24 Jun

It’s no myth

Last week’s radio episode of This American Life (“Origin Story”) began by poking holes in what it called “corporate creation myths.” The prototypical one is the story of how Hewlett-Packard was founded — by two guys with a dream and a garage.

Host Ira Glass interviewed Dan Heath, who wrote about this topic in Fast Company a couple of years ago:

[C]ompanies aren’t born in garages. Companies are born in companies.

This reality shouldn’t diminish these monumental achievements. Yet it feels like it does, because all of us crave the excitement of these creation myths. Your startup “emerged from a systematic discussion of market opportunities, conducted at a networking function at the Marriott”? Yawn. Give us the garage. In fact, the story would be even more satisfying if [Apple Computer’s founders] had built the garage first. Out of toothpicks, scavenged from local restaurants.

He makes a good point about how the achievements of the HPs and Apples and YouTubes of the world should be enough for us, regardless of whether there’s a great story behind how they came about. That said, I’d just like to point out that the story — which I tell in The Day-Glo Brothers — of how Bob and Joe Switzer got started down the road to inventing daylight-fluorescent colors is no myth at all.

Instead of a garage, it was their family’s basement. And the only company remotely involved was the one Bob had been working for (not named, but identifiable by the shape of the ketchup bottles in a hallucinatory spread wonderfully rendered by Tony Persiani) when he busted his head and got sent to the dark basement to recover.

Another segment of last week’s This American Life episode discussed how difficult it can be to correct an origin story once an inaccurate version of it gets publicized. A few details of Day-Glo’s origins published elsewhere have missed the mark, but I’ll try to keep in check my aspirations for setting the record straight once and for all. Besides, some of those errors were contained in the first article I ever read about Bob and Joe Switzer, which means those mistakes are now part of my book’s own origin story.

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