How did a teenager dreaming of making 3 million-dollars one day end up worth $315 billion instead? Learn more about John D. Rockefeller and the top entrepreneurs of all time in this article.
After reading this article going over the top 50 investors of all time, we hope you will be more inspired to launch your own business. Remember, they all started small. As you will discover in this article, many of the top entrepreneurs of all time started their entrepreneurial odyssey by selling small items and learning the ropes as they went along. Every business deal they made along the way to amassing their fortunes used previous experiences acquired in earlier ventures.
In case you would like to know more about an entrepreneur on this list, we put a link to their Wikipedia pages and another one to their biographies on Amazon. Reading entrepreneurs’ biographies enables you to get inside their minds, learn and understand how they developed the mindsets needed to create successful ventures. While going over this article, you can use the business ideas card to see if you can identify the business models used by each entrepreneur that enabled them to leverage their respective businesses. By doing so, you will be able to strengthen your business mind, get more business ideas or learn new ways to improve your current business.
“Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do”-Bruce Lee
1-STEVE JOBS (APPLE) | BIOGRAPHY
Of all the entrepreneurs in this list, Steve Jobs was by far the most popular in the last 20 years. Original co-founder with Steve Woj of Apple computers in 1976, Steve Jobs was in the forefront of the personal computer revolution of the past 40 years. He was born on February 24, 1955 in San Francisco. His mother Joanne Carole Schieble hid her pregnancy because she planned on giving up Steve for adoption. The reason why Steve Jobs’ biological mother did not want to keep him was due to her family being opposed to her relationship with his biological father, Jandali, a Ph.D. student from Syria she met at the University of Wisconsin. In addition to Joanne being twenty-three-years-old, she worried about how devastated her dying father would have been if he knew of her pregnancy.
Thus, when Steve Jobs was born in 1955, Joanne selected a wealthy family to adopt him, but unfortunately, the couple changed their minds and adopted a girl instead. The adoption center had to find another home for Steve. He ended up being adopted by a middle-class blue-collar worker family, Paul and Clara Jobs. As a child, Steve Jobs showed keen interest in building all sorts of things like his father Paul before focusing on electronics. Although he was a troublemaker in school, his high intellect enabled him to skip the fifth grade. His teachers wanted him to skip not one, but two grades instead. Steve’s passion for electronics was cultivated by the number of electronic engineers living in his neighborhood of Los Altos.
He even obtained a summer job at HP at just 13-years-old. Upon entering high school, Jobs had difficulty making friends and was often alone, however, he stroked a friendship with Bill Fernandez, who was also into electronics. Bill then introduced Jobs to Steve Wozniak, the electronic genius of the town who was only five years older than them.
After high school, Jobs enrolled at Leeds College in Oregon, but upon realizing how expensive the tuition was, he ended up dropping out and audited a few classes for a year before moving back to San Francisco in 1972. Following a brief time in India, Steve Jobs was back working for Atari. He partnered with Wozniak on multiple projects, such as designing a better circuit board for the Atari game Breakout and selling a device Woz designed to make phone calls for free. Following meetings at the Homebrew computers club in 1975, Wozniak invented the Apple 1 computer, which Jobs recommended they sell.
From the beginning, Steve Jobs had the vision of creating new electronic technologies, but unlike the creative Woz, he wanted the financial rewards in the process. The company they created emerged from Steve’s garage. With a couple of friends, they assembled the first prototype while he would be on the phone finding investors for countless hours. In 1978, the Apple ii computer finally went on sale and became an instant success, and was praised by the electronic community.
As Apple computers grew in the 1980s with the introduction of the Macintosh, tension grew within the company to the point where Steve Woz departed and Steve Jobs’ role was drastically reduced. He submitted a letter of resignation in 1985.
Still, in his mid-twenties and worth upward of $100 million, Steve Jobs went on to create Next computer and Pixar, which produced among other things Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and WALL-E. 1997 saw the return of a much more experienced and wiser Jobs at the reign of Apple. His company Next was bought by Apple for $427 million. The 2000s saw the second rise of Apple toward the zenith of the computer industry and leading the way into the next era of consumer electronics.
Steve’s entrepreneurial and business spirits kept Apple innovative with revolutionary products like the MacBook, the iPod, the iTunes store and the iPhone. At the time of his death, Steve Jobs was worth $10 billion dollars and Apple was unanimously recognized as the number one company worldwide.
2- JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER (STANDARD OIL COMPANY) | BIOGRAPHY
Rockefeller, one of the most recognizable names in American history, is based on the prowess of John D. Rockefeller, who wasn’t just the richest man of his time, but widely considered one of the richest men of all time with his net worth culminated at $336 billion (inflation-adjusted). Born on July 8, 1839 in New York, John Rockefeller grew up in a troubled middle-class household. His father was often away, having adopted a vagabond lifestyle. Following the relocation of his family to Ohio in 1853, John Rockefeller attended high school and after graduating, took a business course focused on bookkeeping at Folsom’s commercial college. He developed a strong work ethic and good negotiation skills.
At the age of 16, John got his first real job as a bookkeeper for a small firm named Hewitt & Tuttle. He acquired a lot of experience calculating transportation costs which he later used in his oil empire. Barely twenty in 1859, Rockefeller entered into a business partnership with Maurice Clark. This marked the beginning of his entrepreneurial life.
After investing in a variety of businesses during the Civil war, he and his partners entered the oil refining business in 1863. Unlike most refining businesses at the time that wasted away 40% of their oil, Rockefeller and his partners found various uses of the oil left after kerosene was taken out. Oil throughout the nineteenth century was mostly used for lighting, hence the only use of the kerosene component (cars were not yet in circulation). But unlike most refineries, Rockefeller’s refinery used the gasoline part of oil as fuel and processed what was left to make petroleum jelly, wax, naphtha and tar for making asphalt.
A couple of year after the partnership was established, John bought out his partners and went into another partnership with his brother William, chemist Samuel Andrew and Henry Flagler. By 1866, they owned and operated two refineries in Ohio. This lead to the eventual creation of Standard Oil. Rockefeller aggressively borrowed funds to invest in the expansion of his refinery businesses and to buy out less efficient competitors and raise them to his standards.
Simultaneously, under the radar, he stroked deals with railroad owners to lower pricings on high volume of oil shipments and increase prices on smaller volumes to the extent that small refineries would not be able to compete. Even though the media extensively attacked his business strategy, accusing him of monopolizing the oil industry and paying people off, Rockefeller continued to expand his empire by keeping low prices and developing new ways to use oil. More than 300 oil based products were created.
By 1870, Standard Oil incorporated more than 20,000 wells, 4,000 miles of pipelines and around 100,000 employees. John Rockefeller’s oil business was refining more than 90% of the oil worldwide. But the end of the 19th century was a tumultuous time for Standard Oil, vilified by the press and brought to courts under antitrust legislations. The monopoly Rockefeller masterfully built was not able to sustain all the external pressure. By 1910, the company was ordered to be broken into thirty-four companies, giving rise to Chevron, Conoco, Exxon, BP, Mobil and Pennzoil among others. In the aftermath, Rockefeller’s net worth went up exponentially, culminating at $315 billion if adjusted today for inflation.
Besides amassing his fortune, Rockefeller was also known for his philanthropic side with the Rockefeller Foundation and supporting the construction and development of universities, such as the University of Chicago, Yale, Harvard, Columbia and Brown.
3-ANDREW CARNEGIE (CARNEGIE STEEL) | BIOGRAPHY
Mythical American figure, Andrew Carnegie, like his contemporary John D. Rockefeller was renowned for his business expertise, acumen and philanthropic actions. Carnegie was born on November 25, 1835 in Scotland. From an early age, he started working since his father’s handloom business was suffering and his mother’s job was not enough to provide for the whole family.
In 1848, the Carnegie family decided to emigrate to the US in hope of finding better jobs and bettering their lives. After settling in Pennsylvania, Andrew, now 13 years of age, worked at a cotton mill for twelve hours a day, six days a week, instilling in him a strong work ethic. A couple of years after, he started working as a telegraph messenger in Pittsburgh for the Ohio Telegraph company. During his time working in Pittsburgh, Carnegie read voraciously from the personal library of Colonel James Anderson who opened it to young boys during the weekends. His next job as a secretary and telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania railroad company lead to his appointment in 1859 as a superintendent.
His time working in the railroad industry of Pennsylvania was vital to his later success. Besides the various relationships and connections he developed, he learned a lot about the railroad business and infrastructure. Carnegie also learned how to manage people and improve businesses by making them more efficient, cut unnecessary costs and improve operations. Through his boss Thomas Scott, he was able to make small investments in first a railroad company then in Iron, bridges and rails businesses.
During the Civil war, he played an instrumental role operating telegraph lines in the east and overseeing the construction of railroad lines destroyed by the rebels. In 1866, Andrew Carnegie invested a large sum of money gained from previous investment into an oil creek farm in Pennsylvania. But after seeing the high demand for iron-made products for building weapons, boats and reconstructing railroads post-war, he established a steel mill in 1865, the Keystone Bridge company.
From there on, Carnegie focused his time and energy on developing his steel business, by increasing productivity with innovative techniques of manufacturing cheap steel in high volumes and by vertical integration. By buying out companies involved at different stages of steel manufacturing, he integrated them together and cut costs. This resulted in the creation of the Carnegie Steel Company in 1892. Carnegie Steel became the largest steel company in the United States, contributing to the United State overtaking the United Kingdom as the number one producer of steel.
In 1901, now 66 years of age, Carnegie was ready to retire and sold his company to financier J P Morgan for $13.8 billion with his share amounting to $6.5 billion. His net worth was estimated to be $309 billion if adjusted today for inflation.
4- BENJAMIN FRANKLIN | BIOGRAPHY
Writer, Inventor, businessman and Politician, Benjamin Franklin was an all-around polymath, one of the greatest figures of US history. At the young age of 12, Benjamin who was born in Boston started working as an apprentice to his brother in the printing industry. This exposed him to various business trades and books to learn from. He eventually started to get his writing published under the pseudonym of Mrs. Do-good.
Following his relocation to Philadelphia at the age of twenty-one, Benjamin came up with the idea of a subscription library in response to the expensive books he and his friends purchased and discussed at length. In the following years, Franklin established a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette. Today, Benjamin Franklin is remembered as a great entrepreneur, politician, inventor and philosopher. The $100-dollar bill bears his face.
5- CARLOS SLIM (GRUPO CARSO) | BIOGRAPHY
Carlos Slim isn’t just the richest person in Mexico but frequently appears on the Forbes top 10 lists of the richest persons alive. All the businessmen on this list, he used political connections the most to leverage the companies he owned and invested in. Carlos’ fortune was built by owning large shares of the company based in Mexico operating in various industries: telecommunication, construction, and energy. He also expanded his portfolio by owning shares in foreign companies like the New York Times, Saks and Sears.
In addition to owning major stocks in various multinational corporations, Mr. Slim often purchased troubled companies with the goal of turning them around to increase their value. Unlike most billionaire entrepreneurs on this list, Carlos Slim, similarly to Zara’s founder Amancio Ortega, has kept a very low profile throughout his life. It’s only in the last decade that people outside of Mexico and Latin America have begun to know more about him. Today, his fortune is estimated at around $67 billion.
6- WARREN BUFFETT (BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY) | BIOGRAPHY
Nicknamed the Wizard of Omaha, Warren Buffet has been in the conversation regarding the richest man alive for the past twenty years. Unanimously recognized as one of the greatest investors of all time, Warren’s fortunes were built on carefully selecting companies to invest at the right price and time. After analyzing meticulously companies’ assets, intrinsic value, management and the industries they operated in, he invested with the conviction of keeping them for a long time.
Born and raised in Omaha, Warren Buffett started working at an early age, from delivering newspapers to selling chewing gums and Coca Cola bottles. He created his first business after purchasing a pinball machine he installed in local barbershops. With his passion for reading, Warren turned his attention to studying finance, he even visited the stock exchange at 10-year-old.
In 1951, during his college graduate years at Columbia University, Buffett started to develop his investment philosophy under the tutoring of Benjamin Graham, who is widely recognized as a great investor and finance teacher. From the outset of his investing career, Warren Buffet was relatively successful at picking the right stocks. He first created a partnership to manage money from friends and family, which yielded a significant return by 1962. Now a millionaire, Buffet merged the partnerships he previously created into one entity, Berkshire Hathaway.
Throughout his long investment career, Buffett made key investments at the right time in a multiple of companies such as Geico, Coca Cola, Heinz, American Express and Well Fargo. Depending on the size of the company, Berkshire would sometimes buyout private or publicly traded companies. Today, Berkshire Hathaway, which was formerly a failing textile factory, is valued at $428 billion. The net worth of Warren Buffett is estimated at $74 billion.
7- BILL GATES (MICROSOFT) | BIOGRAPHY
The most recognizable billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist on this list, Bill Gates topped the Forbes richest man numerous times in the last 30 years, thirteen consecutive years at one point. At the age of 13, Gates was introduced to the computer world at high school he attended, one of the few high schools in the US equipped with computers. After his passion for computers took off, Bill dedicated a large part of his time toward learning computer programing.
Upon finishing high school in 1973, where he graduated as a National Merit scholar and scoring 1590 out of 1600 on his SAT, Gates enrolled at Harvard University. He eventually dropped out after his second year. He and his high school computer friend Paul Allen founded Microsoft in 1975. Billionaire Steve Ballmer, who later joined Microsoft, was a friend of Gates at Harvard. Their first entry into the computer industry was following the pitching to MITS on how they could provide an interpreter for their new platform computer, the Altair 8800. Next, Microsoft stroked a decisive deal with IBM to write an operating system to support their IBM PC. As a smart businessman, Bill Gates did not give an exclusive license deal to IBM for their computers because he expected new competitors to enter the PC market and wanted to partner with them as well.
From the start, Microsoft’s business model was based on licensing, unlike Apple which had the exclusive usage of their operating system. Bill Gates’ business insight ended up being the right one because, in a matter of years, new computer companies emerged and licensed Microsoft’s operating system. In 1985, Microsoft retailed the Windows operating system, followed by Microsoft Office in 1990. After the new millennium, Microsoft expanded into other tech areas, becoming more of a technology company instead of the software company it has been known as. The Xbox gaming console was successfully introduced in 2001 to compete with the PlayStation of Sony and later, the Surface tablet was launched.
Today, Microsoft is valued at $565 billion, making Bill Gates the richest man alive with a net worth of $90 billion; “Gates has topped Forbes list of the world’s billionaires for 18 out of the past 23 years.”
8- AKIO MORITA (SONY) | BIOGRAPHY
Although Akio Morita’s name is not recognized by many in the West, Sony, the company he founded in the aftermath of WWII is known by most people. Like many entrepreneurs on this list, Akio Morita got his start in business at an early age by working with his father at their sake, miso and soy sauce family venture.
Being the oldest of four children, Akio was expected to succeed his father to manage the family business, a custom in Japan. Realizing that he was more interested in mathematics and physics, Akio Morita decided against the will of his father to pursue a career in science. He went on to earn a degree in Physic in 1944. In 1946, in the aftermath of World War II which devastated Japan, he co-founded with Masaru Ibuka the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering company later renamed as Sony.
The first product TTE created was a rice cooker. Unfortunately, it did not sell well. Their first big commercial success came years later, in 1955, with the transistors pocket radio. With the international recognition of the radio, Morita moved to New York with the goal of learning more about the American culture, develop a better understanding of how customers behaved in this big market and forge relationships that could potentially help Sony in their expansion. The second success of Sony came shortly after, in 1979, with the release of the Sony’s Walkman, which became widely popular worldwide, selling 250 million units since its release.
Once an unknown company in the US and around the world, Sony today has a global reputation of delivering good quality and innovating products in the technology industry over the last forty years; from the CD player to the PlayStation gaming station. Sony is valued at $51 billion today.
9- OPRAH WINFREY (THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW) | BIOGRAPHY
Born in poverty and raised by a single mother, the early life of Oprah Winfrey was turbulent to say the least; ”Winfrey often wore dresses made of potato sacks, for which the local children made fun of her.” She was born on January 29,1954, in Mississippi, from a teenage mother. Because of her mother’s age, Oprah was sent to live with her grandmother where she stayed for six years.
Even though her grandmother wasn’t financially stable, she taught her how to read at a very young age and participate in church, which contributed to Oprah’s interest in public speaking and communication. Although she went back to live with her mother after six years, her quality of life worsened. She was often neglected by her mother. Unfortunately, Oprah became pregnant at only fourteen-years-old and the baby tragically died shortly after she gave birth.
Eventually, Oprah went to live with her father Vernon in Nashville, Tennessee. Although her father was very rigid with her, through his support Oprah became more disciplined and focused at school. Her improved behavior and stability at home led to her obtaining a scholarship to study communication at Tennessee State University. During Oprah’s last year of high school and throughout college, she worked part-time at a black radio station.
She kept working her way up in the audio and television industry, from Nashville to Baltimore before moving to Chicago in 1983. She was recruited in Chicago as a TV host with the challenge of boosting a low rated morning show. Oprah seized this opportunity and quickly turned around the show, which went from last to becoming the highest-rated show in Chicago.
Shortly after her show became a success, Oprah Winfrey made an important business decision by syndicating the show and broadcasting it nationally. By 1986, the show was on his way to become an international success. Oprah used her show as a springboard to build a media empire. First by increasing the popularity of her show, interviewing celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Barack Obama and Whitney Houston. Secondly by venturing beyond with a magazine called O, The Oprah magazine publication, then in the movie industry with Harpo Film and a radio channel. By the year 2000, Oprah had an estimated net worth of $800 million. In 2011, she launched her own TV network channel OWN.
Today, Oprah is recognized has as one of the most powerful personalities worldwide. Her estimated net worth is $2.9 billion.
10- SAM WALTON (WALMART) | BIOGRAPHY
Since the 1980s, Wal-Mart has been awarded numerous times the title of most valuable company in the world. Still number one in terms of revenue, the superstore giant founded by Sam Walton started small.
Samuel “Sam” Walton was born in 1918 in Oklahoma. His parent’s farm wasn’t able to support the whole family, so his father went into the mortgaging business during the great depression, foreclosing many houses. Eventually, they decided to relocate in 1921 to Missouri. Young Sam was very versatile, he was a proud Eagle scout, played football in high school and worked at his parent’s farm before distributing newspapers and selling subscription magazines.
After completing high school, Sam Walton was eager to go to college to one day and be able to support his family in a bigger way. While in college, he stayed as active as he was in high school, working various jobs, joining a fraternity and presiding over a Bible class group.
After graduating college with a degree in economics, Sam worked at JC Penny, which was the Walmart of its time in the retail department. After eighteen months working at JC Penny, he dropped out before joining the army during the second world war. After the war was over, Sam Walton, now a captain, went back to civilian life. He first managed a variety store before raising funds from his father-in-law to complete the money he had saved during his time in the army to purchase a Ben Franklin store in Arkansas.
The first variety store he operated grew from $80,000 to $225,000 within three years. After refusing to renew his lease because the owner increased the rent, Sam decided to close shop and find a new location. In 1950, after negotiating for the purchase of a small variety store in Bentonville and signing a 99-year lease, Sam Walton opened the first unofficial Walmart named “Five and Dime.” After seeing how the store’s sale revenue grew so rapidly under his management, Sam and his brother Bud started to scout new locations they could purchase and operate with the business model he had developed. By 1962, Sam Walton owned and managed 16 stores in three states.
In the same year, the first Walmart store opened in Rogers, Arkansas. Walton’s insights came from observing and constantly learning about larger competitors. He envisioned his new Walmart stores as giant variety venues, one stop shopping centers, to be in small towns where using economy of scale and lean logistics methods would allow them to sell products at prices so low, local stores would not be able to beat.
Once the first superstores validated his business strategy, the Walmart corporation scaled and opened 100s of stores in the 1970s. Between 1977-1985, they went from 190 to 800 stores. Today, with 11,695 stores in 28 countries, Walmart’s business model is a fascinating case study for aspiring entrepreneurs, managers and companies looking to learn the ins and outs of what Sam Walton created. Subsequently, this lead to Walmart being valued today at $238 billion. Sam Walton net worth at the time of his death in 1992 was $8.6 billion.