Early experience, not trial and error, was the path to success for Andrew Carnegie, Joyce Hall, Jan Koum and other big names.
September 13, 2018 5 min read
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Some entrepreneurs become successful only after doing well in another career: Maybe they mastered work as a consultant or an executive officer and used the skills they acquired to build their own enterprise.
Perhaps, alternately, they started a business with almost no experience — and little money to fund their efforts.
For example, instead of raising money through crowdfunding or investor funding, some of history’s most successful entrepreneurs — especially those who predated crowdfunding and the internet — raised money by selling their possessions, or utilizing resources they already had. Perhaps, instead of relying on a wealth of experience to influence their choices, they learned on the fly through trial and error.
It’s much easier to understand how this works when you look at historical examples of entrepreneurs who have followed these various paths. Here are some of the best examples:
1. Andrew Carnegie
You probably recognize Andrew Carnegie’s name, since he’s one of the most famous and richest industrialists of all time. However, he didn’t accumulate his wealth as a result of formal education or a business-charged background. Instead, he dropped out of school at a young age and spent the major portion of his youth performing manual labor. He was a bobbin boy at a local cotton mill and then became a telegraph messenger. It wasn’t until he taught himself how to read and entered the railroad industry that he began to build the empire that would make him (and his family) a fortune.
2. John Paul DeJoria
You may not have heard of John Paul DeJoria, but you’ve certainly indulged in some of the beauty products attached to his name. Now a multi-billionaire and one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in modern history, DeJoria got his start as a newspaper courier. To make ends meet, he worked as a tow truck driver and a janitor. Eventually, he found his way to working at a hair-care company, where he met his future partner, Paul Mitchell. With minimal experience and a $700 loan, the duo founded a company now known as John Paul Mitchell Systems. From there, DeJoria co-founded Patron Spirits and the House of Blues.
3. Harland Sanders
If someone asked you for a loan to start a restaurant, but had no formal culinary training or experience, would you make that loan? It seems crazy to think anyone could become a successful restauranteur without a background in the industry, but that’s exactly what Harlan “Colonel” Sanders was able to do. When he started his line of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, the only experience he had was cooking for his siblings as a child and working at a number of odd jobs.
4. Joyce Hall
The founder of Hallmark Cards didn’t come from an extensive background of writing greeting cards, nor did he — yes, this Joyce was a “she” — have much experience as a businessman. Instead, he got his start selling perfume to his neighbors, then started a business wholesaling postcards to gift shops and bookstores. It was only after a fire destroyed most of his stock that he resorted to making his own cards. From there, he was able to launch a chain that made him millions.
5. Jan Koum
Jan Koum doesn’t get as much press or attention as other tech company founders, but his story is both surprising and impressive. Koum immigrated to California with his family after leaving a small village in Ukraine. He didn’t have much of an education, but managed to teach himself the fundamentals of computer science in his spare time. When he was 18, despite his lack of formal education or training, he was able to attract the attention of Yahoo!, where he cut his teeth as an infrastructure engineer. After a few years working in the then-new computer industry, Koum saw the potential of creating his own app, and launched WhatsApp. In 2014, he sold it for $19 billion.
A note on taking the plunge
These stories should serve as proof that it’s possible to get by without experience; perhaps they offer inspiration that you too can do this. What these stories aren’t, however, is an invitation to avoid work experience or to jump into the entrepreneurial world without thinking.
Any leadership position, or position within the industry you plan to enter can vastly increase your chances of success. If you don’t get the experience you need there, you’ll need to make up for that fact through trial and error in your first business. The message here? Get that “experience” early.