There’s a rumor that Paul Graham, the founder of the world’s most successful incubator, once invested in someone because he looked like Mark Zuckerberg. But being young isn’t a prerequisite for starting a successful company.
Don’t believe me? Here are some entrepreneurs who had accomplished nothing by 30-years-old.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter – 30-years-old
As much as he’d like you to believe he’s a sophisticated entrepreneur, Jack Dorsey was a punk skater well into his mid-20s.
Dorsey’s first company (started while he was at NYU) was a cab dispatching program.
When this fizzled out, Dorsey approached Ev Williams, who was running Odeo, a podcast company. He pitched him the idea of an instant messaging service.
Williams loved the concept and teamed up with Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Noah Glass to pursue it full time. Dorsey was appointed CEO. He was 30-years-old at the time.
Tim Westergren, Pandora – 35-years-old
Tim Westergren started Pandora when he was 35. But he couldn’t pay salaries for two years.
Before starting Pandora, Westergren was a failed musician, part-time composer, nanny and hippy.
Although he started Pandora (his first entrepreneurial endeavor) at 35, Pandora didn’t become an online radio channel until Westergren was 37.
Pandora started as a hardware company that allowed stores to play music. Pandora even went bankrupt in their first two years and Westergren somehow convinced 50 employees to work without pay – for two years.
See the speech He gave employees each week that convinced them to stay in the video above. After hearing this words, I’d have stayed too.
Jan Koum, WhatsApp – 33-years-old
Before creating WhatsApp, Jan Koum applied to work at Facebook. They rejected him.
Koum incorporated WhatsApp on his 33rd birthday. He’s a San Jose State college dropout.
After leaving school, he landed a gig at Yahoo where he met Brian Acton, his cofounder. After nine years at Yahoo, Koum applied to work at Facebook and was famously rejected, which I find pretty hilarious.
Jack Ma, Alibaba – 35-years-old
Jack Ma’s never written a line of code, and the first time he used a computer was in his 30s.
Now he’s worth $22.5 billion, but until his 30s he thought himself a failure. In a Charlie Rose interview, Ma revealed he failed his college entrance exam three times. After that, he applied to over 30 different jobs, including KFC, and again, he was rejected.
So, at the age of 31, Ma started his first internet company called “China Yellow Pages.” The company made around $800,000 in the three years it was in business.
At 35, he founded Alibaba. Like Amazon, Alibaba didn’t make any profit in its first three years, but we know how the story ended.
Interestingly, Jack Ma has never written a line of code.
Ben Horowitz, LoudCloud – 33-years-old
After starting his first company at 33, Ben Horowitz was often on the brink of bankruptcy.
After graduating from UCLA in 1988 and hopping from job to job for seven years, 29-year-old Ben Horowitz joined Netscape as their first product manager.
After Netscape was acquired in 1999, Horowitz and Marc Andreessen (Netscape’s founder) teamed up to to start LoudCloud. Horowitz was 33-years-old.
In Horowitz’s book, The Hard Things About Hard Things, he talks about the many near death experiences that LoudCloud faced, such as being two weeks away from defaulting on payroll. Thankfully for Horowitz, Loudcloud was acquired for $1.6 billion in cash when he was 41. Beautiful.
Sam Walton, WalMart – 44-years-old
Before Sam Walton founded WalMart, he owned a small discount store with his father-in-law.
In 1945, before starting WalMart, Sam Walton took out a $20,000 loan (about $250,000 adjusted to today) from his father-in-law and purchased a franchised Ben Franklin variety store. Three years later, Walton bought another Ben Franklin store, 220 miles away. But even though Walton was managing two stores, he still struggled to pay his employees.
In 1945, when Walton was 44-years-old, and had years of business experience, he opened the first WalMart.
Peter Thiel, PayPal – 30-years-old
One of the world’s most successful tech investors almost went to law school.
Before he was the founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel was just another lawyer who hated his life. After graduating Stanford Law in 1992, Thiel landed a gig at a Manhattan law firm, a place that, in his words, “from the outside everyone wanted to get into,” but, “on the inside … everybody wanted to leave.”
After seven months Thiel left, and joined Credit Suisse as a derivatives trader. Three years later Thiel founded Paypal. He was 31-years-old. Four years later, eBay acquired PayPal for $1.5 billion, making his stake in the company worth roughly $50 million.
Reed Hastings was in the Peace Corp in his 20s.
Most people don’t realize this, but Reed Hastings was actually a successful entrepreneur before he started Netflix. In 1991, when he was 31-years-old, Hastings started Pure Software, a debugging tool for software engineers. Hastings, a trained engineer, helped the company double their revenue each year. In 1997, when Hastings was 37, Rational Software acquired Pure Software for $750 million, giving Hastings the means to start Netflix.
In between college and starting Pure Software, Hasting was in the Peace Corps. He taught English in Swaziland. Whatta guy.
Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company – 40-years-old
Before starting Ford at the age of 40, Henry Ford’s perfectionism led to failure as he missed deadlines on making his prototypes.
Although he created one of the biggest self-made fortunes in mankind history ($199 billion), Henry Ford bankrupted his first two companies before starting Ford. Ford, like Steve Jobs, was a perfectionist who cared deeply about every minor detail of his automobiles. Because of that he continually missed deadlines and failed to complete his first prototypes.
After years of failure, Ford’s investors convinced him to hire James Couzen. Couzen convinced Ford to sell an “imperfect” car and to have mechanics throughout the country that were trained to fix broken automobiles.
Mark Cuban, MicroSolutions – 32-years-old
28-year-old Mark Cuban shared a three-bedroom apartment with five people. His bedroom was in the closet.
At 24, Cuban graduated from Indiana University and moved to Dallas to work as a bartender. His first gig out of school was selling computers for $18,000 a year. But he was fired for disobeying his boss. At 25-years-old he started MicroSolutions, a software consultancy company. After seven years, Cuban sold MicroSolutions, netting him $6 million… enough to start Broadcast.com, which he sold for $5.7 billion.
Martha Stewart, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, 41-years-old
She’s worth $638 million today, but Martha Stewart published her first book when she was 41-years-old.
Martha Stewart got married at 20, and had her first child four years later. She started her first business, a catering company, when she was 35-years-old.
Soon after, Stewart and her business partner got into a fight about the direction of the business. Stewart left the company to open a gourmet food store out of her catering company headquarters. She was hired to cater an event for a local publisher, who was so impressed by her charisma and talent that he asked her to write a cookbook. She was 41-years-old when it was published.
The rest is history. Especially the part where Stewart served a five-month prison sentence and became the biggest BAMF (bad ass mother f**ker) in America.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter empire – 32-years-old
Before she became the world’s first billionaire author, J.K. Rowling was a 28-year-old single mother on welfare, and self-labeled failure.
After college, Rowling worked at Amnesty International for a few years. In 1990, Rowling came up with the idea of Harry Potter on her way home from work. She was 25. She immediately wrote her idea down.
Three years later, Rowling had a failed marriage, an abusive ex-husband, and one child. This is when she started writing the first draft of of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. To make money, she taught English in the evening. Most of her writing was in coffee shops, as her daughter would only sleep if she was walked outside.
Rowling discussed these events in a 2008 Harvard commencement speech:
“Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
In 1996, when Rowling was 33-years-old, she was given a $2,300 (1500 in British pounds) advance from British publisher Bloomsbury, for her first book. In 1998, Scholastic paid $105,000 for the American rights.
The Harry Potter brand is worth around $15 billion today.
Lynda Weinman, Lynda.com, 40-years-old
Lynda Weinman started Lynda.com when she was 40-years-old. 13 years later she sold the company to Linkedin for $1.5 billion.
Weinman’s story begins in 1982, when she was 27-years-old
“My boyfriend at the time challenged me to help him with his new computer. I started to read the manual and was mortified by how it was written by engineers for other engineers,” Weinman told Forbes.
After 10 years of tinkering, Weinman started teaching web design at a college in Pasadena, and wrote a book about it. With $20,000 in book profits, Weinman and her husband launched a design school. She was 40-years-old.
In 2002, Lynda.com launched, offering online versions of the courses Weinman taught. 30 people signed up in the first month. 13 years later Lynda.com was acquired for $1.5 billion. Weinman was 60-years-old, and has been dubbed the grandma of the internet.
Fun fact: Weinman was the first to categorize the 16 colors used in Web design — a critical advance when websites were painstakingly hand-coded in HTML.
Xochi Birch, Bebo – 36-years-old
Xochi Birch made $595 million in 2008 after selling Bebo to AOL for $850 million.
If you haven’t heard of Bebo, you’re not alone. Before Facebook came along, Bebo was one of the largest social networks in Europe. It was founded in 2005 by husband and wife duo Michael and Xochi Birch, who were 35- and 33-years-old respectively. Bebo was acquired by AOL for $850 million, three years later. The couple netted a staggering $595 million.
In retrospect, this acquisition is considered one of the biggest blunders in tech history. In 2013, under AOL’s control (the Birch’s were long gone) Bebo went bankrupt. The Birch’s bought it back for $1 million, which came with a lovely video by the Birch’s about c*ck and balls.
Caterina Fake, Flickr – 33-years-old
Caterina Fake founded Flickr in 2002 when she was 33-years-old. Three years later she sold it to Yahoo! for $30 million. Flickr had only seven employees.
Fake started her career at a web development agency. At 28-years-old, she accepted the role of Art Director for Salon.com. In 2002 she launched Ludicorp, a company that created a multi-player video game. But after months of failed fundraising and bankruptcy concerns, Fake decided to scrap the game. She launched Flickr instead. We know how well that pivot turned out…
Fun facts: Fake’s husband and Flickr co-founder is Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Slack. In 2009, Fake co-founded Hunch, which eBay acquired for $80 million.
Arianna Huffington, The Huffington Post – 55-years-old
Not exactly a nobody before founding HuffPo, Arianna Huffington was 55 when she launched The Huffington Post and 61-years-old when she sold it to AOL for $315 million.
Arianna Huffington first came to public attention in 1994, when her husband, Republican Michael Huffington, ran for Senate. While HuffPo is known for being left-leaning, most people forget the Huffington’s were conservative.
In her youth she authored several books, including a biography of Pablo Picasso. However, she didn’t hit it big on her own until her mid-50s.
Fun Fact: Huffington’s co-founders were Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, and Ken Lerer, chairman of BuzzFeed and Betaworks.
Clara Barton, American Red Cross – 60-years-old
The founder of the American Red Cross kicked ass in her twilight years.
Clara Barton was a teacher for most of her life, but when she turned 60-years-old she founded the American Red Cross.
Before becoming an entrepreneur, Barton was a teacher, nurse, store clerk and copyist. After the Civil War, Barton ran the Office of Missing Soldiers, where her team helped locate 22,000 missing men, and identified 13,000 dead soldiers. After closing this down, she created the first American branch of the Red Cross. She was 60-years-old.
Oprah Winfrey, The Oprah Winfrey Show – 30-years-old
Oprah’s empire started when she signed a groundbreaking syndication deal when she was 33-years-old.
After scraping by as a low paid news anchor in the south, Oprah moved to Chicago in 1983 to host the morning show, A.M. Chicago. It had low ratings, but quickly rose to number one. Three later years later, the show was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show and Winfrey signed a syndication deal that helped her become a billionaire.
“My first day … I set foot in this city, and just walking down the street, it was like roots, like the motherland. I knew I belonged here,” Winfrey said.
Tory Burch, Tory Burch LLC – 38-years-old
Even though Burch’s father was a wealthy businessman and her mother a famous actress, she didn’t thrive in business until her late 30s.
Burch began her career as a copywriter for Ralph Lauren, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vera Wang. Then, after years of learning about fashion, she used an investment from her husband to launch her first store in New York in 2004. The following year she launched ToryBurch.com. Thanks to an endorsement from Oprah, the site was popular from the get go. She was 39-years-old.
Sarah Wood, Unruly Media – 31-years-old
Sarah Wood co-founded and bootstrapped Unruly Media, a viral video ad-tech company in 2006. She sold it to Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp for $176 million in 2015.
Wood has a strong background in education, with a degree in English and a Master’s and Doctorate in American Literature from Cambridge and UCL. Her early career involved working as a fundraiser for a theater company, and lecturing at university.
In 2006, a year after YouTube’s launch, Wood became intrigued with the power of viral videos. “There was so much content coming on stream, and it was difficult to sort through content and find the hottest videos that were getting people talking,” she told The Next Women.
She teamed up with a college friend and a developer, and they started figuring out how they could monetize this trend. “We built a blog-scanning engine, as that’s where lots of the social buzz was happening,” she said. This turned into Unruly Media’s Viral Video chart, which tracked and ranked popular web videos. This got attention from brands, who wanted to advertise their content with rising stars. Wood bootstrapped the business till 2012, when investors got involved.
Unruly Media sold for $176 million in 2015.
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