Lessons From Self-Made Billionaires

Rather than seek unoccupied "blue oceans," they operate in "purple" ones: Breakthrough innovation is a mix of new and existing markets.

Conventional wisdom is that blockbuster innovations are most likely found in new product categories. Business celebrities like Steve JobsBill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg -- three college dropouts who made billions with stunning innovations that ignited whole new industries -- reinforce this perception. This conventional wisdom is even codified in business theory. In the multimillion-copy bestseller, “Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant,” two business school professors argue that “lasting success comes not from battling competitors but from creating ‘blue oceans’-- untapped new market spaces ripe for growth.” Businesses are encouraged to avoid “bloody ‘red oceans’ of rivals fighting over a shrinking profit pool.” One of the insights from an excellent new book by John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen is that the vast majority of today’s wealthiest persons made their billions by ignoring this notion. The book also offers important guidance on how both entrepreneurs and established companies should innovate. In The Self-Made Billionaire Effect: How Extreme Producers Create Massive Value, Sviokla and Cohen found that 80% of the self-made billionaires that they studied made their fortunes in contested market spaces. Their research sample consisted of 120 self-made billionaires (as opposed to those with inherited wealth) operating in relatively transparent and competitive markets. These 120 were randomly selected from self-made billionaires on Forbes’ Billionaire List, adjusted to mirror the larger list’s geographic and industry distribution. Sir James Dyson, for example, did not stop reimagining the vacuum cleaner just because Hoover got there first and the market was crowded. Instead, Dyson went through 5,127 iterations to develop a production-ready design of his dual cyclone vacuum. Sir James Dyson with his Dyson Vacuum If the term had existed, the board of Dyson’s company at that time might have labeled Dyson’s effort an ill-conceived “red ocean” strategy. It rejected his request for funding to produce the vacuum -- even though Dyson owned a third of the company. Dyson was told:
If there really was a better type of vacuum cleaner, then surely one of the big manufacturers would be making it.
Undeterred, Dyson had to set up a new company to manufacture the G-Force Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner. It would go on to capture immense market share -- as high as 50% in the UK -- and generate billions in sales. Svioka and Cohen offer numerous other case studies of self-made billionaires who succeeded in markets that “would by any measure be considered ‘red.’” Here is a partial list from their thoroughly researched book.
  • John Paul DeJoria, a haircare products salesman, and celebrity stylist Paul Mitchell successfully launchedJohn Paul Mitchell Systems into the populated market of high-end hair care.
  • Bharti Enterprises founder Sunil Mittal got his start importing known, legacy technologies such as portable generators and telephone handsets into India.
  • Sara Blakely’s Spanx shapewear prospered in a hosiery market dominated by L’eggs and Hanes.
  • Eli Broad built affordable starter homes without basements in part because he saw others doing it successfully.
  • Glen Talyor grew a mom-and-pop local printing shop into one of the largest custom printing companies in the U.S. by, at first, focusing on the immensely competitive and fragmented industry for wedding stationery and related accessories.
Sviokla and Cohen are not arguing for red oceans over blue ones. Their research shows that self-made billionaires ignore the distinction. To them, all oceans are purple -- a blending of available opportunity within established practice. The vast majority of self-made billionaires operate in markets “that are a blending of new approaches within old modes that reveal ways to re-create the space.” This is an important lesson for both entrepreneurs and innovators in established companies. The opportunities are there -- all the time -- to create a blockbuster product within an existing market. No market is owned solely by a single product or idea. Those who can take advantage of the constant change are the ones most likely to win.

Chunka Mui

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Chunka Mui

Chunka Mui is the co-author of the best-selling Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance, which in 2005 the Wall Street Journal named one of the five best books on business and the Internet. He also cowrote Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the World We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050.



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