The Great Founder: How To Be a Great Entrepreneur

One might say that great founders build great organizations. One might also say, average individuals create “me too” companies. And incompetent individuals fail at business.

by Murray Johannsen. (March 16, 2014). Last Updated January 15, 2018). HMr. Johannsen also routinely does Live Presentations for corporations and associations. Feel to connect via Linkedin, or by email.

Page Table of Content

Overview: Great Founder Theory

The Entrepreneurial Challenge

37 Famous Great Founders From Three Different Centuries

Case 1: Steve Jobs: Founder of Apple

Case 2: Bill Gates: Founder of Microsoft

A Video Case: A Bath Without Water

Overview: The Great Founder Theory

In my view, the company is a reflection of the founder who created it. Great companies do not happen by accident—their founders created them, nurtured them and grew them. And we can learn a great deal about how to grow a business from those who have done it (Branson, 2000), (Isaacson, 2011), (Smith, 2012).

“I remember years ago sitting in the initial management class in a MBA program. Fortunately, the professor teaching this course was an engineer, one who founded a successful engineering services company. It was a joy hearing him describe how theory worked in the real world; and damn, he was a great storyteller.

One of things I’ve never forgot, even though that class occurred many years ago, was a theory that explained entrepreneurial success— one mostly forgotten in today’s textbooks on management. At that time, the theory was known as the “great man” theory. Today we are more likely to use the phrase “great person” or “great individual.” The assumption underlying the theory is a deceptively simple one:  One might also say, average individuals create “me too” companies. And incompetent individuals fail at business.” — Murray Johannsen, personal story

“You grow an organization the way a tree grows—from the inner ring to the outer.” — M. Johannsen

“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night – Act 2, Scene 5)

Great companies don’t happen by chance. They don’t sprout up like flowers in the garden of the marketplace. They germinate and are cultivated by exceptional individuals who against all odds succeed. And you do not need a business degree to become a great entrepreneur.

Two Key Challenges To Being a Great Founder

Metaphorically, entrepreneurs have small bots the must navigate the seas of the market.
Metaphorically, entrepreneurs have small boats that must navigate the seas of the market. Painting by Edward Monet

It’s sometimes said a markets are analogous to a sea with organizations sailing these seas as ships. A management degree prepares individuals for living and working on large ships. It helps one to serve as the crew of this vessel, either at working level or in the officer ranks. Among millions serving, a very small number of lucky, highly motivated individuals ascend into the captain’s chair (CEO). These are very large crafts, with best technology, with a large number of individuals in the crew, sailing well-defined navigation paths, finding fish where they were found before.

Contrast this to an entrepreneurial company that starts out with a captain but no crew. The founder sails a small, leaky boat with a sail full of holes though unfriendly, treacherous seas. The captain of this unsafe vessel hopes to find a large school of fish somewhere, but navigation maps aren’t accurate and he’s dead reckoning the best course. This captain must keep finding fish, plug the leaks, stitch a better sail, hire a crew, and build a better boat — all at the same time.

Challenge 1: The Problem With Business Education

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”— Abraham Maslow

We see an intense focus with management in all aspects of the entrepreneurial start-up. There is a natural preoccupation with raising money, customer acquisition, the business model, and often the business plan.

Yet in strength, there is also weakness. In the single-minded focus on management or technology, we see neglect of other vital areas that should not be ignored. Successful entrepreneurs must manage, but must be more than a manager.

What has been forgotten? Essentially, great individuals found great companies. It’s Job 1 for entrepreneurs to evolve themselves into a Great Entrepreneur while they are building the business.

Challenge II: The Entrepreneur is Always an Unfinished Work

To become a great entrepreneur, you must keep evolving, growing, changing. Great Entrepreneurs are:

  • Self-aware enough to know their strengths and weaknesses,
  • People follow them because they are transformational leaders,
  • They model the successful, they strive for self-mastery,
  • and do not stop until they becomes wise.

To be a Great Founder, you never stop making improvements in yourself. It’s continuous personal improvement now and forever. I remember a saying by Abraham Lincoln who once said, “I do not think much of the man who is not better today than he was yesterday.”

One might ask, why should the primary focus of the Founders be on improving themselves? Shouldn’t it be about the business, the technology, the money? It’s a good question. When I got the MBA, it was an article of faith that it’s all about the organization. Still is actually. And if you want to be a caretaker executive in a multinational corporation this makes sense.

But I’m assuming you want to be a Founder of something that will last a long time. OK, this is an assumption on my part. Some you just want do a quick harvest of the business, walk away with a small amount of cash and a story for the grandkids. Or maybe you’re going for the quick cash from investors who are then going to take control of your business after a Series B or C.

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One might say that a management degree allows you to play a well-defined role inside the box of bureaucracy. The entrepreneur, though, faces an environment of chaos and uncertainty, with worry, anxiety and fear constant sailing companions as they try to figure out how to keep their boat from sinking with them in it.

For many years my students have been studying famous entrepreneurs and then presenting their insights on what made them great. After seeing these presentations for twenty years you see patterns, whether the great person was someone from Asia, Europe or other lands. Many greats have no university education, yet they go on to become billionaires (Li Ki-Shing, Richard Branson).

Others don’t bother to complete college (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, David Geffin). They come from all economic strata and countries. And yet, there was something about them that achieved fame.

The history of business is full of famous men and woman who started companies that have became well known name brands today.

Just a quick sampling of famous entrepreneurs (with a major focus on America).

List of Great Founders & Famous Entrepreneurs

“Great Founders have a characteristic most employees and college students  lack. They learn how to “figure it out.”  — Murray Johannsen

For those who wish to try there hand at making the history books, can study past and current Great Founders to figure out how they did what they did.  From you study, you get hints, many insights into what it means to be an exceptional entrepreneur.

If you want to be great, study great people. Especially you should study them in the early days, when the organization was just getting started.

Here is a list worth looking into roughly divided into the century where they build their business.

Four (Already Famous) 21st Century Entrepreneurs 

One founder who tends to be worth following is Elon Musk. After all, if you can raise 1 million dollars in capital simply by selling hats, you must be doing something right. Image by: Steve Jurvetson
One founder who tends to be worth following is Elon Musk. After all, if you can raise 1 million dollars in capital simply by selling hats, you must be doing something right. Image by: Steve Jurvetson


A growing list for sure. Expect great things from these Founders.

Bezos, Jeff – Internet (Amazon)

Branson, Richard – Virgin Group (various industries

Ma, Jack (Alibaba) – Business To Business Commerce

Musk, Elan (PayPal, Tesla, Space X, The Boring Company)

Winfrey, Oprah – Entertainment

Zuckerberg, Mark – Social Media (Facebook)

A List of Twenty-One Great Founders from the 20th Century

If it is anyone who should not be a Great Founder, it was Jobs. After all, aren't you supposed to get a business degree from a university? Image by: Matthew Yohe
If it is anyone who should not be a Great Founder, it was Jobs. After all, aren’t you supposed to get a business degree from a university? Image by: Matthew Yohe


Durant, William – Automobiles (General Motors)

Ellison, Larry – Software (Oracle)

Fields, Debbi – Cookies (Mrs. Fields)

Ford, Henry – Automobiles (Ford Motor Company)

Gates, William – Software (Microsoft)

Jobs, Steve & Wozniak, Steve – (Pixar Studios & Apple Computer)

Li Ki-Shing (CK Hutchinson Holdings) – Various Industries

Johnson, Robert & Johnson, James – Medical Products (Johnson & Johnson)

Marriott, J. W. – Hospitality

Mayer, Louis B. – Entertainment (MGM)

Merck, George – Medical Products (Merck)

Morita, Akio and Ibuka, Masaru – Consumer Electronics (Sony)

Nordstrom, John & Wallin, Carl – Retail Clothing (Nordstrom)

Packard, David – Electronics (Hewlett-Packard)

Paul, Galvin – Electronics (Motorola)

Pfizer, Charles & Erhart, Charles – Medical Products (Pfizer)

Walton, Sam – Discount Retail (Wal-Mart)

12 Extremely Successful 19th Century Industrialists

In some respects, Andrew Carnegie is the ideal of a Great Man. For he spent the early part of his life creating his fortune, and the latter part of his life giving it away. A great deal of his fortune was spent on libraries and universities. Photograph by: Theodore C. Marceau
In some respects, Andrew Carnegie is the ideal of a Great Man. For he spent the early part of his life creating his fortune, and the latter part of his life giving it away. A great deal of his fortune was spent on libraries and universities. Photograph by: Theodore C. Marceau


Barnum, P.T. – Entertainment (Barnum & Bailey)

Boeing, William – Aerospace (Boeing & Co.)

Bristol, William & Myers, Ripley – Medical Products (Bristol-Meyers)

Carnegie, Andrew – Steel (Carnegie Steel)

Colgate, William – Consumer Products (Colgate)

du Pont, Eleuthère Irénée, – Chemicals (DuPont)

Edison, Thomas – Electronics (General Electric)

Giannini, P. – Banking (Bank of America)

Hall, Joyce – Greeting Cards (Hallmark)

Hershey, Milton – Chocolate

Proctor, William & Gamble, James – Consumer Products (Proctor and Gamble)

Rockefeller, John D. – Oil (Standard Oil)

Wells, Henry & Fargo, William – Banking (Wells Fargo)

Westinghouse, George – Electronics (Westinghouse)


Great Founder Case 1: Steve Jobs


Image by: CC-BY-3.0. Steve Jobs holding a MacBook Air (MacWorld Conference & Expo 2008 – Moscone Center – San Francisco, CA)

Famous (and great) entrepreneurs create great companies—it’s as simple and complex as that. Average guys didn’t create a DuPont, Ford, Westinghouse, Apple, Facebook, or an Edison. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs, their advisors, and their investors commonly forget this fundamental truth.

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” — Abraham Maslow

 I have spent many years studying great individuals and believe that they think differently than the rest of us. It would make sense when you think about it, that there’s something fundamentally different in the way they act and the way they make decisions. 

Steve Jobs presents the archetypal case of the Great Founder (Isaacson, 2011). Like other billionaire entrepreneurs, he never received a college education and never went to business school. I suppose, a cynic might say that a reason he was successful relates to never having learned the theory base of how to manage a corporation. In Jobs case, he had to make things up as he went.

“So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.”— Don Clark-Big Dog, How to Try to Stop Great Ideas

But success for Jobs it was not an easy road to travel. After experiencing early success, he was fired by the board and left Apple. This was the beginning of what you might call the wilderness years.

His stay in the wilderness lasted nearly 12 years during which time he started two companies. Next was a software company Jobs sold to Apple for $400 million. It contained some of the software that became the basis for Apple’s OS X operating system. And of course, Pixar, which was sold to Disney in 2006 for 7.4 billion and a seat on the Disney board (MSNBC, 2006). But in his heart, he still cared about Apple.

“It’s as if Apple is an old fiancée from college that Steve met again at a 20-year class reunion,” Ellison told Fortune magazine in March. “Steve is happily married now with children, and has a great life. When he meets his old girlfriend again, she’s an alcoholic and is running around with a bad crowd and has made a mess of her life. Even so, in his mind’s eye, he still sees the beautiful woman he once thought was the love of his life. So what’s he supposed to do? Of course, he doesn’t want to marry her anymore, but he can’t just walk away, because he still cares about her.” — Larry Ellison on Steve Jobs, Fortune Magazine, March, 1997

When he came back to Apple, the company was close to a real fiscal cliff. He found his child, his baby suffering declining sales and dwindling cash to fund operations. However, he was asked back by the board, and paid a dollar a year to revitalize the company and the rest is history.

 See This YouTube Video by Steve Jobs: How to Live Before you Die: The Stanford Commencement Speech. 

Great Founder Case # 2: Bill Gates

Bill Gates is another truly exceptional individual, one who became famous since he continued to evolve. Not only is he a success in the for profit sector, he and his wife Melinda have a foundation focused on health care and education.

This video is from an interview conducted at Harvard where he discussed his days at Microsoft and as the head of a successful social enterprise.

Remember, success resides within the entrepreneur—but so do the seeds of failure.

Potential Great Founder Ludwick Marishane: A Bath Without Water

This is a great example of what it takes to be successful. You will note, this is not about sitting in a university classroom cooking up a business plan.

Conclusion: Don’t Be Afraid to Think Different

“The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire not things we fear.” — Brian Tracy


Image by: Lumaxart

“A superior man thinks of what is right,  A small man thinks of what is popular.  A superior man demands much from himself, A small man demands much of others.  A superior man does not accept his lot in life, A small man is full of complaints.” See Video: A & E Biography: Confucius: Words of Wisdom, (21:20). 

Resources and References

Branson, Richard (2000). Losing My Virginity. Virgin Paperbacks

Collins, Jim (2001). Good To Great. HarperBusiness

Freeland, Chrystia (2012). Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-rich. The Penguin Press. 

Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs. Simon and Shuster. 

Reinhart, Carmen and Rogoff, Kennith (2011). This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, Princeton University Press.

Surowiecki, James (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. Anchor Publishing.

Leadership Skill Development