While there's an abundance of contemporary entrepreneurs worth quoting, I've long had a fascination with legendary entrepreneurs who built many of the early cornerstone industries of the 20th century and earlier. From Henry Ford to Ray Kroc and Coco Chanel to Estee Lauder, they all faced enormous odds in not only creating new business models but in changing the very trajectory of a society. And they did it from ground zero at a time when raising capital was far less efficient than it is today.
I've selected a quote and a little known fact from my 11 favorite historical entrepreneurs. This is clearly not an exhaustive list, and I'd love to hear about your favorites, but they are the ones who I've come to know in my writing and research.
What's most fascinating about these individuals is that their challenges do not differ much from yours and mine. They were all imperfect people with outrageous ideas and they were often surrounded in controversy. They were each very different and yet they all shared common attitudes about doing over thinking, persistence, unbending confidence, motivation, and an ethos of never ever quitting.
Perhaps drawing on their words will give you the inspiration you need to keep moving forward, with the knowledge that while every entrepreneurial journey is unique, all success is based on some basic immutable attitudes that govern your trajectory as surely as physics governs that of a rocket.
- "You must keep your mind on the objective, not on the obstacle." --William Randolph Hearst
One of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in history; his fortune in today's buying power would be $5 trillion!
- "I didn't fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong." --Benjamin Franklin
Although a prolific inventor, he believed that new inventions should not be patented and instead should be available for the benefit of all.
- "Many of life's failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." --Thomas Edison
His Menlo Park Lab, which existed for only six years, from 1876 to 1882, produced over 400 inventions and became the role model for R&D for the next 150 years.
- "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." --Henry Ford
He didn't give the world what it asked for; he gave it what it needed. And he also didn't invent the assembly line, as most of us were taught. Instead, he made it move and doubled the wage of his workers to attract and retain the best talent.
- "It is no achievement to walk a tightrope laid flat on the floor." --Ray Kroc
He grew McDonald's into the world's leading fast-food franchise through relentless drive, and once also said, "I was an overnight success all right, but 30 years is a long, long night."
- "People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents." --Andrew Carnegie
One of the five wealthiest men in history, he gave away the entirety of his fortune to charity long before Gates and Buffet made it popular.
- "Success is most often achieved by those who don't know that failure is inevitable." --Coco Chanel
Best known for her eponymous perfume, she was as controversial a figure as she was a shrewd businesswoman.
- "The difference in winning and losing is most often not quitting." --Walt Disney
Few people have had such vision, but it was his wife, Lillian, who convinced him to change Mortimer to Mickey Mouse!
- "Persistence. It's that certain little spirit that compels you to continue just when you're at your most tired. It's that quality that forces you to persevere, find the route around the stone wall. It's the immovable stubbornness that will not allow you to cave in when everyone says give up." --Estee Lauder
She built a $5 billon business, which she started in her kitchen!
- "What this power is I cannot say; all I know is that it exists and it becomes available only when a man is in that state of mind in which he knows exactly what he wants and is fully determined not to quit until he finds it." --Alexander Graham Bell
His patent for the telephone was filed just hours before a competitor, Elisha Gray, filed his caveat for a patent. Sometimes minutes matter in charting the course of history.
- "I had to make my own living and my own opportunity! But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!" --Madame C. J. Walker
Born to two former slaves, she worked her way out of poverty to become the first female African-American millionaire, building a hair care empire, including a diploma-granting college for hair culturalists.
Who are some of your favorite historical icons of entrepreneurship, and which of their quotes stands out in your mind as a compass for success? Share them in the comments section.
What's your entrepreneurial DNA? See my earlier article from this past week
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