Ask any successful entrepreneur or investor what attributes are critical to building a successful business, and it’s a safe bet that “perseverance” will be near the top of the list.And there’s no better illustration of this than the stories of two of the country’s original successful startups — the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies.
In those days, of course, “surviving” as a startup meant something different than it means today.
In those days, surviving meant, well, surviving.
The Jamestown settlement was sponsored by venture capitalists of the Virginia Company of London, who were hoping to cash in on the presumed riches of the new world (the dotcom bubble of the day).
Jamestown launched in 1607, after several other US colonization ventures had failed. After two years of investment, the colony had grown to 214 “employees,” but had yet to export any commercial products.
Then came the winter of 1609-1610, in which a combination of drought, the delayed arrival of a convoy of supply ships, and a breakdown in trade negotiations with the Indians devastated the colony. That winter, 164 of the 214 colonists died.
This setback was so severe that in the early summer of 1610, the remaining colonists decided to abandon Jamestown and actually boarded ships for home. It was only an encounter with a new convoy of supply ships a short ways downriver–along with new senior management–that persuaded them to return to Jamestown and continue the project.
In 1612, five years after the colony’s founding, Jamestown finally figured out a business model, when a colonist named John Rolfe farmed and exported tobacco. In 1619, a dozen years after the colony was founded, the first shipload of women arrived. And then the colonists discovered slave labour, which had a beneficial impact on the bottom line.
(Not that it was smooth sailing from there. In 1622, Indians killed 347 colonists and kidnapped others. In 1644, Indians killed 500 colonists. In the next 50 years, Jamestown’s statehouse burned to the ground 4 times. For more on Jamestown, see A History Of The Jamestown Settlement).
And then there was Plymouth.
Before the Pilgrims arrived in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, the area had been the thriving home of ~2,000 Wampanoag Indians. But a few years before the Pilgrims got there, thanks to bubonic plague imported by European fishermen, 90% of Plymouth’s Wampanoag inhabitants died. This made room for the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims had intended to go to Virginia, but ended up in Massachusetts. At the end of November, 1620, they anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor on Cape Cod, where they stole corn from some Indians and debated where to establish their colony. A month later, on December 20th, they arrived in Plymouth and began to build a settlement.
The first winter was, to put it mildly, rough. There were the Indians. There was the lack of food. There was disease. There was the lack of manpower. There were the constant arguments about priorities, leadership, and rules. And there was, above all, death.
As Nathaniel Philbrick describes it in Mayflower:
“Tensions among the Pilgrims remained high. With two, sometimes three people dying a day throughout the months of February and March, there might not be a plantation left to defend by the arrival of spring. Almost everyone had lost a loved one. Christopher Martin, the Mayflower’s governor, had died in early January, soon to be followed by his wife, Mary. Three other families–the Rigsdales, Tinkers, and Turners–were entirely wiped out, with more to follow. Thirteen year-old Mary Chilton, whose father had died back in Provincetown Harbor, became an orphan when her mother passed away that winter… By the middle of March, there were four widowers… With the death of her husband, William, Susanna White…became the plantation’s only surviving widow. By the spring, 52 of the 102 who had originally arrived at Provincetown were dead.“
In other words, six months after the launch of the Plymouth startup, half of the original employees had died.
Plymouth struggled for the next several decades, and it never made a profit for its original investors. But unlike many other early settlements (and other startups), it survived.
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