As of 2017, the life expectancy of a male living in the United States is 77 years old. I recently turned 28, which means I have I lived 36% of my theoretical lifespan. So far I’ve followed the expected path; I got great grades in elementary and high school to get me into college, I graduated college with a BS and an MS in engineering, and I got a decent paying job right after I graduated. That’s the “American Dream,” right? I wish satisfaction was that simple, because I can’t help but feel like I’m running late to the party of success.
Take Mark Zuckerburg and his Co-founders of Facebook; they became billionaires when they were 26, or Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, who became a millionaire when he was 27 after his success with Zip2 and PayPal. Thanks to the internet and other advancements in technology, anyone can turn an idea into a million dollar business.
As a society, we praise such rare success stories. Rightfully so, because these bright individuals earned it. They saw a need in the market and capitalized on it. Call it an insecurity, but constantly seeing articles about young millionaires and billionaires prompts me to think “What am I doing with my life?”
Unfortunately, being inundated with these stories of rich entrepreneurs, some a decade younger than me, sends a wave of anxiety through my body. As distasteful as it sounds, I can’t help but find solace in knowing that there is a percentage of my peers that feel the same way. After all, the “Self-Help” industry is a multi-billion dollar industry.
To help understand what makes these famous billionaires so extraordinary, I read the book titled, “The Self-made Billionaire Effect.” While it isn’t your traditional “personal development” instruction manual, for me, it was inspirational. In the book, the authors set up a research team at PWC to study the Forbes list of “The World’s Billionaires” in 2012. The Forbes list originally contained 1,226 billionaires, but the PWC team narrowed it down to 600 and then randomly selected 120 for further analysis.
The authors, John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen write:
“We set up a research team in early 2012 at PwC, where Mitch is a vice chairman and John is the leader of Global Thought Leadership. To identify our research subjects, we took the 2012 Forbes list“The World’s Billionaires” and eliminated people who had inherited their wealth from a parent, a spouse, or other family member. We also removed billionaires operating in markets that lack the regulatory transparency to ensure fair play—all billionaires take advantage of economic conditions,but we chose to focus on those operating in environments where reasonably transparent and competitive markets predominate.
Left with roughly 600 people, we randomly selected 120, adjusted to mirror the geographic and industry distribution of the larger sample, and set out to learn as much as we could about them. We collected everything we could find that had been written about our subjects and captured biographical details (place of origin, age, marital status, family makeup) and the trajectory of their careers (When did they start their first business? What were some of the key inflection points in the growth of their primary business? At what point did they transition from modest entrepreneur to massive value creator?). Simultaneously, we invited a number of the people on our list to participate in interviews with us so we could learn more about them.”
In the book, Sviokla and Cohen delve deeper into the entrepreneurial ventures of the selected billionaires. They provide a lens into how these billionaires went about designing their blockbuster hits, the details of their successful marketing strategies, how they found and developed their all star teams, and how they took risks that others avoided. Despite the in-depth information around these key pillars, what truly inspired me was reversing my misconceptions around the age, novelty and experience of self-made billionaires.
The dominance of today’s tech industry, and its young tech giants, gives me the impression that most of the self-made billionaires amassed their wealth early in their careers. Although this is true for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, over 70% of the 120 billionaires studied, crossed the billion-dollar threshold after the age of 40. As a matter of fact, some of the founders of the largest, most well-known brands were founded when they were older than 28. For example, Red Bull was founded by Dietrich Mateschitz when he was 40, Jack Ma founded the Alibaba group when he was 44, and Sir James Dyson founded the Dyson company when he was 44.
Whenever I hear about a new billion-dollar idea that floats around on my newsfeed, I immediately have the misconception that it was an overnight success sprinkled with gratuitous amounts of luck. From this book, I now understand the fallacy in my beliefs.
First, the idea that billionaires are lucky holds true for those who inherited their wealth. However, for over 90% of the studied self-made billionaires, their repeated success in multiple business endeavors banishes that misconception. These self-made billionaires are able to strike gold with multiple ideas, showcases their business brilliance.
Secondly, my belief of overnight success was dispelled when I learned that most of the self-made billionaires started early. They spent years working before launching their first entrepreneurial venture (55% of the self-made billionaires started their first job before they were 18). Additionally, 39% of the self-made billionaires launched their first businesses between the ages of 23-30. This gives me at least two years to launch a business and be on track with other billionaires. As successful business leaders are known for utilizing their resources effectively, these self-made billionaires had the foresight to understand that their success would be a take years professional development in a specific market.
My last misconception of self-made billionaires was that they took a risk in a market with no competition. Of course operating in uncharted waters could yield astronomical results, but more than 80% of the sample of self-made billionaires achieved success in thriving, competitive markets. For example, there’s Red Bull – with its unorthodox 8.4-ounce can and high price to make it stand out from its competitors, and Morningstar – an investment research business that specializes in scrutinizing the performance of mutual funds. The self-made billionaires were able to have the to fulfill a need while showcasing the uniqueness of their product or service.
Better Late Than Never
I am nowhere close to being a millionaire yet, and I haven’t landed my “dream job” either. As I’m still working to establish my professional identity and charter my career path, I am enlightened by learning about what sets these business titans apart from everyone else. These facts and anecdotes help ease my anxiety by providing me with key insights about being successful.
First, at the tender age of 28, time is on my side. I have the energy and resources to propel myself upwards. As long as I am willing to put in the work, I can learn virtually anything with the internet. Secondly, I now understand that the most profitable venture will come from starting my own business. There is a possibility that I might fail with my own business, but the potential yields would be worth it. Lastly, for whatever product or service I create, I know for certain that I must distinguish myself from my competitors.
Being exposed to these origin stories ultimately relaxes me. Now, instead of feeling angst when reading about the newest technology prodigy, I will take notes on their strategies and ideas and carry them with me on my journey. The beauty of being invited to the party of success is that it doesn’t matter if you arrive late, as long as you get there.