his own way, he kept everyone focused on the mission and inspired by the vision. Business was like sailing, he said, and Inc. was about helping people on the "rocky voyage from the garage to the fully managed organization." As he wrote in Inc.'s 10th anniversary issue, "The part of sailing that I really like is this: When people go to sea, they have a need for self-reliance and at the same time they are dependent on one another. Much of the satisfaction comes from the mutual trust that develops, particularly after coming through a bad storm....It's the same whether you're sailing a ship across the Atlantic or taking your company from start-up to its destination. There are storms, there are calms, and, most important, there are people pulling together to achieve common objectives."
Bernie liked to tell one story in particular, about an experience he'd had as an undergraduate at MIT. He'd taken a semester off and gone to work for Dr. Edwin Land at Polaroid, which was a thriving enterprise at the time. There he became part of a small group of people charged with inventing the cameras of the future. "Dr. Land [was] like a hero to me," he recalled in an interview with Family Business Quarterly last year. "Here was this fast-growing company, creating all kinds of jobs, created by this one man with an idea. And I thought, 'This is so fantastic, that one person can do so much in terms of creating a business, creating an enterprise, creating jobs, increasing the tax base.' So much good comes out of this one person and his idea and his willingness to go ahead and start a business."
To Bernie, entrepreneurs were the artists of the business world. They created businesses "from nothing, just blank canvas," he said. "It's amazing. Somebody goes into a garage, has nothing but an idea, and out of the garage comes a company, a living company. It's so special what they do. They are a treasure." One goal of Inc. was to put a spotlight on that process "so that legislators wouldn't screw it up, so that there would always be a fertile environment [for entrepreneurship]. And second, we wanted people who are entrepreneurs to feel a part of this community of special people. I always tried to tell the editors to think of the businessperson as an artist using both sides of his brain. You're not just writing for a rational person. You are writing for someone who has the soul of an artist, and his expression is business."
Aside from protecting the process and building the community, Bernie also tried to convey to us the larger meaning of it all. He challenged us to think about the role of entrepreneurship in the world. Last fall, for example, when he met with John Koten, George Gendron's successor, he recommended two articles that he felt exemplified the spirit of the entrepreneur. The first came from Inc. -- a wonderful piece on Harry Quadracci and Quad/Graphics by Ellen Wojahn that appeared in our October 1983 issue. The other was an article from The Wall Street Journal by Roger Thurow from July 26, 2002. It was about a village in the African nation of Mali where life had been transformed by the introduction of a simple, inexpensive, diesel-powered machine for grinding nuts and grains. What had once been a three-day task could now be done in 15 minutes. With all that free time, the women of the village -- who managed the business that grew up around the machine -- were learning to read and starting their own small ventures. School attendance had soared. Electric lights had been installed. The maternity clinic delivered more healthy babies. People had hope.
Bernie loved the article because it showed the good that imagination, creativity, and entrepreneurship could do. He lived his own life in that spirit right up to the end. He approached his battle with cancer as another adventure, learning all he could about the disease and its treatment, even going so far as to watch one of his brain operations live on a television monitor.
At the insistence of his doctors, Bernie sold Inc. in 2000, though not without extremely mixed feelings. He believed that -- in an era of corporate scandal and widespread cynicism about business -- the magazine's mission was more important than ever, and that its best years lay ahead. Out of the proceeds of the sale, he gave $20 million to his employees and put another $50 million into a foundation he set up to fund cutting-edge research into brain cancer. His desire throughout was to leave the world a better place than he'd found it.