Thanksgiving: the forgotten entrepreneurial tale

November 23, 2016

Every child in America learns of the hardships endured by the Pilgrims as they established Plymouth Colony.  Some lucky ones even learn how the Pilgrims found salvation via private property, division of labor, and capitalism.  The luckiest ones of all learn about capital preservation when a venture capital investment fails.

mayflower-and-shallop

Mayflower with shallop – William Halsall, 1882

When a group of Puritans known as “Separatists” fled England they first settled in the Netherlands, where they took menial jobs and over time grew to miss their native culture.  They lacked the resources for a passage to North America, so they sent two entrepreneurs from their congregation to London to seek financial backing – a successful merchant named John Carver and Robert Cushman, a “wool comber of some means.”  While those two were in London, an ironmonger (a dealer in metal utensils, hardware, locks, etc.) from that city named Thomas Weston was visiting one of Carver’s in-laws in the Netherlands and learned of the Pilgrims’ need for funds.

Whether we call that serendipity or opportunistic networking, it resulted in Weston putting together an investor group to back the voyage.  Weston and his London Merchant Adventurers put up 7000 pounds and also recruited experts to assist with the enterprise:  roughly 50 additional settlers with the vocational skills to help build a colony in the new world.  These “non-Separatists” crammed aboard the Mayflower with the Separatists and together became known as the Pilgrims.

What happened to that £7000 investment, you ask?  Here is the story as told at encyclopedia.com

Weston and his fellow investors were dismayed when the Mayflower returned to England in April 1621 without cargo. The malnourished Pilgrims had been subjected to “the Great Sickness” after the arrival at Plymouth, and the survivors had had little time for anything other than burying their dead and ensuring their own survival. Weston sold his London Merchant Adventurer shares in December, although he did send a ship, the Sparrow, in 1622 as his own private business venture.

The Pilgrims attempted to make their first payment by loading the Fortune, which had brought 35 additional settlers in November 1621, with beaver and otter skins and timber estimated to be worth 500 pounds. The ship was captured by French privateers and stripped of its cargo, leaving investors empty-handed again.

A second attempt, in 1624 or 1625, to ship goods to England failed when the Little James got caught in a gale in the English Channel and was seized by Barbary Coast pirates. Again the London Adventurers received nothing for their investment. Relations, always tempestuous between the colonists and their backers, faltered.

Facing a huge debt, the Pilgrims dispatched Isaac Allerton to England in 1626 to negotiate a settlement. The Adventurers, deciding their investment might never pay off, sold their shares to the Pilgrims for 1,800 pounds. Captain Smith, of the failed Jamestown venture, felt the London Merchant Adventurers had settled favorably, pointing out that the Virginia Company had invested 200,000 pounds in Jamestown and never received a shilling for their investment.

By our back-of-the-envelope calculation, the investors got back 26% of their invested capital.  If only they’d kept their long-term perspective…

On a more serious note, that outcome fits into the first category of entrepreneurial failure listed in Fail the Right Way and reflects well on those involved:

  • Liquidate all assets, investors lose most/all money: 30-40%
  • Not realizing the projected return:  70-80%
  • Falling short of initial projections: 90-95%

With “failure” this common, he urges executives to distinguish between business failure and personal failure.  It’s vital to not let the former, which can be a valuable learning experience, pressure you into the latter, which can become a career-damning ethical lapse:

Although the original backers did not get the return for which they’d hoped, the endeavor ultimately succeeded thanks to the intrepid settlers who displayed many of the noble traits found in entrepreneurs:  flexibility (they had to settle further north than intended), persistence (through brutal hardships), the value of good partners (Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe), and the courage and optimism necessary to accomplish the impossible and stupid.

All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

– William Bradford, 2nd, 5th, 7th, 9th & 11th Governor of Plymouth Colony

Our business – like every business – has its ups and down, but we have much to be thankful for.  Much.   So we’d like to take this opportunity, here at NVSE, to give thanks for the trust and patience of our Limited Partners, the initiative and dedication of our entrepreneurs, the support provided to them by the many friends in our network, and the nation that offers the freedom to pursue happiness.  We love our work, have been blessed with terrific successes and honorable failures, and get to do it all with great people in beautiful weather.   God Bless you and your families – we hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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