The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells is a must read for entrepreneurs, especially those who are just starting out. Set in Boston before and after the American Civil War, the book chronicles the journey of Silas Lapham, his rise to success, the choices and mistakes he made along the way, and his subsequent demise. Even though he loses everything and has to start over in his late fifties, Lapham is still a success because he acts with integrity, and success is never just about the financials. The Rise of Silas Laphamcan be considered a guidebook filled with many lessons for the entrepreneur.
The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells is very complex with well-developed characters. There is a lot going on in the story, and the reader has to be able to interpret what is being said as much as what is not being said. There is the story about Silas and his paint business, another one with Irene Lapham, Penelope Lapham and Tom Corey, and another that focuses on the interaction between the Lapham’s and the Corey’s. But ultimately, the book is about making the morally right choice when facing adversity.
10 Lessons for the Entrepreneur from The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells
- Always take the high road and operate with integrity.
- Start businesses you know and are passionate about.
- Understand the financials – how much money is coming and going out of your business.
- Create a personal board of advisors who you can call on for quick advice. Your board of advisors shouldn’t consist of friends, but people who know you and have no personal stake in your success.
- If possible, involve your family in the business.
- The skills you use to take your company to one level of success will not necessarily be the skills that will take you to a higher level of success.
- Don’t squander the lead you have in business, work to gain more of an advantage.
- The past is not always the perfect predictor for the present and future.
- Get to know someone first before getting into a partnership or alliance.
- Let go of arrogance and keep your ego in check.
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Silas Lapham’s father, Nehemiah Lapham accidentally discovers a paint mine on their farm in 1835, but nothing is done about it until Silas tries it in 1855. Silas and his wife Persis work incredibly hard to get the paint to market, and at the time, people were looking for non-flammable paint. A few years later, the American Civil War starts and Persis encourages Silas to go and fight in the war. He isn’t very keen to do that, however, he listens to her and leaves the paint business in her hand.
After the war ends and Silas returns home, Persis encourages him to get a partner, someone who has the money they desperately need to operate the business. Silas believes that he can manage the business on his own, but once again his wife is able to convince him otherwise. He enter into a partnership agreement with Mr Rogers, which lasted a year or two, at which time Silas pays him back his investment and more. The partnership ends on the cusp of Silas’ success.
Later in the story, the reader has to decide if Mr. Rogers’ behaviour is a result of Silas terminating the partnership before he achieves major success, or if Silas was fair in the way he dealt with Mr. Rogers when he terminated the partnership.
After a lot of hard work, Silas achieves great success, but initially he and his family do not use the money to improve their circumstances. They still live in what’s considered to be an unfashionable neighbourhood. He is not an educated man, though he likes to go to the theatre and attend lectures. The Lapham family is socially awkward, and tend to keep to themselves. His daughter Irene is stunning, while his other daughter Penelope is the smart one in the family who spends much of her time devouring books.
While Persis and Irene are away one summer, in a “little Canadian watering-place on the St. Lawrence, below Quebec,” they meet other Bostonians – a mother and her two daughters who have lost their luggage. The mother, Mrs Corey becomes very ill and Persis nurses her until a doctor arrives. The doctor tells them that Mrs Corey survived because of Persis’ timely help. Persis and Irene also share their clothing with Mrs. Corey and her two daughters because of their misplaced luggage. Shortly after, Tom – Mrs Coreys son – meets Irene.
The Coreys are from old money and the Laphams acquire their wealth by working for it – aristocrats versus ordinary folks.
Because of the kindness that Irene bestowed on Mrs Lapham and her daughters, after they return to Boston they decide to call on them. Mrs Corey tells them that she arrives so late in the evening because they had a hard time locating the address. It is a polite insult to the Laphams, letting them know, in a subtle way that they live on the “wrong side-of-the-track.” Persis recognizes the snub.
Tom starts to visit the Laphams and they believe that he is wooing Irene even though he has never given them any reason. Penelope tries to make herself scarce during the visits because she knows that Irene really likes Tom. However, Tom is always questioning Irene about Penelope, and it doesn’t occur to Irene that perhaps he is interested in her sister. Eventually Tom professes his love to Penelope and unknowingly creates a crisis in the Lapham family.
As the story unfolds you see that Silas desperately wants to enter high society. He decides the best way to do so is for Tom to marry Irene. Although Silas is a simple man, he is not a humble man. You see that from the start of the book when Bartley Hubbard interviews him for the “Solid Men of Boston” series in the newspaper.
As Silas interacts more with high society people, his ego goes unchecked and he wants to prove to them that he is richer and equal to them. He hires an architect to build on prime real estate he acquired, and the price keeps on skyrocketing. Silas wants to let the Coreys know that he is their equal so he starts spending too much money, and he never has an accurate understanding of his financial situation.
Over the years Persis, hounds Silas about not treating Mr Rogers fairly. She believes that Silas used his partner’s money to operate the business and severed the partnership on the cusp of success because he wanted it all for himself. After several years, when Mr Rogers approaches Silas to borrow money, he absolves himself by loaning the money.
But Rogers doesn’t stop there and keeps on borrowing more money because he is involved in so many schemes. Silas gets caught up in some of these schemes and starts stock speculation among other things. He overextends and finds himself into financial difficulties. The collaterals that Rogers gave him are pretty much useless so he cannot cash them in to get out of debt. An opportunity presents itself where Silas can get back his money, but in doing so he will be doing what Rogers did to him, and though he is desperate, he takes the high road.
Another big problem is that his paint is no longer selling at the rate he is accustomed to, and on top of that, there is a new company in West Virginia that can manufacture the same quality paint at a much cheaper rate.
He approaches his new competitor and after long negotiations they decide to allow him to invest to become a part of the business. Silas is able to find one person who is willing to give him the money, but he feel that he owes it to the investor to know the truth about his paint business. The investor pulls out, and Silas has to declare bankruptcy. Once again he takes the high road. Silas and the people from the West Virginia company maintain a cordial relationship.
In his late fifties, Silas has to start over where it all began, but on smaller scale with a focus on his premium brand the Persis line. When his life disintegrates, he loses more than money – he loses a part of his soul. However, at no time did he ever regret the way he responded during adversity. The Lapham family lose everything, but they have each other, and they gain back the closely knit relationship they once had with each other.
Before Silas runs into financial difficulty, Tom Corey is working with him on an expansion plan into South American, and when he learns of the financial difficulties, he offers Silas $30,000. Silas turns the money down because he knows that it will not be enough. Silas recommends Tom to the West Virginia paint company and they hire the young man. Tom invests his money into the company and after six months he goes to Mexico and Central America. Tom and Penelope find their way back to each other. They marry and she goes with him when he leaves Boston to fulfil his expansion ideas.
I recommend The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells because it teaches the entrepreneur several lessons about being in business. It’s a work of fiction, but as a businessperson you learn how to behave in business and what to and what not to do. The story weaves the various stories together to create a compelling read. And life seldom work out the way we expect it to.
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