You'll Never Believe the Big Hairy Audacious Startup John Jacob Astor Created in 1808
Monday, July 17, 2017 at 9:05AM
Todd Hoff

 

Think your startup has a Big Hairy Audacious Goal? Along with President Thomas Jefferson, John Jacob Astor  conceived (in 1808), and implemented (in 1810) plan to funnel the entire tradable wealth of the westernmost sector of the North American continent north of Mexico through his own hands. Early accounts described it as “the largest commercial enterprise the world has ever known.”

Think your startup raised a lot of money? Astor put up $400,000 ($7,614,486 in today's dollars) of his own money, with more committed after the first prototype succeeded.

Think competition is new? John Jacob Astor dealt with rivals in one of three ways: he tried to buy them out; if that didn’t work, he tried to partner with them; if he failed to join them, he tried to crush them.

Think your startup requires commitment? Joining Astor required pledging five years of one’s life to a start-up venture bound for the unknownn.

Think your startup works hard? Voyageur's paddled twelve to fifteen hours per day, with short breaks while afloat for a pipe of tobacco. During that single day each voyageur would make more than thirty thousand paddle strokes. On the upper Great Lakes, the canoes traversed hundreds of miles of empty, forested shorelines and vast stretches of clear water without ports or settlements or sails, except for the scattered Indian encampment.

Think your product is complex? Astor planned, manned and outfitted one overseas and two overland expeditions to build the equivalent of a Jamestown settlement on the Pacific Coast.

Think your startup parties hard? Every nook and corner in the whole island swarmed, at all hours of the day and night, with motley groups of uproarious tipplers and whisky-hunters. It resembled a great bedlam, the frantic inmates running to and fro in wild forgetfulness. Many were eager for company and with a yen to cut loose—drinking, dancing, singing, whoring, fighting, buying knickknacks and finery from the beach’s shacks and stalls. 

Think your startup was an adventure you can never forget? I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me. Fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs. Have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I should spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life!

Think people at your startup dress weird? Above the waist, the voyageurs wore a loose-fitting and colorful plaid shirt, perhaps a blue or red, and over it, depending on the weather, a long, hooded, capelike coat called a capote. In cold winds they cinched this closed with a waist sash—the gaudier the better, often red. From the striking sash dangled a beaded pouch that contained their fire-making materials and tobacco for their “inevitable pipe.”...The true “Man of the North” wore a brightly colored feather in his cap to distinguish himself from the rabble.

Think your startup takes risks? Half of them died.

And like most startups, they accomplished a lot, but ultimately failed to earn a payout.

Thomas Jefferson said to John Jacob Astor: Your name will be handed down with that of Columbus & Raleigh, as the father of the establishment and the founder of such an empire. Unfortunately, not so much Tom. How many have heard of Astor today? Not many, unless you've traveled to Astoria, Oregon. Astoria in the right weather is a gorgeous place with a hot beer scene.

It's trite to say the reward is in the journey, but in this case the saying is true, the journey was larger than digital life.

For the complete story read: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival.

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