The early history of Forbes
Jan 20, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As we’ve discussed in a previous feature, tough times can often inspire society’s biggest advancements. I was enjoying this article on a resurgence in the craft economy and it got me thinking. Success in business comes in many forms, but it wasn’t always easily defined. For example the term “entrepreneur” was first coined in the 1800s by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say. Early translations of this word read as “adventurer.” I love that definition. It speaks to the concept of a person exploring an idea with passionate focus – of finding previously unearthed opportunities. It’s a cavalier and bold approach to life. (And one that seems to strengthen when favorable circumstances are in short supply.) Benjamin Franklin, considered America’s first entrepreneur, grew his business during a time of great unrest. The founding of a nation is a messy and complicated affair. For most business people it would seem like a time to exercise caution. But for innovators like Franklin, it signaled hope.
The early 1900s was another difficult season for America (particularly 1917-1918). The world was waging its first great war, unsure as to when the torment would end. On the heels of this conflict a global pandemic would kill millions. If you scroll through a timeline of these years it seems like every week touted a troubling headline. Revolutions and assassinations permeated every layer of media. Yet there were moments of change: the debut of the Pulitzer Prize, the first women elected to office, and the first edition of Forbes magazine hit newsstands. Forbes was one of the first publications dedicated to American business, shining a light on the developments of industry in a time when doom and gloom reigned. While we find ourselves in another challenging period, let’s look at the early history of Forbes.
B.C. Forbes grew up in a big family, the sixth of ten kids. As a youngster in Scotland he developed a love of storytelling and dreamed of becoming his own boss. Given that combination, it’s no wonder that at as a teenager he packed his bags for far-flung places. His first port of call was South Africa where he worked as a writer for Rand Daily Mail. But as adventurers do, he dreamed of the next big thing. By his 24th birthday Forbes decided to embark on his next chapter. This time his travels took him to New York City, where he took an entrepreneurial approach to his writing career. Rather than going down the traditional route of scouring the “help wanted” ads, he would offer his services for a free trial period. Once the period was over, he established a salary and adopted a new pen name to be used for his next client. Legend has it that editors would get into heated arguments about who had the better business reporter, unaware that they both employed B.C.!
By his mid-30s B.C. was ready to take the leap. He founded Forbes: Devoted to Doers and Doings with Walter Drey (a publication manager) and poured all his energy into becoming the trusted narrator for the American entrepreneurial scene. (I don’t know about you, but I kind of wish Forbes had retained the longer title.) What I find compelling about B.C. is his integrity. It’s easy to think that a magazine focused on business would be inclined to gloss over any negative stories. Goodness knows the arena of big business is no stranger to “less-than-best” practices (see recent debates about the role of big tech). But B.C. took his responsibility seriously and didn’t shy away from exposing unfair labor policies or abuses of power.
Forbes’ dedication to his community was soon put to the test. The seismic impact of the Great Depression cannot be overstated. There wasn’t a family or business in America that didn’t experience disruption. Everyone was working their hardest to survive and the Forbes brand was no different. B.C. funded the company through his freelance work, refused to take a salary, and instituted a mandatory 25% pay cut for employees. This “tightening of the belts” paid off and by the time the skies cleared B.C. was ready to test out some new ideas. With his sons now part of the family business, Forbes expanded into the lucrative newsletter business. Their weekly edition of The Forbes Investor was a runaway hit, helping analysts and investors make sense of the market.
Following WWII, Forbes continued to focus on high-quality content, issuing their first industry report card series in 1949. B.C. believed that business wasn’t just a lofty undertaking for the elite, but a world that should be understood by the masses. The magazine’s reliance on data and devotion to thoughtful research helped honor this belief. Perhaps Forbes is now known best for their lists of richest Americans or top young entrepreneurs (ideas that first took root in 1982). Admittedly, this is what first came to mind for me. But now I’m happy to report that I have developed a new appreciation for the magazine’s early history. B.C. Forbes embodied the entrepreneurial mindset he documented and I wonder what he would make of this time we find ourselves in. If I had to hazard a guess he wouldn’t be resting on his laurels, but getting to know the next generation of doers. So tell me, dear reader, what are the doings you’re most looking forward to in this new decade?