History’s greatest entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship has been thriving since man first started to innovate, communicate and trade many, many millennia ago. There are countless figures throughout history who could teach today’s entrepreneurs a thing or two about business, and we have picked out twelve of the best from the past 250 years.
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Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

\nWith only two years of schooling, Benjamin Franklin rose to become not only one of history’s greatest entrepreneurs, but also one of the Founding Fathers of the US, and a noted polymath, excelling in fields as diverse as writing, politics, music, diplomacy, and science.

\nHis expertise as a businessman is made evident by the continuing success of his bestselling book, The Way To Wealth, which is still in print, having gone through more than 1,300 editions.

\nAs industrious as he was intelligent, the entrepreneurial achievements of Franklin allowed him to retire from active business by the age of 42, even without cashing in on his scientific discoveries such the lightening rod and bifocal lenses.

\nAn advocate of frugality and trustworthiness, his career as a trader, newspaper printer and more emphasised his abilities as an entrepreneur. He launched vigorous PR campaigns, knew the value of networking, took calculated risks, and found ways to turn problems into solutions.

\nInventive in whichever job he undertook, Franklin worked hard to ensure his whole business, from supply, quality control and distribution, was running smoothly, and was always on the look-out for gaps in the market and unmet demands.

\nHis philosophy of ‘doing well by doing good’ marks him out as not just an entrepreneur, but one of the first notable proponents of social entrepreneurship.
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Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)

\nThe patriarch of the famous Vanderbilt family was a businessman and philanthropist who acquired so much wealth through railroads and shipping that he became one of the richest Americans in history.

\nLeaving school aged eleven, the young Vanderbilt decided to start his own ferry service as a sixteen year old, transporting people between Staten Island and Manhattan. He later diversified and became a trader and business manager, using his newfound nous to enhance his reputation and skill within the shipping industry by overcoming monopolies on numerous waters. He also impressed in real estate at a young age.

\nVanderbilt’s entrepreneurship led him to oceangoing steamships, capitalising on the transport needs of the California gold rush, before building a railroad empire through growth and acquisition which remained his focus until his death aged 82.

\nIn today’s money, it is thought Vanderbilt would be worth about USD150bn, making him the second wealthiest American in history after John D Rockerfeller.
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Jamsetji Tata (1839-1904)

\nPerhaps India’s most famous entrepreneurs, the founder of the Tata Group is often called the Father of Indian Industry.

\nJamsetji Tata was born into a family of Parsi Zoroastrian priests, starting out as a trader in Bombay at his father’s firm before starting his own trading company aged 29. Learning from the difficulties his father’s banking enterprise endured, Tata built a commanding presence in the textile industry, and went on to establish the Tata Group, which is now a multinational conglomerate.

\nAmong his company’s achievements are the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai (which was the only hotel in India to have electricity when it opened), Tata Steel (which became the fifth largest steel company when it acquired Corus Group in 2007), the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and Tata Power Company, currently India’s largest private electricity company.
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John D Rockefeller (1839-1937)

\nWho knows what the oil industry would look like without Rockefeller? The American business magnate and philanthropist dominated the industry with his Standard Oil Company, becoming the world’s richest man in the process. Possibly of all time.

\nAs a youth, he reportedly said that his two great ambitions were to make £100,000 and live to 100 years. He didn’t quite manage the second, dying aged 97, but comfortably surpassed the first, rising from a sixteen year old bookkeeper on 50 cents a day to build an oil monopoly which at its peak had a 90 percent share of world oil refining.

\nHe later expanded into iron ore and ore transportation - sparking a major rivalry with fellow business heavyweight, Andrew Carnegie - before Standard Oil fell foul of anti-monopoly legislation and was broken up into 34 new companies. The move actually worked out better for Rockefeller, as the companies’ combined profits rose by five times.

\nEqually well known for his philanthropy, Rockefeller donated huge sums to churches, universities, and medical science.
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Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

\nPerhaps history’s most prolific inventor, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, and many more across the globe, Thomas Edison was also a shrewd businessman and entrepreneur.

\nInventions including the phonograph, motion picture camera and the long-lasting light bulb cemented his reputation and importance, contributing in the fields of communication, media, electricity, and more.

\nBut his achievements in the lab were matched by those in business. He earned $40,000 for his work in telegraphy, which he used to open a research facility in order for him to create more inventions, the majority of which he was equally handsomely paid for.

\nHis manufacturing and business endeavours were hugely successful, but as most great entrepreneurs, he was unafraid of failure, and equally less afraid of hard graft. Indeed, it is Edison who coined the phrase “genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration”, and his positive attitude can be found in the quote “I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
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Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)

\nAnother legendary inventor, Nikola Tesla showed that entrepreneurship isn’t all about the money.

\nWhile many of today’s business hopefuls measure their success on funding rounds, valuations, and profitable exits, several of yesteryear’s entrepreneurs saw things differently.

\nHaving emigrated from Serbia to the US to work with Edison, the pair’s lives soon took different paths. While Edison’s inventions built his fortune, Tesla worked on a more philanthropic principle which allowed others to benefit from his work.

\nHis entrepreneurship led to several significant inventions - especially in electricity - such as wireless energy and information, and sustainable energy - topics which are as fascinating to tech entrepreneurs now as they were then. And while he didn’t gain the financial reward he deserved, his dedication to advancing science and technology mark him out as having true entrepreneurial spirit.
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Henry Ford (1863-1947)

\nAnother contemporary, employee and friend of Edison, the founder of the Ford Motor Company is regard by many as the man responsible for popularising the assembly line technique of mass production.

\nThe industrialist became one of the world’s most recognisable business figures, not to mention wealthiest people, exercising innovation, vision, marketing strategy, and revolutionary pay structures.

\nDespite courting controversy for the publication of antisemitic texts, he remains one of America and the world’s most highly regarded entrepreneurs, starting out as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company before pitching his own business plans to produce experimental automobiles.

\nHe is recognised for being a pioneer of ‘welfare capitalism’, trying to improve the lot of his workers, partly to stem the heavy turnover in his factories. He introduced a $5 work day - about $120 today - which won him the loyalty of his staff, and attracted the best mechanics to Ford. All of which had the knock-on effect of saving money on training, and raising productivity.
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Konosuke Matsushita (1894-1989)

\nThe legendary founder of Panasonic is hailed by many in his home country of Japan as ‘the god of management’.

\nBorn into a wealthy family, but thrown into poverty due to his father’s bad investment decisions, Matsushita finished his education aged nine, forcing him into the world of work. Raising through the ranks of an electrical company, he soon became unchallenged and dissatisfied with his job, and decided to set up his own company.

\nCreating samples of a new and improved light socket that was rejected by his previous employer, Matsushita soon received huge orders, and so the nucleus of Panasonic was born.

\nHailed for the organisation he brought to his company, Matsushita devised new ways to create sales channels, established a thriving retail store network, and built a structure which featured a parent company and branches of divisions that had different specialisations.

\nPanasonic went on to become one of the world’s largest manufacturers of electrical goods, cementing Matsushita’s name in the annuls of business greatness.
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Walt Disney (1901-1966)

\nStarting out as an oft-rejected newspaper artist, Walt Disney’s influence is now found in every corner of the globe.

\nOne of the leading figures in the history of entertainment, Disney co-founded Walt Disney Productions, which went on to become the best-known motion picture production company in the world.

\nThe animator-turned-entrepreneur is responsible for creating some of the planet’s best known cartoon characters, including Mickey Mouse, revolutionising the concept of theme parks and hotels, and building an entertainment empire which encompassed film, TV and music.

\nDisney holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations (59) and wins (22), and was also handed four honorary Oscars, on top of a host of other awards.

\nThe Walt Disney Company continues to be a business behemoth, with an annual revenue of about $36bn in the 2010 financial year.
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Berry Gordy Jr (1929-present day)

\nOne of Detroit’s favourite sons, Berry Gordy Jr is the man responsible for one of the music industry’s most popular, prolific and important record labels.

\nMotown was born 1959 when Gordy – already a successful songwriter – built a portfolio of soul music artists for whom he acted as producer, manager, and marketer.

\nLaunching the careers of stars such as Marvin Gaye, The Supromes, Stevie Wonder, and The Jackson 5, Gordy and Motown became synonymous with a specific style of soul music, and also played an important role in the racial intengration of popular music.

\nThe label has issued vast numbers of hit records, with more than 100 titles reaching the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and is one of the greatest entrepreneurial successes in the music industry.
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Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

\nSay the word ‘entrepreneur’ and many people will think of Steve Jobs. Such is the legacy of the co-founder of Apple.

\nA tech pioneer, and charismatic people-person, his career in the computer and consumer electronics fields is lauded by all and sundry. Computers, smartphones, music, movies, and more all fell under his remit, with the famous i-brand, not to mention Pixar Animation Studios, making staggering contributions to modern life.

\nHis intellect and endeavour was matched by his shrewdness. Having left Apple in 1985 following a power struggle with the board of directors, he returned in 1996 after the company had failed to deliver its operating system. Jobs brought Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy and took it to profitability by 1998.

\nHailed as a visionary, and described as the ‘father of the digital revolution’, his perfectionism and determination, and innovation make him one of the modern era’s most revered entrepreneurs.
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Bill Gates (1955-present day)

\nHaving been in the top three wealthiest people in the world since the early 1990s, and currently ranked as the wealthiest by the Bloomberg Billionaires List, Bill Gates is without question one of history’s most successful entrepreneurs.

\nLike Jobs, Gates is cited as one of the leading figures of the personal computer revolution, co-founding Miscrosoft in 1975, which grew to become the world’s largest personal computer software company.

\nOccasionally criticised for his management style and anti-competitive business tactics, Gates has weathered numerous storms – including antitrust court cases – to maintain his and his company’s position at the top of the tree.

\nMore recently Gates and his wife Melinda have donated huge sums of money to philanthropic endeavours, including charities, scientific research and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, established in 2000. The couple say they plan to eventually donate 95 percent of their wealth to charity.