Five of History’s Finest Entrepreneurs

Today, everyone has heard of the entrepreneur. The famous Big Tech entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial chef patrons, and there is a veritable forest of entrepreneurs pushing digital ventures and start-ups, involving everything from coffee to cashmere. The pages of LinkedIn are thick with the profiles of enterprising types who at least have photos of Rolexes and Ferraris; a useful addition to these might be an emoji of a pinch of salt.

However, for our first example of a risk-taking, ideas machine that was prepared to put its money where its mouth was, we are going to take a trip back to 18th-century England.

Matthew Boulton – father of the industrial revolution

At just seventeen, Matthew Boulton developed a technique for laying enamel onto buckles. It was a success, and soon his father’s business was manufacturing them for export. From an early age, Boulton had a flair for engineering and design, but crucially he also had the business acumen necessary to make money from it. Boulton borrowed heavily to build the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham, the first factory of its kind in the world. The great building brought all the processes under one roof for the first time: workshops, design shops, commercial operations, import and export, all under one roof in a radical and innovative enterprise.

He is perhaps best known for his partnership with James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine. Watt had little interest in business, but by this time Boulton’s many successes had proved him to be the supreme entrepreneur, and he immediately saw the enormous potential of the steam engine. The Watts-Boulton engine opened the doors for large-scale industrial manufacturing, and as Boulton would say to prospective buyers: “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have power.”

Coco Chanel – freeing women from corsets

Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in August 1883, Coco Chanel was a French fashion designer and businesswoman who stood tall over Parisian haute couture for almost six decades. Her elegantly casual designs inspired women to dump the complex, restrictive clothes – such as petticoats and corsets – that were prevalent in the 19th century. From inauspicious beginnings in poverty, she got her start in a tiny shop in Deauville, France, where she sold hats and clothing. Within five years, influential, wealthy women seeking relief from the whalebone were enthused by her original use of jersey fabric to create a “poor girl” look. Chanel believed that “luxury must be comfortable.

Otherwise, it is not luxury,” and she turned the fashion industry on its head with her simple clothes. By the late 1920s, the Chanel operation was worth millions, and it employed more than 2,000 people in her couture house, perfume laboratory, textile mill, and jewelry workshop. The financial rock on which the empire was built was Chanel No. 5 perfume. Coco Chanel’s classic innovations were the Chanel suit, the quilted purse, costume jewelry, and the “little black dress.” She is the only fashion designer with a place on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, David Gilboa, and Jeffrey Raider – the folk behind Warby Parker

Rebellion and lofty objectives were in the air, and the net result was offering the public designer eyewear at a revolutionary price while leading the way for socially conscious businesses. The founders were students when the idea first sprouted, and the central pillar was that glasses were too expensive. One of the founders lost his glasses on a backpacking trip and could not afford to replace them, so he spent the first semester of grad school developing a squint. The eyewear industry was dominated by a single company that had been able to keep prices artificially high while reaping huge profits from consumers who had no other options, But Warby Parker was about to change all that.

They circumvented traditional channels, designed glasses in-house, and engaged with customers directly to provide higher-quality, better-looking prescription eyewear at a fraction of the old prices. As of August 2020, Warby Parker was valued at USD 3 billion. Not bad for a bunch of impoverished, short-sighted students. It is not all about money though; for every pair of specs sold, the company donates a pair to someone in need.

Carlos Slim Helu – once the richest man in the world

According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, he has since slipped to twenty-fourth place in the rich list, but with a net worth estimated at USD53.1 billion, he probably isn’t too worried. Not bad for the son of an immigrant who left Lebanon at the age of 14 to try his luck in Mexico. Young Carlos showed a special aptitude for numbers and, by age 12, was buying shares in the Bank of Mexico.  After marrying, he and his growing family lived modestly while earnings from his nascent businesses were re-invested. Carlos Slim quietly and astutely acquired companies he believed were undervalued and skilfully overhauled their management. He invested in real estate, construction equipment, and mining interests, all the while diversifying carefully. He did well out of Mexico’s economic crisis in 1982, standing firm while others hitched up their skirts and fled for the hills, but his greatest coup was perhaps his idea for prepaid cell phone cards.

The prepaid program filled an enormous need, and the customer base grew by 66% every year for the next 15 years. When the bubble burst, Slim was happy to scoop up floundering foreign-owned cellular firms and consolidate them under his wing.

Harry Gordon Selfridge – Mr. Charisma

Selfridge was a bold American lad from Wisconsin who began his working life as a stock boy at Marshall Field in Chicago. His visionary skills took him to a partnership at the store after 25 years of helping to build it up. In 1906, following a trip to London, he invested GBP400,000 to build a new department store, Selfridges, on London’s Oxford Street; more than just a shop, Selfridges was England’s first truly modern built-for-purpose department store. He called it “a theatre, with the curtain going up at nine o’clock.” It was designed to promote shopping as a sensual and pleasurable experience, a store devoted to what he called “everything that enters into the affairs of daily life,” as well as eye-popping new luxuries such as ice-cream soda and stylish perfumes.

Henry’s magical playground also featured Otis elevators, a bank, a rooftop garden with ice skating, and a restaurant with an in-house orchestra. Unfortunately, Mr. Selfridge’s eye for women, luxury, and gambling led to an ignominious downfall, and his fortune eventually disappeared, but while it lasted, he was shopkeeping’s finest entrepreneur.

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