How the ubiquitous foam finger reveals the true nature of American entrepreneurship
We Americans are a touchy lot when it comes to our sense that we earned what we got. We love the mythos of the self-made striver, and have cultural freakouts when our president dares to declare that "you didn't build that." The thought that our accomplishments are not our own both enrages and terrifies us.
But it shouldn't. And a lesson in why can be found in an unlikely source: those ubiquitous "#1" foam fingers, the humble bit of sports paraphernalia that's about to return, along with the beer, tailgating, and legions of screaming fans, now that college football season has commenced.
In 1978, Cy-Fair High School, which sits in the northwest corner of the sprawling city of Houston, managed to land in the Texas state football finals. Geral Fauss was teaching there at the time, after earning his masters in industrial arts from Sam Houston State University.
"I saw the students in the stands holding up an index finger, and shouting 'we're number 1' at the playoff games," Fauss recalled in an interview with Designboom. That gave him an idea to both stoke team spirit and give the students in the industrial arts club a way to earn some funds. He created a one-dimensional, oversized layout of a hand making the "number one" sign, and then the students used the design to create wooden cutouts painted with the "#1" symbol in Cy-Fair's colors.
As Designboom tells the tale, the wooden versions of the hand were a big hit. They sold out, earning the industrial arts club far more money than anyone had anticipated. It dawned on Fauss that he had a product with near-universal appeal to football fans everywhere. He quickly put together a bunch of plywood versions of the hand (they had a hole at the bottom where people could hold them) and got a friend to go with him to the 1978 Cotton Bowl game. They hung out all night in the parking lot in a cold camper van, nearly setting it on fire when one of their pillows got too close to the portable heater, and the next morning Fauss talked a concessions manager into letting him sell the hands through the concession stand at a 60-40 split. He sold out before the game started.
With those two successes under his belt, Fauss quit his job and converted the old building that used to house his father's sheet metal business into an ad-hoc factory. He and the elder Fauss experimented with better designs, eventually settling on the now-famous polyurethane foam design with the opening in the bottom. Spirit Hands Co. — now named Spirit Industries — was born, and today the company employs over 50 people between its design team, office staff, and factory floor. The foam fingers have even earned a place in the National Football League Hall of Fame.
So let's pause here and say something that is absolutely true: This is a great story! Geral Fauss' accomplishments represent the mythos of the American entrepreneur at its finest. It's the sort of thing you want to make into a movie or tell to your kids to make them believe in the future.
But let's also acknowledge something else. Go back to that old sheet metal business Fauss' father had. The building was just sitting there waiting to be used; it was surrounded by the homes of his extended family, who were able to help; and it provided an initial office space as well as workshop. As Designboom put it, "Geral decided to set up shop for his new manufacturing enterprise there as the rent was about right: free."
Fauss certainly didn't have an easy time of it — he had to clear out the refuse and old equipment from the building, set up his new manufacturing process, and clear out about three generations of cats that had claimed residence. But there's no getting around the fact that having that sort of free capital injection fall into your lap is a pretty lucky break, one that's rare to unheard of for most Americans.
But it's also the kind of break that's functionally necessary for entrepreneurship. As Quartz reported back in July, the average startup requires around $30,000 in initial funds. Over 80 percent of the funding for small businesses initially comes from personal savings and friends and family. Needless to say, most Americans or their families have nothing like that kind of cash sitting around, or the social and professional connections to access it. Whatever personality traits of grit or perseverance are necessary to entrepreneurship, they'll just sit there unused without the capital to back them up.
So, not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of successful entrepreneurs are white males, and come from wealthier families with more educated parents. In fact, among entrepreneurs, Fauss was arguably on the poor end: Microsoft founder Bill Gates was raised by an upper-class family in Seattle, and as a young man he got into one of the finest private schools in the area. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was able to attend Exeter Phillips Academy, one of America's most expensive and prestigious secondary schools.
After 10 years in the school system, Fauss had worked his way up to a $17,000-a-year salary ($62,000 in today's dollars, which is comfortably above the household median). He was also paying for a newborn and a mortgage and had no savings, but he was also able to keep his promise to his wife of starting the business without driving the family into debt. She was able to pull in some extra income as a safety net while he got started, but it seems obvious that without the lucky break of his father's shop, Fauss' efforts would've been DOA.
The point here is absolutely not to denigrate Fauss' accomplishments or anyone else's. The point is that this is always how entrepreneurship works. We have this silly tendency to talk of capitalism as a system of individual competition, while socialism or communism are the collectivist enterprises. In fact, both are collectivist efforts, just structured differently. The completely self-made business-creator to whom Geral Fauss might be unfavorably compared simply does not exist.
Entrepreneurship is made possible by a vast network of accessible resources, reliable flows of income, and safety nets ready to catch us when our risk-taking fails. It's just often invisible to us, because it's built out of tax breaks rather than explicit government investments and spending, and because it's undergirded by a whole host of laws and institutions that we think of as "just the way things are done" rather than explicit choices made by our society. As a result, that vast network tends to be available only to the upper class and to society's more privileged members.
It doesn't have to be that way. We could take the world that was backing up Geral Fauss from the beginning and invite everyone else into it, too. But maybe to do that, we first have to embrace the idea that whenever anything gets built, it was all of us who built it.