A study done at Harvard Business School found that 50 percent of all new businesses fail within five years, and 70 percent fail within 10 years. Although the odds are discouraging, they didn’t stop some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world from starting their own companies with little more than good ideas and excellent timing. Some of the names have become well-known while others are relatively unknown, but they all share common traits, such as perseverance and an understanding of human nature.
John Pemberton, a drug store owner in Georgia, received a wound in the American Civil War that led to the invention of his French Wine Coca nerve tonic, a less addictive alternative to the morphine he took for pain. After liquor was outlawed under the Prohibition Act, he switched to a nonalcoholic version of the concoction, and the first manifestation of Coca-Cola was born.
Henry Ford had little money when he decided to build the Ford Motor Company, but he had a dream. Ford started his venture with a $28,000 business loan and made the world’s first mass-produced cars. Known for treating his employees well, Ford raised his daily wages to $5 a day in 1914. Equal to $120 in 2018, the sum was twice the amount his competitors paid their workers.
After leaving the military in 1945, Sam Walton purchased a Ben Franklin variety store for $25,000 using $5,000 of his own savings and $20,000 from his father-in-law. With his brief experience as a manager trainee at J.C. Penney and a strong desire to succeed, he built a business that offered his customers low prices and a large inventory. In 1962, he opened the first official Walmart store, and the rest is history.
Bob Evans started his famous restaurant franchise in the early 1940s with a 12-stool diner called The Sausage Shop. Unable to find sausage that lived up to his standards, he made his own. In 1953, a group of his friends invested in the business, and it grew into four sausage-producing plants by 1957. By the 1970s, it had expanded into other states.
Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were college dropouts when they decided to build computers in the home garage of Jobs’ parents. After creating their first models, they found someone to co-sign a business loan for $250,000, giving birth to Apple Computers. Jobs, who helped create the iPhone, iPod, and iPad, was a brilliant designer. The company floundered after he left in the late 1990s but recovered after his return.
Michael Dell hadn’t dropped out of college when he started Dell Computers, but he left school before he graduated because he wanted to devote more time to the business. His first loan was a $1,000 investment from his family. By 2018, he was among the richest men in the world. When he was 24, Inc. magazine named him “Entrepreneur of the Year.”
Bill Gates wrote his first computer program when he was 13. At the age of 20, his business partner showed him an article from Popular Mechanics about the Altair 8800. The two men recognized the need for a language to interpret the system of the MITS microcomputer, and the seed for Microsoft was sown. Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to start his own company, is known for his philanthropy, especially in the field of education.
Hewlett and Packard met in the 1930s while studying radio engineering at Stanford University. With around $500, a used drill press, and encouragement from a professor, they started their business in a one-car garage in Palo Alto. Despite their success and a string of high-tech breakthroughs, the two men stayed on a first-name basis with their employees.
With a job delivering newspapers at the age of 9, John Paul DeJoria was no stranger to hard work. Later, he drove a tow truck and worked as a janitor just to pay his bills. While working for a hair company in the late 1970s, he and hairstylist Paul Mitchell started John Paul Mitchell Systems with a $700 business loan. In 2000, the company opened the first of its hair salons around the country. Today, the former gang member is a billionaire, philanthropist, and owner of a successful tequila company.
Craig Newmark did not set out to found an internet sensation, but he did. When he moved to the San Francisco area in 1993, the internet was still free of advertisements, and Newmark wanted a way to connect with people. With the creation of his free marketplace with no startup money, the boy who lost his father at 13 and went to school on scholarships discovered a system that would become the popular site Craigslist.
Kevin Plank grew up in an educated and financially comfortable family, but his academic performance and behavior at a prestigious preparatory school were less than stellar. As a student at the University of Maryland, he founded Cupid’s Valentine, a yearly endeavor that sold roses on Valentine’s Day. He used the $17,000 he earned, along with $40,000 of credit card debt, to launch Under Armour, a company that sells moisture-wicking athletic shirts. Today, he is a philanthropist with a net worth of $500 million.
George Soros was a Hungarian refugee who fled to England to escape Nazi persecution. He worked his way through the London School of Economics and left Europe for America in the 1950s. After working with several large firms, he started his own hedge fund. He is known for shorting the British pound in the early 1990s, leading to a billion-dollar profit in one day.
Tom Preston-Werner is a software developer and the founder of GitHub, the world’s largest platform for bringing software developers together. After dropping out of college to develop software, Preston-Werner turned down a lucrative job with Microsoft to work on GitHub. There, he led the company through five years of lean times before receiving a major round of investments. In 2018, Microsoft bought GitHub for over $7 billion.
Jan Koum, the founder of WhatsApp, grew up in a poverty-stricken Ukrainian village. After his family immigrated to California, he discovered computers and became a whiz by the age of 18. In 1997, Yahoo! hired him as an infrastructure engineer. After 10 years, he recognized the possibilities of apps and started WhatsApp Inc. In 2014, Facebook bought the company for $19 billion.
Sophia Amoruso turned her love of thrift store finds into a business by selling vintage pieces on eBay. With the money from her sales, she rented a warehouse, hired a small staff, and made her dream a reality. Using social media platforms to attract buyers, Nasty Gal became a success. Six years after founding the company, she received millions from investors who believed in her idea.
Yvon Chouinard, a fashion designer who specialized in outdoor gear and clothing, learned blacksmithing to make spikes for his own rock-climbing career. As he sold the spikes for $1.50 to friends, the demand for his product grew, and he set up shop in his parents’ California backyard. Patagonia, founded in 1973, is now an environmentally friendly seller of soft goods.
Pierre Omidyar’s vision of eBay didn’t start out as a massive hub for online shoppers and vendors. It was initially a hobby he pursued in his own home. When his internet service provider required him to upgrade his account because of the heavy traffic on the website, he started charging fees. Later, the company brought in a branding expert who promoted eBay as a place to bring people together rather than a place to hawk goods, and the strategy worked.
Daymond John was an entrepreneur long before he founded FUBU, a casual clothing business that sold items he had personally sewn for $10 each in front of the New York Coliseum. Later, he and his mother mortgaged their house to get $100,000 to start the company. While creating the early inventory, he also worked at Red Lobster to pay his bills.
Shah and Conine, college roommates from Cornell, started Wayfair in 2002. An online business that sells furniture and home décor, Wayfair grew quickly. Initially, the business only sold storage furniture and media stands from Conine’s home. By 2017, however, net revenue for the company had grown to almost $5 billion.
Markus Frind created a dating website called Plenty of Fish while working alone in his apartment. Before he hired a team or received investment money, the company had already made millions of dollars from online advertising. In 2010, Frind told the New York Times that he worked about 10 hours a week for around $10 million in net profits each year. He sold the business to the Match Group for $575 million in 2016.
Quimby and Shavitz started Burt’s Bees in 1984 with leftover beeswax from Shavitz’s honey business. Using their $200 profit from a junior high school craft fair, they started a candle-making operation that led to $20,000 in sales the first year. Gradually, Burt’s Bees developed a successful line of personal care products. In 2007, Clorox bought them out for $975 million.
Gawker, a blog written by Nick Denton and Elizabeth Spiers, focused on celebrities and media in New York City. Denton founded the website in 2003 with money from the sale of an earlier startup company and ran it from his home for years. In 2008, Gawker moved to a storefront. By 2015, the blog had 23 million viewers each month. In 2018, Gawker sold in a bankruptcy auction for $1.5 million.
Joanne Rowling, better known by her pen name J.K. Rowling, typifies the proverbial rags-to-riches story. Her Harry Potter series took her from being a divorced mother on state aid in England to the world’s first billionaire author. As a result of her extensive charitable giving, she lost her billionaire status, but she is still a very wealthy woman.
Born to unwed parents in rural Mississippi, Oprah Winfrey grew up first with her grandparents and was later passed back and forth between her birth parents. She attended Tennessee State University on a full scholarship and worked at a local television station while she was a student. Her career as a talk show host mushroomed after she starred in “The Color Purple.” Oprah later formed her own production company, Harpo, Inc.
These entrepreneurs came from all walks of life, but they all shared a passion for what they loved, a curiosity for learning, and an enthusiasm for reaching their goals. They all became successful even when it meant bucking the system and taking risks along the way.