It takes both brain and brawn to set up a business for the first time. So imagine the challenges you would face when you’re not only setting up your first business, but you’re doing so in an arena that isn’t even established yet – in a market that doesn’t yet exist.
These founding fathers of business are the true entrepreneurs who paved the way for modern business owners, making strides in unheard-of fields and setting records for unheard-of profits…
Henry Ford (1863-1947)
A household name and the kingpin for the advancement of the assembly line that propelled mass production, Henry Ford’s name is synonymous with invention and business building.
Ford began his career as an engineer at the age of 27 in 1891. Within two years he became Chief Engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company (yes, that Edison) and began his work experimenting on gasoline engines.
Fast forward to 1899 and Ford was founding his first automobile company, which was a speedy failure, dissolving in less than two years. But Henry’s constant experimentation and tenacious business attitude meant success wasn’t far around the corner. By late 1902, Ford was at the head of a company that had just signed a contract to supply over $160,000 worth of parts. By today’s value, that sum would be around $4,600,000.
It wasn’t long before he became an advocate for the moving assembly line, which helped him to both manufacture parts cheaply while paying workers high wages, leading him to become one of the richest and most-known people in the world at the time.
Ford set up the company to be permanently under his family’s control, and its revenue now stands at $151.8bn.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)
Success can be measured by business acumen and getting ahead – but sometimes, it’s the smallest, but hard-fought for, changes that see a person make waves in their industry or field.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was a pioneering scientist with dreams of running her own practice, at a time when the field of science was not open to women – at least, not without a fight.
At 24-25 years of age, Anderson sought a career in medicine and chemistry, much to the displeasure of her fellow male students who joined to present a memorial against her admittance as a student in her current school. She was obliged to leave, and later refused entry to a number of other medical schools, including Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews and the Royal College of Surgeons.
But obstacles didn’t quell her passion for her work, and she opened up her own practice in 1865, at 29, and a dispensary in 1866. Patients were scarce to begin with, but word of mouth and a dire cholera outbreak led people to abandon their prejudices and attend her surgery. That year, she tended to 3,000 new patients with over 9,000 outpatient visits. That’s no small victory for somebody who had to fight at every turn to be respected in their business.
John D Rockefeller (1839-1937)
America’s first billionaire and often argued to have been the richest man in the world, Rockefeller was an oil tycoon, who started out his career as a bookkeeper in 1855 making 50 cents a day.
His thrifty ways and sharp mathematical mind meant when the oil rush came, he was ready to best the competition. Where others were wasteful, John was savvy – hiring his own plumbers to lay pipelines and halving the cost, or buying wood directly to make barrels at 96 cents apiece instead of the going rate of $2.50 per barrel.
By the end of his life, Rockefeller’s assets were equal to 1.5% of America’s total economic output and, according to Forbes, would in today’s money have a net worth of $340bn – four times Bill Gates’ worth (our current world’s richest man).
Madam CJ Walker (1867-1919)
Sarah Breedlove made history when she became America’s first self-made female millionaire. What’s even more impressive is that she was a black woman in the 1800s.
Sarah did business under the name CJ Walker, and began by creating and selling a hair tonic, among other products, that promised to make hair grow back. She built her empire in a style similar to the multi-level marketing schemes you can find today – enlisting agents to sell her products marketed to a black audience.
“At a time when unskilled white workers earned about $11 a week, Walker’s agents were making $5 to $15 a day,” commented Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a piece for Time magazine.
CJ Walker built an empire – a formidable task under most circumstances, let alone in a time when segregation was rife. She invested much of her fortune into philanthropic causes, and her business continued to expand beyond her death – by the 1920s, her company had expanded internationally, beyond the USA to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Panama and Costa Rica.
Walter E Disney (1901-1966)
Walt Disney is a name known around the world, and he was so successful as an animator and film producer that he is seen as a cultural icon in America.
Walt co-founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio with his brother Roy in 1923 – his second studio, after declaring bankruptcy with his first – and combined his passion for artistic creation with his entrepreneurialism.
As the founding animator and film producer, Walt secured his place in history: with 22 Academy Awards, he is the most decorated Oscar-winner of all time. His studio, now known simply as the Walt Disney Company, has gone on to become one of the largest and most recognisable brands in the world, with revenues of $55bn in 2016.
Thomas Edison (1847-1931)
Thomas Edison is known for being a prolific inventor, with more than 1,000 patents to his name. What is less well known about him is that he also had an entrepreneurial streak.
From an early age, Edison sold sweets and newspapers on trains which ran from his hometown of Port Huron to Detroit. He also sold vegetables, and printed his own newspaper which he sold alongside other papers on the trains.
It was Edison’s inventive streak which led him to become a businessman. He set up a company to mine iron ore, of which sand was a by-product; Edison realised he could sell this sand to the cement industry. Instead, he started his own cement company, and sold concrete.
In total, Edison founded 14 businesses in his lifetime. His biggest achievement was perhaps the co-founding of General Electric, still active today with revenues of $123bn. GE was founded when the Edison General Electric company was merged with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company.
Need more inspiration? Read more from the best and brightest business minds in our entrepreneurs infographic.