There is a tough truth that any small business owner has to face. Even in the best of times, the vast majority of small businesses fail. In this article, we'll look at ten entrepreneurs who not only succeeded, but built vast business empires.
John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller was the richest man in history by most measures. He made his fortune by squeezing out efficiencies through horizontal and vertical integrations that made Standard Oil synonymous with monopoly - but also dropped the price of fuel drastically for the everyday consumer. The government broke up Standard Oil for good in 1911. Rockefeller's hand can still be seen in the companies like Exxon (NYSE:XOM) and Conoco that profited from the R&D and infrastructure they received as their piece of the breakup. Rockefeller retired at the turn of the century and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy. (More than 70 years after his death, this man remains one of the great figures of Wall Street. Learn more, in J.D. Rockefeller: From Oil Baron To Billionaire.)

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie loved efficiency. From his start in Steel, Carnegie's mills were always on the leading edge of technology. Carnegie combined his superior processes with an excellent sense of timing, snapping up steel assets in every market downturn. Like Rockefeller, Carnegie spent his golden years giving away the fortune he spent most of his life building. (Though not as well-remembered as some of his contemporaries, Andrew Carnegie's legacy is strong and moralistic, read The Giants Of Finance: Andrew Carnegie.)

Thomas Edison
There is no doubt that Edison was brilliant, but it's his business sense, not his talent as an inventor, that clearly shows his intelligence. Edison took innovation and made it the process now known as research and development. He sold his services to many other companies before striking out on his own to create most of the electrical power infrastructure of the United States. While Edison is a founder of General Electric (NYSE:GE), many companies today owe their existence to him – Edison Electric, Con Edison and so on. Although Edison had far more patents than he did corporate ties, it is the companies that will carry his legacy into the future.

Henry Ford
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. He was one of a group working on motorcars and, arguably, not even the best of them. However, these competitors were selling their cars for a price that made the car a luxury of the rich. Ford put America - not just the rich - on wheels, and unleashed the power of mass production in the bargain. His Ford Model T was the first car to cater to most Americans - as long as they liked black. Ford's progressive labor policies and his constant drive to make each car better, faster and cheaper made certain that his workers and everyday Americans would think Ford (NYSE:F) when they shopped for a car.

Charles Merrill
Charles E. Merrill brought high finance to the middle class. After the 1929 crash, the general public had sworn off stocks and anything more financial than a savings account. Merrill changed that by using a supermarket approach - he sacrificed the high commissions to serve more people, making up his money on the larger volume. Merrill worked hard to "bring Wall Street to Main Street," educating his clients through free classes, publishing rules of conduct for his firm and always looking out for the interests of his customers first. (We all know names like Rockefeller, but there are other influential pioneers of finance in America's history, see The Unsung Pioneers Of Finance.)

Sam Walton
Sam Walton picked a market no one wanted and then instituted a distribution system no one had tried in retail. By building warehouses between several of his Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) stores, Walton was able to save on shipping and deliver goods to busy stores much faster. Add a state-of-the-art inventory control system, and Walton was lowering his cost margins well below his direct competitors. Rather than booking all of the savings as profits, Walton passed them on to the consumer. By offering consistently low prices, Walton attracted more and more business to where he chose to set up shop. Eventually, Walton took Wal-Mart to the big city to match margins with the big boys - and the beast of Bentonville has never looked back.

Charles Schwab
Charles Schwab, usually known as "Chuck," took Merrill's love of the little guy and belief in volume over price into the internet age. When May Day opened the doors for negotiated fees, Schwab was among the first to offer a discount brokerage for the individual investor. To do this, he trimmed the research staff, analysts and advisors, and excepted investors to empower themselves when making an order. From a bare-bones base, Schwab then added services that mattered to his customers, like 24-hour service and more branch locations. Merrill brought the individual investor back to the market, but Chuck Schwab made it cheap enough for him to stay. (Learn more in The CEO Dream Team - Walton, Schwab, Marcus And Blank.)

Walt Disney
The 1920s found Walt Disney on the verge of creating a cultural juggernaut. A gifted animator for an advertising company, Disney began creating his own animated shorts in a studio garage. Disney created a character inspired by the mice that roamed his office, Mickey Mouse, and made him the hero of "Steamboat Willie" in 1928. The commercial success of Mickey Mouse allowed Disney to create a cartoon factory with teams of animators, musicians and artists. Disney turned that mouse into several amusement parks, feature-length animations and a merchandising bonanza. After his death, the growth has continued making Disney (NYSE:DIS), and his mouse, the founders of the largest media company on earth.

Bill Gates
When people describe Bill Gates, the usually come up with "rich", "competitive" and "smart." Of the three traits, it's Gates' competitive nature that has carved out his fortune. Not only did he fight and win the OS and browser wars, but Gates stored up the profits that came with the victories – and Microsoft's dominance – to fund future fights and ventures. The Xbox is just one of the many sideline businesses that the massive war chest has funded. The fact is that Microsoft's cash and Gates' reluctance to pay it out is a big part of what saw the company through hard times and funded expansion in good times.

Steve Jobs
Unlike most of the others on this list, it's possible that Steve Jobs' greatest achievements are yet unwritten. Jobs co-founded Apple (NYSE:AAPL), one of the only tech companies to offer a significant challenge to Microsoft's dominance. In contrast to Gates' methodical expansion, Jobs' influence on Apple has been one of creative bursts. Apple was a computer company when Jobs returned to it. Now, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad are the engines of growth that have pushed Apple past the once unassailable Microsoft. When Apple surpassed Microsoft's market cap in 2010, it became clear that investors that, with Jobs, the best is yet to come.

These 10 succeeded by giving the customer something better, faster and cheaper than their nearest competitors. No doubt, some like Rockefeller will always be on these lists, but there is plenty of room for the right person to find their place among the entrepreneur's pantheon. (Find out what this winning manager did to grow one of the biggest companies in the world, see Management Strategies From A Top CEO.)

Related Articles
  1. Entrepreneurship

    3 Entrepreneurs Who Became Successful After 40

    Read about four influential entrepreneurs who didn't achieve fame and success until after their 40th birthdays, including the founder of Walmart.
  2. Investing Basics

    The Economics Behind Marathons

    Marathons are growing in popularity at a record pace. Entry into these events commands a hefty price, but it's nothing compared to the organizational costs.
  3. Personal Finance

    Tips To Improve Chances Of A Small Business Loan

    Enhance your small business loan eligibility by keeping these important tips in mind.
  4. Investing

    How To Create a Winning Elevator Pitch

    Whether you are talking to potential investors, partners, customers or employees, the skill of being able to concisely summarize your business is critical.
  5. Professionals

    What Accounts for One-Third of the Wage Gap

    Women who work full time still make less than men who have the same qualifications. One third of the pay gap may be due to gender bias and discrimination.
  6. Personal Finance

    Top Universities for Getting an MBA Abroad

    Going abroad for an MBA can add cachet when it comes time to get a job.
  7. Personal Finance

    Five Things To Avoid at Your Next Interview

    Do you have an interview coming up? Avoid these five mistakes and leave a lasting impression on your potential employer.
  8. Professionals

    How Advisors Can Carve Out a Social Media Niche

    Social media is a great way for financial advisors to build a brand and potentially generate leads if it’s properly used. Here are some tips.
  9. Investing

    How Aliko Dangote Became the Richest African

    An overview of how Aliko Dangote turned a local commodities trading business into a billion-dollar conglomerate.
  10. Professionals

    Career Advice: Financial Planner Vs. Wealth Manager

    Understand the differences between a career in financial planning and wealth management, and identify which is better for you based on your goals and talents.
  1. What are common examples of monopolistic markets?

    The most extensive and common monopoly markets operate with exclusive licensure, anti-competitive subsidization and/or tariff ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. What types of capital are not considered share capital?

    The money a business uses to fund operations or growth is called capital, and there are a number of capital sources available. ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. Can I buy insurance to reduce unlimited liability in a partnership?

    Partnership insurance is actually quite common. Most of the time, partners buy insurance to safeguard against the possibility ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. What are the benefits of financial sampling?

    Financial sampling allows auditors to approximate the rate of error within financial statements. For accounting purposes, ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. What are the benefits of prorating expenses?

    When a person prorates expenses between personal and business expenses, he is able to capture the maximum amount of tax benefits ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. What are the responsibilities of the principal in a company?

    Principals have different roles depending on the nature of an individual business, but the universal responsibility of a ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Hot Definitions
  1. Section 1231 Property

    A tax term relating to depreciable business property that has been held for over a year. Section 1231 property includes buildings, ...
  2. Term Deposit

    A deposit held at a financial institution that has a fixed term, and guarantees return of principal.
  3. Zero-Sum Game

    A situation in which one person’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss, so that the net change in wealth or benefit is zero. ...
  4. Capitalization Rate

    The rate of return on a real estate investment property based on the income that the property is expected to generate.
  5. Gross Profit

    A company's total revenue (equivalent to total sales) minus the cost of goods sold. Gross profit is the profit a company ...
  6. Revenue

    The amount of money that a company actually receives during a specific period, including discounts and deductions for returned ...
Trading Center
You are using adblocking software

Want access to all of Investopedia? Add us to your “whitelist”
so you'll never miss a feature!