While the argument could be made that nobody gets to be a billionaire by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, there are instances where individuals have serendipitously stepped up to the rank of billionaire - transitions facilitated by being in the right place at the right time.
Some of this luck is purely a function of when one is born - how successful would Bill Gates have been if he had been born ten years earlier or ten years later? (There's no way to tell, but we do know that Gates was able to perfectly take advantage of the newly developing world of computer technology because he was born at the right time and he happened to be at the right place - one of only two schools that had mainframe computers). The planets aligned for these four billionaires who had the creativity, drive, foresight and the luck of good timing to turn their ideas into profitable realities.
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Mark Zuckerberg's father taught him Atari BASIC Programming in the 1990s and went on to develop additional programming skills with the assistance of a private tutor. Zuckerberg had the reputation of being a programming prodigy by the time he started classes at Harvard.
The 2010 movie The Social Network depicts the story of how Zuckerberg developed Facebook, a company that earned him the distinction of becoming the world's youngest billionaire in 2008, four years after co-founding Facebook. Zuckerberg and co-founders developed Facebook at a time when millions of internet users were hungry for social media opportunities. Zuckerberg was able to develop his natural talent for computer programming and came up with an idea that would connect people all over the world - at precisely the right time. (For related reading, see 4 Lessons From Billionaire College Entrepreneurs.)
Steve Jobs co-founded Apple Computer in 1976. As a high school student, Jobs was able to attend after-school lectures at the Hewlett-Packard Company, where he was soon hired and worked with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak as a summer employee. In 1984, the Macintosh - or Mac - personal computer was introduced - the first of its kind featuring a mouse and a graphical user interface (GUI) instead of a command-line interface. The timing was perfect as small, personal computers were gaining in popularity and users were extremely enthusiastic about the more user-friendly interface.
When Bill Gates was 13, the Mothers Club at his school used fundraising money to purchase for the students a Teletype Model 33 ASR terminal and computer time on a General Electric computer. Gates and classmate Paul Allen became interested in computer programming.
Gates and Allen founded Microsoft in 1975 and wrote an operating program for one of the first microcomputers - the Altair 8800. Five years later, Microsoft developed MS-DOS, an operating system for IBM's new personal computer. Having access to computers at a time when most people did not - and therefore being ahead of the curve - helped Gates build a successful company. (For related reading, see Wall Street History: Microsoft Buys Apple.)
During her last year of high school and first two years of college, Oprah Winfrey worked at a local radio station doing the news part-time. She became both the youngest news anchor and the first African American female news anchor at Nashville's WLAC-TV. She later moved to Baltimore's WJZ-TV in 1976 to co-anchor the six o'clock news. In 1986, The Oprah Winfrey Show was born, displacing Donahue as the number one daytime talk show in the U.S. Winfrey was able to transform the show from one that was initially classified as a tabloid talk show, to one that focused on broader topics.
In addition to the hugely successful TV show which aired its final episode in 2011, Winfrey publishes magazines and maintains a website. She is the Chairwoman, CEO and Chief Creative Officer (CCO) of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Winfrey's humor and empathy came at a time when many women needed a powerful role model, particularly one who was willing and able to broach topics that were considered social or cultural barriers.
The Bottom Line
Timing is everything. In order to become a billionaire, one really does need to be in the right place at the right time. Most individuals who have managed to achieve this level of wealth have done so through luck, recognizing opportunities, networking and turning an idea into a reality. Being in the right place helped make these entrepreneurs, and many others like them, billionaires. (For related reading, see The 10 Greatest Entrepreneurs.)