In a recent series of posts, I have been looking at great entrepreneurs who started small (part 1 and part 2), people like Richard Branson, Martha Stewart and Howard Schultz. What is amazing about entrepreneurs like these is not just how big their enterprises are (companies like Starbucks and Virgin). Rather, it’s how small they started, how much they overcame and how far these entrepreneurs travelled.
Take Oprah Winfrey for example. If you are looking for the quintessential rags-to-riches story, look no further. Yes, Oprah comes from incredibly humble roots, and that makes her rise and business skills more impressive. Oprah was raised by a single mom on welfare, was the victim of childhood sexual abuse and grew up in so much poverty that the kids in school made fun of her for wearing dresses made of potato sacks.
But, while we all know that Oprah is a gifted broadcaster, that is not what made her a billionaire. Lots of people have hosted talk shows, but what sets Oprah apart is her entrepreneurial chops, first evidenced when she negotiated the ownership and syndication rights to her show. That move allowed her to create her own production company and made her a millionaire by the age of 32 when her show went national.
Today, Oprah Winfrey is worth $3 billion.
Another billionaire, Steve Jobs, was raised in less than ideal financial circumstances as well. Jobs grew up in a lower middle-class family, the adoptive son of a homemaker mother, and a father who was a self-described “repo man.”
Jobs was only at Reed College for a year before he had to drop out due to floundering familial finances. He continued to audit classes at Reed, ate for free at the local Hare Krishna temple, and returned soda bottles for change to get by. In 1974, Jobs moved to India and lived in an ashram for seven months before moving back to the Bay Area and living in his parents’ toolshed.
What grounded and motivated him throughout these tough, early years was a fascination with the nascent computer revolution. It was in 1975 that he and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer in the Jobs family garage. Apple, as we all know, was a hit from the start, but did you know that Steve Jobs was fired from the company he founded less than a decade later? But he was nothing if not resilient. When later discussing his firing from the company he loved, he said:
“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
When he died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, Steve Jobs was worth $8.3 billion.
And if ever there was an entrepreneur who started small and overcame adversity, it is none other than Walt Disney, survivor of bankruptcy, lawsuits and more. In 1922, Disney started his first animation company, “Laugh-O-Gram,” where he and his partner made short advertising films and Walt attempted to create his first animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unfortunately, a distributor soon cheated Disney and his partner in a big deal, causing Disney to declare bankruptcy and lose the rights to Oswald in the process.
Disney started all over, in a new city, and created another new company. Then he decided to create a character to replace Oswald.
A little fellow he named Mickey Mouse.
Entrepreneurs of great enterprises and companies started from humble and often extremely adverse backgrounds. Regardless of their beginnings, they all achieved incredible success. Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down by losses as small business owners, but reminding yourself that every business and entrepreneur had their ebbs and flows can help keep your head up.
About Steve Strauss
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 Success.© Steven D. Strauss
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