It’s easy to think, when you examine successful companies like Apple or Starbucks, that they were Apple and Starbucks from the start.


They weren’t.


Apple started in a garage. The original owners of Starbucks were content owning four stores until Howard Schultz showed up. What’s important to remember about these types of businesses and entrepreneurs is that they started off small…very small! It took time, patience and energy for those businesses to become big.


Take Richard Branson of Virgin, for example. Nowadays, the Virgin Group is huge – comprised of over 200 companies in more than 30 countries, specializing in air travel, mobile technology and much more. What you may not realize is that Virgin began as a tiny record company above a shoe shop in London and Branson had to barter his rent.



Originally, Branson started Virgin Records as a means of funding his culture magazine, Student. Virgin Records only found mild success, but it was enough for Branson to take the next steps toward expansion when he started an actual record studio. Branson took things slowly, step-by-step, but eventually bands like the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols signed with Virgin Music.


One of the keys to Branson’s success is that he created multiple profit centers. That is, he paid attention to what the world needed and made a point to fill niches. That is how Virgin Records also became Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Megastores and Virgin Radio; similarly, it is why Virgin didn’t go under when digital music took over. Branson has even added space travel onto the Virgin empire, with Virgin Galactic.


Talk about one small step for man.




Bill Gates has a similar story. Nowadays, we automatically associate the name “Bill Gates” with massive wealth and success, but what many people don’t know is that Gates’ first company, started with his friend Paul Allen, was a dud. “Traf-o-Data” was supposed to analyze traffic patterns. It stalled.


After dropping out of Harvard and moving to New Mexico, Gates and Allen tried again, this time starting “Micro-Soft.” The first several years of Microsoft weren’t easy. Gates and Allen struggled to make a profit, and found themselves in a couple legal battles as well. With only 25 employees, Microsoft relocated outside of Seattle in 1979 – this is where they would eventually become successful. Gates’ mother, Mary, connected Bill to her IBM colleagues, to whom Gates would eventually sell a product called MS-DOS. It was those IBM connections that catalyzed Microsoft’s first success.


Before Microsoft got big, Bill Gates had to rely on family connections.


Or what about Martha Stewart? She is another one of the great small-to-big entrepreneurial tales. Stewart grew up in New Jersey and came from modest beginnings. As a teenager, she did some modeling to make some extra money, but eventually went to Barnard and graduated in 1962. Stewart finished her degree in European and Architectural History.


Martha worked on Wall Street for several years until she realized her true love was gourmet cooking. She decided to put her lucrative career aside to pursue her calling. She trained herself with Julia Child’s cookbook and started her own small catering company. It took about ten years before Martha Stewart became Martha Stewart, and notably, like Richard Branson and Bill Gates, Martha Stewart created many profit centers for her business – books, a magazine, hosting her own TV show, radio, and so on.


All of these anecdotes should be great inspiration to any entrepreneurial-minded folk with a big vision. As long as you’re OK with starting small, and only becoming bigger after time and hard work, then you have every reason to think that you can go out there and make your dream a reality.




About Steve Strauss

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Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest, The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can also listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business SuccessSteven D. Strauss.                                        


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