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Let’s face it: everybody dreams of leaving their cubicle behind and instead spend their days on a beach somewhere. Whether it’s a nagging boss, the soul-destroying corporate culture or the repetitive daily tasks, the thought of escaping it all and controlling your own destiny is a hugely attractive prospect.
Yet for some strange reason, many people still think you need a degree in marketing and an MBA to branch out on your own. Even today, when anybody can make money online, millions of would-be entrepreneurs are deterred by the idea that business success can only be attained with financial clout and a string of qualifications.
This is, of course, nonsense, and we can prove it. There are countless examples of men and women, young and old, who have overcome poverty, poor education and a complete lack of business experience to succeed.
So, if you’re ready to take the plunge and you want to get started, look no further — here are 10 successful entrepreneur stories to inspire you.
1. Kevin Plank
Using money he made selling flowers in college, as well as a combination of business loans, credit cards and other savings, the newly graduated Plank managed to devise a prototype for a football jersey that absorbed sweat, running his fledgeling business out of his grandmother’s house in Georgetown, Washington, DC.
Settling on the name Under Armour, the Maryland native then utilised his contacts in the college football scene to get his products vital exposure. It wasn’t until 1999, however, when Plank used the company’s entire budget to take out an advertisement in ESPN magazine that his luck truly changed. Thanks to the ad, NFL teams and athletes began buying Under Armour products in bulk, resulting in over $1 million (£733,820) worth of sales.
The company has since continued to grow, branching out into several markets and establishing itself as a prominent sportswear provider to some of the biggest sports teams in the world. Plank is still CEO, and currently oversees a 20,000-strong workforce, as well as $5 billion (£3.7 billion) worth of annual revenue.
2. Sophia Amoruso
Diagnosed with ADHD at an early age and withdrawn from school as a result, Sophia Amoruso spent her formative years working odd jobs at the likes of Subway. Following her parents’ divorce, she then relocated to Sacramento, CA, where she claims to have survived by hitchhiking, shoplifting and stealing from bins.
The San Diego native managed to catch a break in 2006, however, when she started selling vintage clothing and other items through her eBay account under the guise of Nasty Gal Vintage (so named after a Betty Davis record). Its revenue subsequently grew from $223,000 (£163,630) in 2008 to nearly $23 million (£16.9 million) in 2011, leading to her being dubbed the ‘Cinderella of Tech’ by the New York Times.
Although she has since stepped down as CEO of Nasty Gal, the company made $20 million (£14.7 million) from its sale to retail giant Boohoo. In 2017, Amoruso founded Girlboss Media, a lifestyle website for millennial women.
3. Jan Koum
Born in the then-Soviet Union, Jan Koum moved with his mother and grandmother to California in 1992, where a social support programme initiated by the state allowed the family to receive a small apartment. At the age of 16, the young entrepreneur took a cleaning job at a grocery store to help support his mother. After teaching himself how to code, he then spent nine years at Yahoo! as an infrastructure engineer.
However, Koum’s eureka moment came in 2009 when he realised the potential of Apple’s then-fledgeling app store. The mastermind created WhatsApp a week later, utilising the ability to push notification apps on iPhones and establishing the app as an alternative to traditional SMS messaging. In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg became interested, with Facebook acquiring WhatsApp for $19 billion (£13.9 billion) and appointing Koum to its board of directors.
Although Koum stepped down from his role in April 2018, forfeiting an estimated $1 billion (£733.1 million) of stock in the process, he is estimated to have personally amassed over $9 billion (£6.6 billion) from his exploits.
4. Pierre Omidyar
After spending most of his 20s flitting between various software development gigs, Paris-born Pierre Omidyar began working on a simple buyer-to-buyer auction website in 1995, naming it Auction Web and initially using it to sell off his own unwanted personal possessions.
As he realised the potential demand for seemingly useless products, though, the site began to grow. Over the next few years, the number of transactions taking place on the site began to rise uncontrollably, with Omidyar incorporating his project and subsequently rebranding it as eBay.
The company was publicly offered in 1998, making Omidyar a billionaire overnight; as of 2018, his personal net worth is estimated to be over $11 billion (£8 billion). eBay is still hugely profitable and continues to be a success, too, although Omidyar has since founded a number of other enterprises. He is also a renowned philanthropist and has served as an executive producer on several Hollywood film productions.
5. Richard Branson
No list of startup inspiration stories would be complete without the inclusion of Richard Branson, who has seemingly (and successfully) tried his hand at every possible line of investment across the last 40 years. Not bad for a man who performed poorly at school, was diagnosed with dyslexia and then bestowed the unfortunate title of Virgin on his first enterprise (supposedly due to his then-status as a ‘virgin at business’).
Luckily, that first venture was the hugely profitable importing and reselling of music records during the 1960s, alongside the management of the popular Student magazine; as a result, Branson was able to open a dedicated record store in London in 1971. He used the profits from this project to then establish Virgin Records, working with many of the artists that he’d previously interviewed for Student, such as the Rolling Stones.
From there, Branson has created and developed market-leading products and services in aviation, media, beverages and rail transport. among many others. His personal net worth is estimated to be around $4.9 billion (£3.6 billion), as he constantly seeks to invest his profits from one venture into another.
Although Jay-Z (born Shawn Carter) is better known for his musical exploits, the New York-native has demonstrated a wide array of entrepreneurial characteristics throughout his career. Indeed, unable to secure a major record deal, Carter initially sold copies of his recordings out of his car, before cocreating his own record label in 1995.
Carter’s subsequent success in the music industry has allowed him to invest in a wide variety of business ventures, including clothing brands, real estate, nightclubs and even a sports management agency, where he represents several notable athletes. He has also invested in a champagne brand, launched a range of signature cigars and at one time owned a major stake in NBA franchise, the Brooklyn Nets.
Although he continues to make music and tour heavily, Carter’s investments and businesses represent the main bulk of his estimated $900 million (£659.8 million) net worth, while his wife —singer Beyoncé — is allegedly worth $350 million (£256.6 million) through her own entrepreneurial ventures.
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7. Jack Ma
When it comes to taking a hint, few can match the stubbornness of Jack Ma. After graduating in 1988 (a process that he was initially rejected four times for), the Hangzhou native struggled to find work, getting turned down by over 30 companies (including, infamously, KFC), before seeing all 10 of his postgraduate applications to Harvard Business School unceremoniously refused.
However, on a 1995 trip to visit friends in the US, Ma’s luck finally changed. After being introduced to the internet, he managed to raise $20,000 (£14,660) to build an online directory for Chinese businesses, taking on additional various web development projects for Chinese companies and government organisations. Utilising these experiences, he returned to China in 1999 and created the online marketplace Alibaba, subsequently raising $25 billion (£18.3 billion) at its IPO stock exchange offering in 2014 — the highest amount of any floated company ever.
Ma is now one of the richest people in the world, with an estimated personal net worth of nearly $43 billion (£31.5 billion), while the Alibaba Group is responsible for nine major subsidiaries (among them the hugely popular AliExpress).
8. Marie Kondo
Marie Kondo has never been a stranger to organising and tidying up life. Her love of tidying was inspired by her mother’s lifestyle magazines and her grandmother’s regard for her home.
In Japan, Kondo spent much of her college years tidying her friends’ apartments and went to start tidying consulting business and develop her now-famous KonMari Method, which is designed to help people clear their clutter and keep their homes tidy.
Kondi went on to share her tips in the best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (paid link), which was first released in Japan and later published in over 30 countries. The book was then adapted into a successful Netflix series entitled Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.
9. Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart has been the most trusted lifestyle guru for decades. Her family taught her the basics of cooking, gardening, baking and sewing while growing up in New Jersey, and she went to open a catering business showcasing her talents as a chef and baker.
She wrote her first book, Entertaining, in 1982, leading to over 77 lifestyle books and a popular magazine, Martha Stewart Living. Her success led to many TV appearances, eventually landing her own television show.
Stewart created her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, in 1996, which offers lifestyle advice across all platforms for people across the globe.
10. Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos’s creation of Amazon.com made him the richest man in the world. After graduating with a major in computer science from Princeton in 1986, he began working in finance and quickly became a senior vice president of hedge fund firm DE Shaw.
Bezos left his lucrative career in finance to take a chance and open an online bookstore in 1995 called Amazon.com, before expanding its list of offerings and solidfying itself as the market leader. In 2013 Bezos launched Amazon Prime, the popular subscription service. Bezos no longer is the CEO of Amazon, as of July 2021, but remains Amazon’s largest shareholder.
As you can see, anyone can create their own business success story from scratch, yet these entrepreneurs all had one thing in common: determination. Regardless of their education level, the resources available to them or the field in which they made their respective fortunes, they created their own opportunities through hard work, self-belief and no small amount of creative talent.
If you believe you could do the same, then what’s holding you back? Starting your own business is as simple and cost-efficient as it’s ever been, so there’s no better time to stake your claim. Besides, who knows? With a little luck, you could even appear on future editions of this list!
Join the conversation! Which entrepreneur story has inspired you? Let us know in the comments section below!
This article is an update of an earlier version published on 22 June 2018.