America is a land of myth and legend. As a country and a culture, The United States embraces myths like no other.
For an outsider — and self-confessed Ameriphile — it’s shocking to discover the difference between the America that’s presented to the world and the America that exists. Many of the things that people think make America “America” are myths and fabrications built on half-truths.
Cowboys? They mostly herded cattle. The American Dream? I won’t mention income inequality, rising cost of living, the student debt crisis and that the largest predictor of your income is your parent’s income.
And the plucky start-up in a California garage? That’s what I’m here to talk about.
Last month Steve “Woz” Wozniak debunked one of the most pervasive myths about Apple: that the company was founded in a garage. Woz has always been an eccentric — but honest — character. While Steve Jobs became the face of Apple, it was Woz who designed the original computers that started the company we know today. Unlike Jobs though, Woz never craved fame or fortune; he just wanted to build computers. He’s said time and time again, he feels his place is at the bottom of an org-chart.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Woz calls the famous Palo Alto garage “a bit of a myth” and “overblown”. While they did use the garage early in Apple’s life, they never designed anything there nor was it an important part of anything Apple did. Woz had been toying with designing his own computer for years before Apple started and even discussed the project with his friends in the Homebrew Computer Club.
Google’s attempt at a garage myth is one of the more egregious. In 2013, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of it’s incorporation, they invited a handful of press to a garage in Menlo Park, California. They’d bought the house in 2006 to use as a Google landmark/shrine.
Google’s attempts to channel the garage myth come across as a little desperate. As The Verge reports, Google had already received more than a million dollars in VC funding before they rented the garage from a friend who later became an employee. While they certainly got cheap rent, they rapidly outgrew the space and moved on to other offices.
To hold up this short tenure in a garage as especially influential on Google’s start is to blindly embrace the myth. Google was a fully formed company with a product backed by wealthy investors – not a group of broke geniuses attempting to buck the system.
Hewlett-Packard have the dubious honour of being the first Silicon Valley Company with a garage myth. Founded in 1938, Hewlett and Packard built their first products — audio oscillators — in a Palo Alto garage that now bears a commemorative plaque. It’s this that’s to blame for all the other garage creation tales.
But as Slate reports, things aren’t quite so clean-cut. Yes Hewlett-Packard used the garage but all the prototyping and development happened in a Stanford University lab. They also had access to a friend’s engineering lab, where they did a lot of work.
Again, the garage did exist and was used by the company but it certainly wasn’t the only — or even most important — location Hewlett and Packard worked.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, does nothing without thinking it through. Bezos famously chose the name for his startup because he wanted something that would start with A, and appear at the start of alphabetised lists. He read through a dictionary until he settled on Amazon.
The decision to sell books similarly came not from passion but from logic. Bezos created a list of products that could be sold easily and in high volume online. After considering all the options and rejecting other products like CDs and videos he settled on books: there were millions of them, they were cheap and there was huge demand. From this single beginning Amazon have grown into what my colleague Matt calls the Ultimate Store.
Is it any surprise then, that Amazon’s garage myth is just as coldly calculated? In a Wall Street Journal profile Amazon’s first premises is described. It’s a three-bedroom house in Bellevue, Seattle… with a garage. The garage was a “crucial requirement” for Bezos, having one would let him “boast of having a garage start-up like Silicon Valley legends from Hewlett-Packard on”. The “garage” itself? I was re-finished as a rec room before Bezos even set up shop.
While Google attempted to ret-con a garage into their start-up story, from the start Bezos knew he wanted the garage myth.
And there you have it. Like every good myth, these four garage start-up tales all have a grain of truth. The garages exist — many of them have plaques to prove it — but they certainly weren’t pivotal to any of these companies.
In the case of HP and Apple, the garage was used because it was one of the places the founders could work — it just wasn’t the only place. For Google and Amazon it’s a little more cynical. While Google used their garage as an office, they were far from founded there. And as for Amazon… I think it’s time we make Jeff Bezos grow a beard and call him Machiavelli 2.0.