Born on the 4th of July

How a goose chase led to a company. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Today: An origin story, plus future features, and a simple trivia contest…

This weekend marks a momentous anniversary: 36 years since a man named Tom Stemberg needed a new ribbon for his dot-matrix printer—and yet he couldn’t find one!

He spent hours driving from one office supply store to another, all over the Boston metro area. But everything was closed for the Fourth of July holiday.

OK, I’d better cut to the chase here: As a result of Stemberg’s frustrating experience, the office supply chain Staples was born.

Origin stories involve a lot of mythology, but as far as this one goes, I’m convinced of at least two things:

  • Stemberg did, in fact, drive all over Boston looking for a printer ribbon on July 4, 1985; and

  • He did, in fact, later team up with a former business rival named Leo Kahn to start Staples.

Now, Stemberg already had a strong retail background; he’d graduated in 1973 from Harvard Business School, and he’d spent a decade in the supermarket industry. (He’d just recently lost his job as an executive at Star Market after fighting with coworkers.)

Starting with a single store in Brighton, Massachusetts, Stemberg and Kahn built Staples into a well-known chain with 1,780 locations, nearly 70,000 employees, and annual sales of $16 billion by the time Stemberg stepped down as chairman after 20 years.

I once wrote a book about HBS and entrepreneurship, and you can't do that without being told variations of the Staples story many times. As a quasi-official history of the school notes, Staples was:

"a story of the HBS network in full gear: with advice, innovative ideas, and precious resources…"

Ahem. “Precious resources.” In other words, “easy access to massive amounts of capital.”

Speaking of which, here’s Mitt Romney:

"He didn't play well with other children," said the former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate, who graduated from HBS within a year of Stemberg, who considered him a friend, and whose Bain Capital invested heavily in Staples.

(Later, Romney credited Stemberg with convincing him to push for universal health care in Massachusetts while governor; the Massachusetts law later became the model for Obamacare.)

Stemberg later became a venture capitalist. He said his investment strategy avoided involvement with any company that competed with Amazon—a bit ironic, or perhaps a lesson learned.

Still, even if it no longer seems surprising that you can get office supplies on Independence Day, it's worth remembering a time when that wasn't the case—and the annoying goose chase that apparently made it possible.

At least this year on the Fourth of July, we can all get a lot of work done.

Wait, strike that.

Life’s too short. Stemberg passed away in 2015 after fighting cancer for two years. He was only 66. His former cofounder, Kahn, had passed away in 2011.

Let’s go with another lesson instead. It’s a holiday weekend here in the USA; I hope you get outside and enjoy it with family and friends, and that you don’t have to work at all.

If enough of you promise to do that, your humble workaholic newsletter writer will give it a shot, too.

Call for comments: Working through holidays? Memories of the earliest days of ventures you’ve started? Weekend plans for this much-anticipated Fourth of July?

Leave a comment


7 other things worth your time

  • The Trump Organization and its chief financial officer, Allan Wiesselberg, pleaded not guilty after being indicted in New York State on charges of tax evasion spanning 15 years. Here’s the indictment (PDF). (The New York Times)

  • The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday gutted most of what remained of the landmark Voting Rights Act. The 6-3 vote was along ideological lines, with Justice Samuel Alito writing the decision for the court's conservative majority, and the liberals in angry dissent. (NPR)

  • Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin announced that Wally Funk, an accomplished pilot who was one of the Mercury 13 women who trained to be astronauts in the early 1960s—but never got to go to space—will fly aboard the New Shepard with Bezos, his brother, and an as-yet-unnamed auction winner on July 20. Separately, Richard Branson says he’ll fly to space on July 11, so as to beat Bezos. (WashPost, CNBC)

  • An official memorial copy of the Declaration of Independence presented in 1824 to the last surviving original signer, Charles Carroll, which had been missing for 177 years until it was found in a home in Scotland, was sold at auction for $4.4 million Thursday. (Lyon & Turnbull)

  • Chronic pain is on the rise among younger adults. A new study out of England blames the changes on obesity, sedentary lifestyles, and stress—but there are concerns that the little-understood effects of Long Covid could add to the growing troubles. (Guardian)

  • Here are the healthiest communities in the USA, according to data from US News and Aetna. Los Alamos County, New Mexico comes in first, while five of the top 10 are in Colorado. (US News)

  • Almost 5,000 racing pigeons have mysteriously disappeared from a race in England. “We’ve seen one of the very worst ever racing days in our history,” said pigeon fancier Richard Sayers. “Most of the breeders I’m talking to are blaming ... a solar storm above the clouds that created static in the atmosphere—but no one really knows.” (The Independent)

Leave a comment


3 other things in the future

Your membership dollars at work: Since we’ve expanded the team a bit, for the first time since I launched the daily Understandably newsletter, we’ve actually been able to plan ahead a little bit.

It’s an amazing luxury. So why not share a bit of what’s coming up in the future? Scenes from upcoming newsletters include:

  • a Founding Fathers wrap-up incorporating an 18th-century student loan story,

  • the art and science of fidgeting to improve focus, and

  • the story of the most decorated soldier in U.S. history.

The schedule is always subject to change, but expect to see some of these over the next little while.

Leave a comment


Trivia contest

I used to be a pretty big “pub trivia” guy. An eclectic group of us used to go; we had one person who knew pop culture; another who knew sports. I was the guy whose right answers were always things like, “Benjamin Disraeli,” or “the Thornton Affair,” or “Operation Mincemeat.”

Anyway, Understandably readers are too spread out and numerous for pub trivia, but how’s this for an idea? Friday Trivia.

There are three questions below. The first reader to reply via email with the correct answers to all three (just hit reply, or email bill@understandably.com) gets a shout-out in Monday’s edition—plus, if you want it, the chance to chat with me and our small but growing team, and maybe pitch us an idea for a possible future main story.

Answers to all three questions can be found in this week’s newsletters. Ready?

  • What was the total population of the combined United States at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence?

  • With what baseball team did Bobby Bonilla sign a $23 million contract in 1996?

  • What percentage of Europeans are at least bilingual or trilingual (as opposed to speaking only one language)?

Click here to reply


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay and Wikimedia, plus my very basic Photoshop skills. I wrote about Stemberg at Inc.com a few years ago, when he passed away.