As an aspiring entrepreneur, you can always benefit from more inspiration. And what better way to inspire you than to share the life stories of successful entrepreneurs? We often tell ourselves that prominent business leaders are a different breed than the rest of us. But the reality is that they’re regular people who started with little and obtained success through hustle, grit, and perseverance. No matter how bleak or uncertain things might look, you can carve your path to the top. You can overcome obstacles like self-doubt, lack of capital, family issues, and more. Here’s a list of eight famous entrepreneurs whose stories prove it can be done.
8 Successful Entrepreneurs and Their Journey to Success
1. Tobias Lütke
Founded: Shopify Inc.
Tobias Lütke, a software engineer passionate about snowboarding, moved to Canada from his native Germany. After landing in Canada, he applied to work at a local company and was seriously considered for a position. But he didn’t get an offer because the company realized he didn’t have a Canadian work permit. Lütke consulted a family lawyer, who told him that he couldn’t work in the country but can start a business venture.
So Lütke decided to start an online store to sell snowboards, as he had a good knowledge of snowboarding. He looked around for software that he could use to build his store but struggled to find a decent solution. So he created his own ecommerce solution by learning Ruby on Rails. Lütke and partners, who he had met during his time in Canada, quickly realized the software’s potential and launched Shopify in 2006. The focus shifted from selling products to selling software.
Lütke and his partners struggled with finances in the early days, and he even borrowed cash from his family and parents-in-law to keep the company afloat. Fortunately, happy customers and the quality of the software he had developed allowed him to raise millions from venture capitalists. Years later, Shopify raised billions from investors and made Lütke a very wealthy man (not that he flaunts it).
The takeaway: You can opt for traditional employment, but you shouldn’t consider it your only hope to grow professionally. Focus on your hobbies and the things you’re good at – and you’re likely to identify a business opportunity that is right for you.
2. Lynda Weinman
Lynda Weinman is regarded as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the mid-90s. After starting and failing with a few retail stores, Weinman left the brick-and-mortar business when she was 28 to work in special effects and animation. Later, she bought her first computer and became interested in computer graphics. She self-taught herself and soon had people approach her to educate them on computers. Soon enough, she realized that she was fond of teaching and began filling computer graphic classes at universities. She also wrote a book, ‘Designing Web Graphics,’ in 1996, which became a best-seller.
The book’s success encouraged Weinman to pursue writing full-time. She and her husband plus business partner Bruce Heavin shifted to a small town intending to publish books and teach classes. Heavin came up with the idea of renting a computer lab and offering week-long and weekend web design classes, which led to Lynda.com’s creation. Weinman, 40 at the time, bought the domain to advertise in-person classes and received a huge response.
Weinman later decided to shift Lynda.com from offering in-person classes to online lessons, charging a $25-a-month subscription fee instead of $1,500 for the week-long classes. This helped the company survive the 9/11 economic downturn and the dot-com crash. Weinman scaled Lynda.com through word-of-mouth as there was no Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube back then. In 2015, she sold Lynda.com to LinkedIn for $1.5 billion and exited, even though she didn’t have an exit strategy.
The takeaway: You’re never too old or too young to be your own boss. If you’re onto something that can help improve people’s lives, you’ll find success at any age. Think about how you can make an impact and earn the audience’s loyalty.
3. Robin Lin
Founded: Baidu, Inc.
How often have we read stories of the archetypal American, born in an underdeveloped region to a low-income family, going on to create a billion-dollar company? In the past few decades, China has also seen a rise in the number of individuals establishing successful businesses despite having the odds stacked against them. Robin Li is one example.
Born in 1968 to a labor family in the Shanxi province, Li worked hard to get a sound education. The Shanxi area was underdeveloped, so Li applied for a degree program at Peking University, Beijing. He sat an entrance exam, passed it, and completed a Bachelor of Science in library and information management. Later, he worked in Beijing for some time before moving to New York to complete a master’s degree. Upon getting his master’s, Li took up a software engineering job at Dow Jones and Company’s IDD Information Services department.
It was while working at the company that he started working on site-scoring and page-scoring algorithms. He went on to develop Rankdex, which was the first search engine to use these algorithms. After getting the algorithms patented, Li had a few short stints at other companies before moving back to China. He then launched Baidu with his friend Eric Xu, a search engine that used the same algorithm as Rankdex. Li didn’t have a permanent apartment at the time and managed the full launch from his hotel room near Peking University. Baidu became an instant hit, and Li was named one of China’s most successful entrepreneurs and innovators.
The takeaway: Living and learning abroad can improve your problem solving and creativity, but your home country might offer more opportunities to make an impact.
4. Masayoshi Son
Founded: Softbank Group Corp.
Masayoshi Son was born to a low-income Korean family on the Japanese Island of Kyushu. As a child, he faced discrimination in school because he was Korean, but that didn’t stop him from attending and learning new things. At 16, Son got the chance to meet his hero Den Fujita, founder of McDonald’s Japan, who advised him to learn English in the US. Soon after, Son moved to the US to attend high school before taking up a computer science and economics degree program at UC Berkeley.
Son showed early signs of entrepreneurial spirit after starting his degree. When not studying, he was thinking of starting different businesses. Inevitably, he made a little fortune when he worked with his Physics professor to build a multilingual speech synthesizer, which he later sold to Sharp for $1.7 million. His professor once told Ars Technica that Son didn’t know electronics, but his entrepreneurial mindset allowed him to think of a way to sell them.
After finishing his degree, Son returned to Japan and spent 18 months thinking and exploring. Then he finally used his $80,000 in savings to launch a software distribution company he named Softbank. However, his first project failed due to having no product to distribute. Fortunately, he was approached by a PC dealer named Joshin Denki, whom he convinced to trade exclusively with Softbank. Later, Son made other deals with publishers and retailers, taking Softbank’s monthly sales from $10,000 to $2.3 million.
The takeaway: You don’t always need to be the smartest person in the room. If you lack the knowledge and skill to implement a particular idea, partner with someone to help with the execution.
5. Tan Sri Datuk Tiong Su Kouk
Founded: CCK Consolidated Holdings Berhad
Picture credit: The Strait Times
Tan Sri Datuk Tiong is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Malaysia. The company he created might not sound like an exciting business – but it’s actually one of the biggest brands for frozen seafood in Sarawak. Like many ambitious business owners, Tan Sri didn’t build his fortune or empire overnight. His career started in fishmongery, with an investment from his father.
When Tiong was only 14 years old, his father picked him out of nine siblings to preside over a fish stall. The future entrepreneur had to stop going to school to abide by his father’s request, but he received some capital to help him get started.
When speaking about his beginnings, Tiong often suggests that his father chose him due to his skills as a fast worker and a hard one. He learned rubber tapping when he was only eight and quickly developed his skills in the fishing trade. Although he never understood why his father asked him to give up his education opportunities, Tiong often says that the sudden change to his life may have been a blessing in disguise.
An insight into the hard work that entrepreneurship requires, Tiong labored long hours before he began to enjoy the fruits of his success. He once worked 16 hours a day for 12 years in the wet market to build his empire. When he turned 27, he finally opened Sibu’s first frozen seafood outlet at a time when people weren’t particularly drawn to frozen food.
Almost six decades later, Tiong has continued to build his influence beyond the seafood production landscape, and now looks at everything from ship leasing to shipbuilding and property development.
The takeaway: Hard work really does pay off. If you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll get the rewards eventually. Remember that when the going gets tough.
6. Vandana Luthra
Founded: VLCC (Vandana Luthra Curls and Curves)
Hailing from India, Vandana Luthra is one of those successful entrepreneurs who didn’t let societal pressures get in the way of starting her business. Her entrepreneurial journey started after she gave birth to her second daughter in 1989. Luthra took a small loan and started a wellness transformation center called VLCC (Vandana Luthra Curls and Curves). When she founded the company, India’s startup scene was dominated by males, which
made people apprehensive about Luthra’s skills. She also faced a lot of criticism, and people tried to bring her down, but her perseverance to improve people’s lives helped her overcome the obstacles and introduce a unique business in the country.
Vandana got the inspiration to better others’ lives from her parents. As a child, she often saw them invite neighboring kids to watch TV as they were the only ones to own it in the locality. Her mother also opened a trust with a pioneering concept of educating kids with disabilities. After graduating from the Polytechnic from Women in New Delhi, Vandana gained extensive knowledge of skincare, beauty, nutrition, and fitness visiting several European countries.
Realizing that India didn’t have a 360-degree wellness center, she opened VLCC offering head-to-toe transformation. It took a while for consumers to adapt to the whole new idea of visiting a center, but once the unique concept took off, there was no shortage of customers in her clinic. VLCC became a success. Vandana also keeps with the latest technology trends in the health and beauty sector to ensure her transformation centers offer her clients the most advanced services.
The takeaway: By working towards your goals and not letting external pressures sway you, you can reach the pinnacle of success.
7. Jason Njoku
Jason Njoku is a British-Nigerian film magnate, entrepreneur, and start-up investor. After a childhood spent in London and Nigeria, Jason was keen to make his impact on the business world and is currently one of the most successful African entrepreneurs in history.
Njoku co-founded a video-on-demand platform similar to Netflix, named iROKOtv, which is very popular in Nigeria. However, this was actually the 11th attempt that Jason made at launching his own company. From 2005 to 2010, Jason launched various small companies, from a web-design venture to a t-shirt business to a blog network.
It wasn’t until Njoku moved back home with his mother that he came up with the idea to create a Nollywood distribution business online. He noticed that there weren’t any streaming platforms available specifically for Africa. Having studied the industry from afar, he eventually flew to Lagos and started purchasing licenses to show movies online.
In 2010, Jason launched a YouTube channel with his former partner Bastian Gotter, which became profitable within two months of launch. The same year, the NollywoodLove channel also caught the attention of the Tiger Global venture capital fund (early investors for Facebook). The company launched its stand-alone movie platform in 2011 with $3 million in Series A funding from Tiger Global.
The takeaway: Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ideas. Every venture you try might not be a success, but each opportunity will teach you something new.
8. Jorge Paulo Lemann
Founded: 3G Capital (which owns brands like Burger King and Heinz)
Picture credit: BloombergQuint
Jorge Paulo is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world and an iconic figure from South America. Born in Rio De Janeiro to a Swiss immigrant, Jorge Paulo Lennon is a well-known professional who started his career as a trainee at the Credit Suisse company in Geneva.
Interestingly, the first company that Lemann invested in, Invesco, went bankrupt, but he didn’t let this setback stop him. Lemann continued to explore new business opportunities, co-founding a company called Banco Garantia, which became one of the fastest growing banks in Brazil.
After suffering a heart attack in 1994, Jorge continued to expand on his career, becoming a member of the board of directors for the Companhia Cervejaria Brahma. He also became a board member for Lojas Americanas and was briefly on the board with Gillette, where he worked alongside Warren Buffet.
Today, Lemann is best known for his position as a co-founder in the Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital. This investment firm owns some of the world’s biggest companies, including Burger King, Heinz, and Anheuser Busch. In addition to a successful life as an entrepreneur, Jorge has also held various important positions elsewhere. For instance, he’s president of the Latin American Advisory Committee on the New York Stock Exchange!
The takeaway: Don’t let the occasional failure get you down. Pick yourself back up and learn from the mistake. Lemann lost money at first, but he got straight back on the horse.
It always helps to have inspirational figures you can look to when starting as an entrepreneur. The path to business success is a challenging one and often isolating too. Knowing people in the landscape that you feel an affinity with can make it easier to visualize your own success in the years to come.
As this article demonstrates, there’s no shortage of potential motivational figures that you can look for guidance, no matter where you are in the world. There are plenty of entrepreneurs out there, just like you, who started small and built their way to success. Now it’s your turn to become an inspiration to the next generation of aspiring entrepreneurs.