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Lessons from Fortune’s “The 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs of Our Time”

May 2012 Corporate

The April 9, 2012, FORTUNE Magazine had as its cover story: “The 12 Greatest Entrepreneurs of Our Time” by John A. Byrne, a magazine writer, editor and author of several books on entrepreneurship.

 For those of us who are entrepreneurs and students of entrepreneurship, the article contained a wealth of wisdom as to how these men succeeded and some of the key decisions they made and risks they took to achieve success in many cases through disruptive innovation.  The brilliant entrepreneurs not only took risks but re-wrote the rule books.

Following are some of the entrepreneurial insights reported in the article:

In the introduction to the article, Byrne tells of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.  It seemed that Bezos was working for a hedge fund in 1992 and came up with the idea of selling books on the Internet.  Bezos’ boss indicated he liked the idea but added, “That sounds like a really good idea for someone who already didn’t have a good job.  Within 48 hours Bezos quit that “good job” and embarked on his business that today is valued at $80 billion and employs more than 55,000 people.

Byrne’s summary of Apple’s Steve Jobs, his No. 1 entrepreneur, shows how Jobs defied the basic logic of new product development for the iPad.  Jobs not only refused to do market research but maintained it wasn’t necessary.  “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.  It’s hard for consumers to tell you what they want when they haven’t seen anything remotely like it.”   Byrne writes: “It’s a safe bet to assume that none of Apple’s blockbuster products from the Macintosh to the iPod and iTunes, from the iPhone to the iPad would have come about if Jobs had relied heavily on consumer research.”

 In discussing 28-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, Byrne writes:

“Zuckerberg is the (Silicon) Valley’s most paranoid entrepreneur these days, taking nothing for granted.   It’s why he pushed out a constant flow of innovative changes to Facebook’s platform, making it easier for developers to create applications for the community and ensuring that each new iteration keeps ahead of competition.”

John Mackey, creator of Whole Foods, like Jobs defied the conventional wisdom by selling quality foods at premium prices to the masses.  Byrne writes: “How does he do it?  Among the six fundamental precepts that are at the core of Whole Foods are a commitment to sell the highest quality natural and organic products available, satisfy and delight the customers and promote environmental stewardship.  Many companies have mission statements that are little more than wall hangings.”

Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, found a highly creative way of generating customer loyalty.  Byrne writes:  “Years ago,” he (Kellerher) once told an interviewer, “these business schools used to pose it as a conundrum.  Your customers come first.  And if your treat your employees right, guess what?  Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy.  Start with employees and the rest follows from that.”   Such a simple notion.  While United Air Lines went through bankruptcy and American Airlines is currently in bankruptcy, Southwest continues to thrive.

Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton found success through sharing information.  Bryne writes: “He (Walton) shared the real-time data with suppliers to create partnerships that allowed Wal-Mart to exert significant pressure on manufacturers to improve their productivity and become ever more efficient.  As Wal-Mart’s influence grew, so did its power to nearly dictate the price, volume, delivery, packaging and quality to many of its suppliers’ products.  The upshot: Walton flipped the supplier-retailer relationship upside down.

The 12 entrepreneurs, in order, are: No 1. Jobs; No. 2, (Microsoft’s) Bill Gates; No. 3, (FedEx’s) Fred Smith; No. 4, Bezos; No. 5, (Google’s) Larry Page and Sergey Brin; No. 6, (Starbuck’s) Howard Schultz; No. 7, Zuckerberg; No. 8, Mackey;

No. 9, Kelleher; No. 10,(Infosys’s) Narayana Murthy; No. 11, Walton, and No. 12, (Grameen Bank’s) Muhammad Yunus.



About the author

James T. Berger, Managing Editor of The Wiglaf Journal, through his Northbrook-based firm, James T. Berger/Market Strategies, offers a broad range of marketing communications, research and strategic planning consulting services. In addition, he provides expert services to intellectual property attorneys in the area of trademark infringement litigation. An adjunct professor of marketing at Roosevelt University, he previously has taught at Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BA), Northwestern University (MS) and the University of Chicago (MBA). Berger is an often-published free lance business writer who has developed more than 100 published articles in the last eight years. For more information, visit www.jamesberger.net or telephone him at (847) 328-9633.

James T. Berger
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