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 Famous Entrepreneurs
- Barnum, P.T. – Entertainment (Barnum & Bailey)
- Bezos, Jeff – Internet (Amazon)
- Boeing, William – Aerospace (Boeing & Co.)
- Branson, Richard – Virgin Group (various industries
- Bristol, William & Myers, Ripley – Medical Products (Bristol-Meyers)
- Carnegie, Andrew – Steel (Carnegie Steel)
- Case, Steve – Internet (America Online)
- Colgate, William – Consumer Products (Colgate)
- Dell, Michael – Computers (Dell Computer)
- Disney, Walt – Entertainment (Walt Disney)
- du Pont, Eleuthère Irénée, – Chemicals (DuPont)
- Durant, William – Automobiles (General Motors)
- Edison, Thomas – Electronics (General Electric)
- Ellison, Larry – Software (Oracle)
- Fields, Debbi – Cookies (Mrs. Fields)
- Ford, Henry – Automobiles (Ford Motor Company)
- Gates, William – Software (Microsoft)
- Giannini, P. – Banking (Bank of America)
- Hall, Joyce – Greeting Cards (Hallmark)
- Hershey, Milton – Chocolate
- Jobs, Steve & Wozniak, Steve – Consumer Electronics (Apple Computer)
- Johnson, Robert & Johnson, James – Medical Products (Johnson & Johnson)
- Li Ki-Shing (CK Hutchinson Holdings) – Various Industries
- Ma, Jack (Alibaba) – Business To Business Commerce
- 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)
- Proctor, William & Gamble, James – Consumer Products (Proctor and Gamble)
- Rockefeller, John D. – Oil (Standard Oil)
- Walton, Sam – Discount Retail (Wal-Mart)
- Wells, Henry & Fargo, William – Banking (Wells Fargo)
- Westinghouse, George – Electronics (Westinghouse)
- Winfrey, Oprah – Entertainment
- Zuckerberg, Mark – Social Media (Facebook)
Case of a Famous Entrepreneur: Steve Jobs
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.
Case 2: Famous Entrepreneur 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.