Icons of business prove that the more things change, the more important things remain the same

Look at the image and listen closely. You can almost hear the young men tinkering as a single light burns in the detached one-car garage behind a modest house on Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif. It's 1938, and two classmates from the engineering program at nearby Stanford University are about to make history. With nothing more than some loose components and a bench, vise, drill press, screwdriver, metal file, and soldering iron, they will lay the foundation for what will become one of the country's most innovative technology businesses. Today, as we recall that moment, as we live with all the benefits that their company helped bring about, that image of a simple garage workshop evokes something more than just the place where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard puttered late into the night. It has been transformed into a symbol of genius and entrepreneurial achievement; one that is famous, even legendary.

Now, generations later, early efforts in the family garage have become common fodder for tinkerer legends -- Jobs and Wozniak, for example. Such ignoble beginnings can bestow an almost apocryphal glow on the most monolithic of corporations and other enterprises. It's not too far-fetched to compare such tales -- such symbols -- to the tradition set by Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, who played their own humble roots to political advantage. Just as many of their successors have tried to do the same by laying claim to their own log-cabin roots, so over the past 60 years has it become de rigueur for company founders to hark back to their humble garage origins.

But Hewlett and Packard's garage stands out from the rest. It has special currency in the business world, personifying the core values for which Hewlett-Packard would best like to be known. Yet it wouldn't mean anything if we, as both consumers and human beings, refused to play along. But we do. There is something in symbols like these that we embrace. We depend on stories, on allegory and myth and all the forms tales take, to appreciate and understand life. Because we know something of its story, that unremarkable garage speaks to us about the power of an inventive mind, a determined soul. Such symbols give us hope about our own possibilities.

Icons quench a thirst we have for meaning, for finding good in the work we do.

The symbols become, in our minds, larger than life. The Hewlett and Packard workshop is no longer just a garage. There's something sacred about it, a quality that has been bestowed. It has become an icon.

It's no wonder, then, that last year, after new HP CEO Carleton (Carly) S. Fiorina was charged with regaining the market presence that the company's founders had once commanded, she rallied the troops by returning to the garage -- in advertising, if not in reality.

In the ambitious, and ubiquitous, television ad that reintroduced the connection between HP and its heritage, the Addison Avenue garage floats into view. Fiorina's voice-over tells us that HP is looking to recapture its legacy of inventiveness. But she doesn't have to say anything more; that garage tells us all we need to know.

No marketing message can compare in sheer impact with an icon like that one. Clearly, the marketing campaign that resurrected the structure is manufactured. But the garage-as-icon grew organically, sprouting from a need of its founders, followers, customers, and observers to infuse meaning into the role the company played in their lives -- and, they hoped, in our own. The durability of the image demonstrates the heady importance that we grant to HP's achievements.

Given the quasi-sacred qualities such images assume, it's logical that the icon itself has distinctly religious roots. Originally, icons were small paintings of saints' likenesses, often adorned with images of their saintly acts, that were used to bring blessings to those who held them. Today the icons of business serve a similar, if more secular, purpose. Certainly, companies use their versions of icons to convey the promise that you'll be blessed if you do business with them. But more important, the symbols quench a thirst we have for meaning, for finding good in the work we do. They give us a sense of higher purpose. We yearn to be part of something larger than ourselves. Intellectually, we know that a suburban garage is just a suburban garage. But we accept the symbol as something more. That's why such icons often outlive the people and organizations that first embraced them. Even today, for example, the Ford Model T evokes a sense of a peculiarly American rugged simplicity and a democratization of technology. Why, the effect is almost religious.

How to build an icon
In 1984, when Apple's Steve Jobs was overseeing the creation of the Macintosh computer, his team became known as a band of renegades. They flew a skull-and-crossbones pirate flag over their building. They wore their outcast reputation proudly. And the flag became an icon for this rebel band and the personal-computing revolution they bred.

Even though most of us know that Jobs lost his job in 1985, the flapping pirate flag does not call to mind thoughts of that turn of events. Instead it continues to represent the core values that distinguished Apple, the boldness that made it great. In 1996, when Jobs made his triumphant comeback to head up Apple once again, the revival of the pirate spirit was what was most celebrated. It was the inspiration that fueled the highly successful iMac, a renegade product from a band of corporate pirates if there ever was one.

Any humble object can become an icon -- a flag, a garage. On rare occasions, even a product -- such as the fabled Model T -- can evolve into an icon if it sends a powerful enough message. But advertising images are just too crass to make it as icons. They're too artificial to carry much power.

Icons draw from real stuff. Most often they are commonplace objects or places, symbols of the humble origins from which mighty enterprises grow.

Nike's icon, for instance, is a waffle iron. In 1972 cofounder Bill Bowerman made a waffle sole in his own kitchen for the very first successful Nike running shoe. Bowerman, a track coach at the University of Oregon and coach of the U.S. track team at the Munich Olympics, believed that the stiff leather soles of the running shoes that were then available slowed his runners down. So he experimented with latex, leather, and glue, cooking the mixture in his wife's waffle iron until he got it right.

He and one of his former track stars, Phil Knight, each ponied up $500 to make 330 pairs of shoes with his new, lightweight waffle sole. They would go on to dominate the industry. The Nike swoosh may be a symbol of the brand, but only the waffle iron can be an icon. It stands for everything that Nike, as a business culture, is all about.

The same goes for Sam Walton's red-and-white 1979 Ford pickup. Today that very truck sits in the Wal-Mart Visitor's Center, in Bentonville, Ark., where the megaretailer was founded. Long after Walton's death, in 1992, his truck has come to represent the company's no-frills image and dedication to hard work. So what if Sam Walton was one of the richest men in the world? His truck was a beat-up old Ford, gosh darn it. Both it and its usefulness outlived the revered founder.

How to nurture an icon
The question is whether the icon as a symbol of the higher meaning of business is near the end of its run. Can such low-tech images hope to spark passion in the fast-paced glitterati world of the digital economy?

Well, yes. At a time when there's so much noise, so much hype, so much money, so much so much, such images are what we cry for more than ever. They stand out precisely because they're qualitatively different from the rest of the hypercharged business world. They speak to human nature, the unchanging constant in a changing world.

That's why even the poster child for the E-commerce boom,, has evolved an icon that rivals any for its humble, simple, concrete qualities. And we're not talking about some book here.

The icon by which celebrates its soaring spirit is a simple desk handmade from a wooden door, angle brackets, and two-by-fours that founder Jeff Bezos brought back from Home Depot one day. The company was just starting out, and he had to have a desk fast and cheap. Today, flush with cash and capable of buying any number of highly expensive designer desks, insists that all employees use jury-rigged desks built from doors. Why? Because the desks recall the company's roots. Like any good icon, each desk invokes a spirit of higher purpose.

Of course, to create an icon, the story must be told. Every employee quickly learns about the frugal roots of the company that the door desk represents. When writer Joshua Quittner profiled Bezos as Time's 1999 Person of the Year, he took special note of the $60 desks. An icon works only if it's easy to recognize.

Even in the digital economy, low-tech icons stand in for a company's core values. That's because although businesses are being formed in whole new ways, the values their founders preach remain the same. Hard work. Humble roots. The rise from small to great.

But something is changing. The time it takes for such humble items to reach icon status is often telescoped in this crazy dot-com world. That is due to more than the speed at which trade happens in the digital age. It also reflects our insane hunger to make sense of a "new" economy. Whereas the HP garage has been part of company lore for 60-plus years, can lay claim to an icon of its own although the company wasn't even conceived of until May 1994. And the door desk has all the power of the garage, able in a single bound of the imagination to conjure up the concept of proud service without frills.

The digital economy also can put its own spin on distinctly analog icons. In 1977, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield heard about a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream making. The two friends split the tuition and took the course, which became the icon for the earthy roots of Ben & Jerry's, the ice-cream brand they later built from that modest investment. As a symbol, the course says worlds about the company and its culture: "We're just two guys trying to figure out what to do and do it well. And we don't want to waste a lot of money we don't have doing it."

How things change. Today you can go online to read about and register for that same Ice Cream Short Course, which has been offered by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences since 1892. There's an optional closed-book test. The big news: the cost is now $915. Yet the course still has power as an icon. Icons are not about pragmatic reality. They're about evoking the themes that stir the human heart.

How to recognize an icon
We're now plunk in the middle of an economy that's been turned on its head. The thirst for quick payoffs undermines the classic notion of what business is all about: building value over the long term. In such an environment, what will be the icons of tomorrow? What can today's hot-start companies produce in terms of symbols of human aspiration? Those million-dollar checks that VCs are doling out to queued-up start-ups? Or some stack of stock options divvied among peach-fuzz-faced techno-entrepreneurs?

Not exactly suggestive of the best we have to offer. No, the icons of tomorrow won't likely involve any of the trappings of newfound wealth or high-tech flash. Instead we'll see a new rash of simple, substantial icons: more garages, flags, homemade desks, household appliances, beat-up trucks.

Company owners need icons to convince themselves that they're at work on something that's bigger than their own self-interest. Employees need them to get out of bed in the morning feeling as if their efforts contribute to a worthwhile enterprise. New icons will evolve, simply put, because we need them. Even though times change, even though the economy changes, the message behind a business icon holds steady. The values it represents -- human values -- remain dear.

How do you identify an icon? It's like knowing when you're in the presence of greatness. You just know.

Such values are often the difference between a simple business and something more. In their book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras write that the companies that had clear, consistent core values outperformed similar companies that didn't have them. For all that's different in the digital economy, what doesn't change is what inspires us. It's that inner need for doing something larger than ourselves that feeds on icons. Icons give us purpose.

So how do you identify an icon? How do you know when you're on sacred turf? There's no surefire way. It's like knowing when you're in the presence of greatness. You just know.

But here are a few clues: Icons are elegant in their dramatic simplicity. They're overpowering in the crystal-clear message they deliver. They tell you more about a company than any product ever will.

Icons become icons when they are larger than life. Who would have imagined when they finally set eyes on it that Sam Walton's beat-up old Ford truck would be far less beat up than expected and, after 13 years of use, would have a measly 65,627 miles on it? In a truck as legendary as this one is, wouldn't you think the odometer would have flipped over at least once?

About a month ago a business journalist long steeped in the HP story drove past 367 Addison Avenue to take a look at the garage where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started out. Later he admitted to being surprised by what he saw. "It's so small," he said.

What he meant was that the physical object was not imposing at all. It was merely life-size. Well, how could he have expected anything different? The HP garage has transcended the structure he saw. It has taken on epic proportions in the business world, well beyond its cement foundation and four walls.

And that's the thing about icons: They're huge. Just the way we like them.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, an editor-at-large at Inc. , is the author of The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart (John Wiley & Sons, 2000). He is also an assistant professor at Emerson College.

Marks of Greatness

Icons of our time:

  • GATEWAY In 1985, Ted Waitt and a partner borrowed $10,000 and began Gateway in a small converted barn on his father's cattle ranch in Iowa.
  • 3M In 1974, 3M chemical engineer Art Fry grew tired of having bookmarks fall out of his church hymnal. Thus the Post-it Note was born, later to become a symbol of 3M as the mother of inventiveness.
  • IDG In the 1960s, IDG founder and chairman Pat McGovern began hand-delivering Christmas cards with bonus checks to each of his 14 employees. Today he takes off three weeks every holiday season so he can continue to do the same for the company's 5,000 U.S. employees.
  • MARY KAY In the late 1960s, Mary Kay Cosmetics started rewarding its top directors with pink Cadillacs, and an icon was born.
  • DELL COMPUTER In 1984, Dell Computer was launched when 19-year-old Michael Dell started selling computers he assembled in his dorm room at the University of Texas.

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