Benjamin Franklin’s Retirement and Reinvention

William Thorndike Jr. in Harvard Magazine:

BenTwo hundred and seventy years ago this month, aged 42 and weeks from the midpoint of his long life, Benjamin Franklin did something highly unusual. He retired. Specifically, he sat down at a perennially cluttered desk in his cramped Philadelphia print shop and signed an innovative “Co-Partnership” agreement with his foreman, David Hall. The document was a scant two pages in length, but it immediately changed the trajectory of Franklin’s life and career. Not coincidentally, later that year Franklin hired the distinguished Colonial artist Robert Feke to paint his portrait (now held in the Portrait Collection of the Harvard Art Museums) and record this pivotal moment for posterity.

Franklin’s retirement (memorialized in his best-selling autobiography) helped establish the modern concept of a multi-career life and ranks among his great inventions. The transaction gave 50 percent ownership of his firm to Hall. Franklin’s printing business was unlike any other in the Colonies: in the eighteenth century, printing was an inherently local trade focused on small business and government customers, and staple products like stationery, legal notices, currency, invoices, and invitations. Franklin cracked this parochial model open along two dimensions: as publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper and the wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac, he was a substantial owner of copyrights. He was also a sort of pioneering venture capitalist, providing custom-designed presses to aspiring printers in far-flung places (New York, Newport, Charleston, even Antigua) in return for a share in the profits.

Franklin was anxious to move on to other activities, but in the embryonic economy of mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia, the option of selling his firm did not exist. There were no investment bankers, no Googles or Amazons voraciously looking for acquisitions. The outline of the deal with Hall was based on the template created in his earlier printing investments and was designed to solve this problem by guaranteeing Franklin the next best thing to an outright sale: a long-term passive income.

More here.