Some people love to dispense advice like Tootsie Rolls at a Fourth of July parade, but ultimately, should you listen? These entrepreneurs ignored advice from their advisers and become wildly rich because of it.
1. Elon Musk
Between Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Elon Musk has become a legend, a real-life Tony Stark. But to achieve his current enormous success, Musk had to ignore smart advice and pass under a multitude of storm clouds.
What many don't realize is that Tesla Motors and SpaceX both narrowly escaped death.
Tesla Motors nearly croaked from delays and cost overruns, with the auto industry blog The Truth About Cars even featuring a "Tesla Death Watch." Musk put his last $3 million into Tesla and began borrowing money from friends. He even sold his car (albeit a very expensive car--a McLaren F1, the most expensive car in the world) to give Tesla its last breath before the tides finally turned.
After SpaceX had its third launch failure, things looked very dark for the space company as well. The team had just barely enough funding to do the fourth launch. If that hadn't worked, it would have been the end of SpaceX. Thankfully, that fourth and final launch was a success.
Musk admits that before SpaceX was awarded a big contract from NASA, all its funding came from him. Why would such a genius go against every piece of business advice known to man by continuing to sink personal money into a business doing a downward spiral?
Musk persevered because he felt that his success could be a global breakthrough for future technologies; he says, "I just thought, These are important things. And if Tesla were to fail, it would be held up as a warning for ever, a setback for electric cars in general. Same for SpaceX and commercial rocket companies. Everyone would have said, 'That was pretty stupid, because everyone knows that rockets are just done by huge government organizations.' " He notes that he believed "that something needs to be done to advance the technology. I wasn't sure how far we'd get, but if we could move the ball forward, that would be a good outcome."
We all know how those risks paid off, as Musk continues to bring sci-fi dreams into reality with a hefty list of accolades, including Fortune's Businessperson of the Year, Inc.'s Entrepreneur of the Year, and Forbes's top billionaires.
2. Walt Disney
Walt Disney faced numerous set backs in his lifetime before achieving animation fame. Initially, he wanted to create comics for newspapers, but he couldn't find any work, with one newspaper editor claiming that Disney "lacked imagination and had no good ideas."
His first animation studio, Laugh-O-Gram, quickly went bankrupt. Disney's first pride-and-joy character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was held hostage by Universal Pictures' Charles Mintz, who wanted Disney to take a salary cut. When Disney refused, he lost Oswald and his entire animation staff, and was forced out of Universal Pictures.
Even after getting back on his feet and establishing Walt Disney Studios, he had numerous combatants. When Disney decided he wanted to produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as an animated feature-length film (the first of its kind), the entire film industry was sure the movie would be an utter failure, nicknaming the project "Disney's Folly."
Lillian, Disney's wife, and his brother Roy, co-founder of Walt Disney Studios, tried to talk Disney out of the endeavor, but he refused to back down. To make matters even more dire, the studio ran out of money during the production of Snow White, forcing Disney to show a rough cut of the film to loan officers in order to gather the necessary funding.
Ignoring his advisers paid off when the movie was released in 1938, earning Disney an Oscar and bringing in $8 million upon release (that would be more than $130 million today).
3. Richard Branson
Well-known billionaire Richard Branson has had quite the tumultuous career as well, battling with plenty of naysayers along the way.
As a teenager, Branson didn't fare well academically, owing in large part to his dyslexia. He ended up dropping out of school at age 16. On his last day, the school's headmaster, Robert Drayson, told Branson that he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. Branson notes that Drayson was right on both accounts--a young Branson was arrested after, oddly enough, publishing advice about remedies for venereal disease (a practice which was banned from 1889-1917) and for tax evasion.
Branson's big initial enterprise was Virgin Records, a music company that proved wildly successful, signing on the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Smashing Pumpkins.
Branson went on to establish Virgin America airlines along with a slew of other oddball assets. From Virgin Cola and Virgin Vodka to Virgin Brides (a hysterically awkward title for a company selling wedding dresses) and Virgin Flowers, Branson has been at the helm of many ships, both sinking and seaworthy. Plenty of professionals balk at Branson's rampant serial entrepreneurship, with Virgin Galactic bringing an especially large number of laughs and eye rolls. Branson's Virgin Group now holds more than 200 companies across 30 countries, and there's no sign of him slowing down.
Branson continues to value his gut over advisers, noting, "If I relied on accountants to make decisions, I most certainly would have never gone into the airline business. I most certainly would not have gone into the space business, and I certainly wouldn't have gone into most of the businesses that I'm in. So, in hindsight, it seems to have worked pretty well to my advantage."
4. Sarah Blakely
Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, refused to give up on her invention, despite numerous people telling her that her idea was ridiculous.
When approaching lawyers about her concept of formfitting, footless pantyhose, several thought the idea so outrageous that they were convinced she had been sent by Candid Camera. She was treated with similar rejection by hosiery manufacturers. Finally, on one lucky day, a mill owner returned Blakely's calls. While he still thought the idea was crazy, he noted that his two daughters thought otherwise.
Blakely went on to become the youngest self-made female billionaire, turning her initial $5,000 investment of her personal savings into $1 billion through Spanx.
5. David Neeleman
Founder David Neeleman revolutionized the airline industry with JetBlue Airways, but he encountered plenty of tough times before and after.
Neeleman struggled a lot in school. He recalls that, after getting the results back from his ACT, his counselor called him in and said, "You got the lowest score. If you had just answered C on every question, you would have gotten a higher score than you got. You got like nine out of 36. Had you answered C, you'd have got 12. You're really not with it. You don't really understand English." Ouch.
Neeleman now knows a lot of his academic difficulties likely came from his attention-deficit disorder (ADD), which was diagnosed in 2000.
His academic struggles damaged his confidence significantly. However, Neeleman didn't let early criticism stop him from rising to establish JetBlue.
Even after JetBlue's enormous success, Neeleman had more problems to face, most notably the disastrous ice-storm situation in 2007 that grounded thousands of flights and left passengers stranded on airport runways. Neeleman was largely blamed, held accountable for the poorly executed response plan and numerous communication failures. Shortly after, he was ousted as CEO of JetBlue.
Most would have cowered in the corner, but Neeleman decided to go for another round, launching a new airline company called Azul (Portuguese for "blue") in Brazil.
Many called this an act of insanity. After all, the airline industry is a notoriously difficult nut to crack. Neeleman quickly ended up sinking $13 million into Azul--four times the amount he put into JetBlue.
Neeleman's father, Gary Neeleman, says his son's methods are "totally contrary to what a lot of boards and investment bankers are in favor of," noting especially that "To David, service to his employees and customers is paramount."
This is demonstrated in how Neeleman makes an effort to prevent hierarchical perks--parking spaces are given through a lottery system, and Neeleman himself takes a $200,000 salary at Azul (and that's with no stock options, unlike other famous $1 salary entrepreneurs).
It seems Neeleman's unique approach works--Azul boasts more than $5 billion in sales and began international flights last year.
These entrepreneurs show that you can indeed go your own way--and who knows? You just might find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.