I recently attended the 2015 summit of Small Giants in Dallas. (Small Giants is an organization of companies based on the principles limned so ably in Bo Burlingham's 2006 eponymously titled best seller.) It was a most enjoyable and enlightening event. A great place to meet kindred entrepreneurial colleagues and spiritual fellow travelers. But the revelation of my trip to Dallas was not this formal gathering of entrepreneurs per se. No. The revelation for me was the man Bo Burlingham himself.
I've always liked Bo Burlingham a lot as we've frequently passed in the night over the last decade in New York and at various Inc. Magazine conventions and venues. He has always been a man of bonhomie, empathy, and great good humor, as well as journalistic excellence. But, after hearing Bo interviewed at the Small Giants Convention, there is more I want to say about him.
Bo was quizzed in depth for over an hour by entrepreneur Rob Dube of Detroit. What was revealed was no less than a man who had personally and actively participated in the major events of the latter half of the 20th century and beyond-not just as a keen-eyed observer, but also as an active participant in history itself.
Though Burlingham has interviewed hundreds of businessmen in his time, he is clearly not a man at ease being interviewed. His first words were, "OK, let's get this over with," as he squirmed a little uneasily prior to being questioned on the stage. He is palpably uncomfortable in a personal spotlight. Bo would never be comfortable on a popular business entertainment like Shark Tank. He is clearly much more at ease as an amanuensis to entrepreneurship than as a subject himself, much like James Boswell was to 18th century literary lion Samuel Johnson.
Yet a fascinating subject he is. His father was incapacitated by a stroke when Bo was young and he was raised by his mother, a Boston Brahman and a veritable force of nature, who was a friend and kindred spirit of radical feminist Congresswoman Bella Abzug and twice ran for congress herself. Once at the age of 70. Previously she had been an aide to Owen Lattimore, the controversial ambassador to China, who was accused of being a Communist during the McCarthy era. So Bo was drafted at a very early age into the most outre, activist political culture of his time, a path he continued when he went to Princeton in the 1960s.
At Princeton, Burlingham quickly became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements and was a founding member of SDS, the most radical anti-war organization in the U.S. at the time and, indeed, was briefly a member of the Weathermen, a violent, revolutionary fringe of SDS. (He resigned before the Weathermen, who became the Weather Underground, started actually blowing up police stations.) At one time he was indicted for conspiracy to violate the Federal Firearms and Explosives Act by John Mitchell, Attorney General during the Nixon administration, and was also accused of involvement in a bombing at the University of Wisconsin, a charge which turned out to be false. He was followed by the FBI for many years.
He received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in France and wound up in Paris during the massive student protests of May 1968, thus becoming what the French still call a "68er."
So how did this left wing loon become editor of Inc. Magazine and, eventually, an outspoken supporter of entrepreneurship and creative capitalism? (His path is not unlike that of John Mackey of Whole Foods, as reported in Mackey's book, Conscious Capitalism.)
Well, after leaving the Weathermen, he became news director for WBCN in Boston, one of the first FM rock and roll stations. Years later he went to work at Fidelity Investments, where he wrote for Peter Lynch and other leading portfolio managers. He also wrote for Harper's, Esquire, Mother Jones, and The Boston Gobe. In 1983, he was hired by Inc. editor-in-chief George Gendron and quickly rose to be executive editor of Inc. Magazine.
1983 was right at the beginning of the entrepreneurial economy, and Inc. Magazine not only documented the new startup business culture (it was the first magazine to put Steve Jobs on its cover), but was, indeed, a startup itself. Burlingham was uniquely positioned to observe and document the aborning blossoming of entrepreneurship, startup culture and their creative evolution. He became an authoritative and passionate scribe of the modern entrepreneurial trope.
On Tuesday, 9/11/2001 Burlingham was scheduled to be on American Flight 10 out of Boston. At the last minute his wife changed his flight to the next day and Bo did not die in the terrorist immolation that followed. Thank goodness.
I can hardly scratch the surface of the rich and useful life of Bo Burlingham in this column. Whether by accident or conscious choice, Burlingham has been at the center of burgeoning small business culture and its history, both as participant and observer, for four decades.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "A man must participate in the great events of his time or run the risk of being judged not to have lived at all." Bo Burlingham has certainly lived a meaningful life in the red hot center of the history of his day. His seminal book Small Giants is soon to be re-released in a revised and updated form on its ten year anniversary. If you haven't read it, don't miss it on its re-release. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, says this about Small Giants, "This well-written book should inspire thousands of entrepreneurs to reject a mantra of growth for growth's sake in favor of a passionate dedication to becoming the absolute best. Bo Burlingham reminds us of a vital truth: Big does not equal great, and great does not equal big."
Not only has Burlingham been one of America's foremost business journalists for many years, he writes out of a profoundly generous spirit and a committed life. He is a modest, humble, even diffident man and an American original. He is a treasure of entrepreneurship and a scholar of observational brilliance who remains an evolving idealist. He is not only a likable man, but also an under-appreciated hero of business journalism.
I sincerely hope he will write a personal memoir before he hangs up his spurs. For, as Linda Loman speaks so fervently about her husband Willy in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, "Attention must be paid."
Attention should be paid to Bo Burlingham, both for his work and for his life.