Summary of Gutenberg the Geek by Jeff Jarvis

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Gutenberg the Geek by Jeff Jarvis

Johannes Gutenberg is widely hailed as the man who first invented the printing press. His invention helped not only print the famous ‘Gutenberg bibles’ but also provide a way in which scholars and scientists could share their knowledge with others via printed text. That’s all good and well but what exactly has this to do with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs today?

Well, believe it or not, Gutenberg experienced many of the same problems that modern-day tech entrepreneurs face. Ranging from cash-flow problems to cunning venture capitalists, Gutenberg overcame adversity to bring his idea to life. This is why his story in full of great insights for any entrepreneur today.

In this summary readers will discover:

  • How Gutenberg patiently put his invention together
  • Open-source as a solution
  • Why the printing press is similar to the internet

Key lesson one: How Gutenberg patiently put his invention together

Gutenberg’s hometown of Mainz in Germany experienced quite a bit of change in the 15th century. Religion, politics and economics were the sources of most turmoil along with the struggle between the emerging middle class and old aristocratic families. This age-old battle happens almost cyclicly and can be expected in times of great change. It is also during these times that entrepreneurs are born.

Gutenberg was 40 when he started his first business venture. He was working as a goldsmith’s apprentice and began making and selling mirrors to pilgrims. It was during this time that he picked up important business skills. Gutenberg learned how to recruit people, set up a legal structure and raise funds. 

Raising funds was his actual goal as he needed to fund the development of his invention. Gutenberg’s printing press too him almost 20 years to perfect. It required quite a bit of innovation and refinement to become the life-altering invention that it is. Not only did Gutenberg drew inspiration from different industries and machinery to put together the wood and metal structure, but he also worked tirelessly to find the right ink to use.

This is similar to start-up entrepreneurs today. They usually come up with an idea to solve a problem that exists. Through careful research, product development and trial and error, they carefully refine their product into their best possible version to release to the world. 

Gutenberg also first used his printing press to produce a prototype to test his invention before proceeding to print the beautiful Gutenberg bibles which would become his legacy.

Key lesson two: Open-source as a solution

Once Gutenberg had his printing press working perfectly, in order to start printing bibles, he needed money. He had to be able to purchase supplies in the form of paper and pay his 20 workers. Gutenberg tried to raise the funds by making some prints for the church but it was not enough. So he had to seek outside investment. This is when he met Johann Fust, a businessman who gave Gutenberg interest-free loans to the amount of  1600 gulden – roughly $300 000 today.

Gutenberg had planned to use the money to print 180 bibles. The sale of these bibles would cover both his investments and that made by Fust. As Gutenberg worked on these bibles, Fust made a move that would be best described as a stab in the back. He sued Gutenberg, demanding the repayment of his loans with interest. The bibles had not even been completed let alone sold and Gutenberg could not repay him. This led to Fust taking over Gutenberg’s Workshop, equipment and thus, the printing of the bibles

This may have occurred in the 15th century, but many entrepreneurs feel the bite of dealing with venture capitalists. Outside financing is sometimes a risk depending on what your investor’s terms are. There is also the added disadvantage of losing some autonomy when dealing with investors. But what can an entrepreneur do when their work is snatched away? Well, Gutenberg moved towards open-source. He began training other printers using his knowledge and newfound methods. This resulted in this new approach of printing spreading across Europe.

Although betrayed by Fust, Gutenberg did allow himself to stop pursuing his goals. This resilience is something that modern-day entrepreneurs should also possess. Setbacks and failures will occur all along your journey, but you have to have the resilience to bounce back if you want your business to succeed. 

Key lesson three: Why the printing press is similar to the internet.

In many ways, Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press is similar to the internet. Both are platforms that spread information. It triggered a revolution in politics, religion, art, science and culture. 

Before Gutenberg’s printing press, information was spread by people speaking to each other. The only problem with word of mouth is, there is hardly ever mention of the origin of the information and you never quite know if it had been passed along correctly. The printing press rectified this. Ownership was clearly documented and preserved with the author’s name. As much as the printing press made this huge shift in which information was shared, it was only 50 years later that the true impact became to unfold. This was because, during the first 50 years of the printing press, publications were limited to the scribes of that time period and religious texts. Only later did different genres come into print with different styles emerging.

Similarly, the internet has revolutionized the way we obtain information. Ownership is often a bit of a nightmare given the way information is quickly shared, modified and linked online but it does not stop the process. The influence on our lives has been unimaginable, but with the internet still being so young, are we yet to experience its true influence? Only time will tell.

The key takeaway from Gutenberg the Geek is:

Gutenberg suffered many of the same obstacles that entrepreneurs face today. He spent years developing his ‘product’ only to be screwed over by a venture capitalist. Gutenberg did not let that stop him though. He turned to open source and began teaching others how to adopt his methods. He didn’t really get to see the success of his invention but the printing press changed the way in which information was shared. There is much similarity between the printing press and the internet today and to understand its impact on the future, we look to the past and Gutenberg. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in Gutenberg the Geek:

If you wish to seek outside funding do your research and ensure that you know your investor’s terms. Do not be blinded by the amount of money that you will be receiving and instead focus on how your business will be genuinely impacted by the outside investment. Also, remember to be resilient. Failures are a part of business development and you need to be able to learn from them and move on.

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