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How Great Entrepreneurs Got Started

How Great Entrepreneurs Got Started
Masayoshi Son
Image credit: Cummings

Nearly 20 years ago, after speaking at a conference in beautiful Pebble Beach, Calif., I happened to catch the keynote by a little-known entrepreneur from Japan, Masayoshi Son. I was struck by Son's bold vision for his young company, a software distributor named Softbank.

Although Softbank - which had recently acquired the personal computer industry's biggest trade show (Comdex) and publishing company (Ziff-Davis) - was barely a blip on the industry's radar, Son had dreams of becoming a big player in the fast-growing tech sector.

Sure enough, those dreams became reality.

Today, Softbank is a telecommunications and internet giant with annual revenues of about $40 billion and Son is the second richest man in Japan, with a personal net worth of $7.7 billion. As an early investor in E-Trade, Yahoo and China's Alibaba Group, and a bold risk-taker who recently bought 70% of Sprint Nextel for $20 billion, you would never guess how Son grew up.

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After his family emigrated from Korea, the young Masayoshi lived in an illegal shack in southwest Japan. His parents adopted a Japanese surname - Yasumoto - to hide their Korean heritage and avoid discrimination in the more or less ethnically homogenous country.

As a result, Son grew up with a giant chip on his shoulder and a compelling need to prove himself.

As a teenager, Son was obsessed with becoming a successful businessman and developed detailed plans to start his own business. Seeking advice, he became fixated on Den Fujita, an entrepreneur who brought the first McDonald's franchise to Japan and grew McDonald's Japan into a 3,800-restaurant chain.

After essentially stalking his idol, Fujita agreed to meet with the young man and encouraged him to go to America. That's exactly what the young man did.

Son soon moved to Berkeley where he became enthralled with the technology industry and got a degree in Economics. At 24, he returned to Japan to start Softbank and the rest is history, except for one interesting twist: Years later, Son actually managed to get his childhood hero, Fujita, to sit on Softbank's board of directors.  

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After all he's been through, you might expect Son to take a breather, but that's apparently not in his DNA. Today his goal is to make Softbank one of the top 10 companies in the world. I doubt if the smart money would bet against him. I know I wouldn't.

While Masayoshi Son's rags-to-riches story might seem incredible, it actually embodies several common themes we see time and again with successful entrepreneurs:

They come from humble beginnings. Steve Jobs grew up in an average, middle-class household. So did Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison. James L. Kraft, founder of Kraft Foods, began selling wholesale cheese door-to-door in 1903 Chicago. You can't get much more humble than that.

They're obsessed. Chef Bobby Flay was so passionate about food and cooking that he asked for an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas at age 8. I've known dozens of software and hardware developers who've said that writing programs or designing chips is like an obsession with them. Many, if not most, successful entrepreneurs do tend to fixate on one industry or discipline.   

They're men and women of action. While Son dreams big and plans meticulously, he has always been a man of action. His life, his career, and his company's history have all been characterized by one big event after another. Likewise, Bill Gates ultimately agreed to come up with an operating system for IBM's new personal computer even though he'd never written one before. So he bought one (QDOS) for $50,000 and made billions licensing it with every PC.  

They're perfectionists who speak their minds. According to Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, on Steve Jobs' first day with the company, he walked into Bushnell's office and said, "I think you have a really awesome company. I think that everything is pretty good, but I've seen your soldering connections and they're really crappy." Bushnell replied, "Well, let's fix them." Jobs said, "I will." Jobs had no patience with imperfections or the status quo. That, in no small part, is what made him unique and successful.

They don't end up where they begin. Most founders and VCs will tell you, your first idea isn't usually the big one. 3M's founders began mining corundum to make grinding wheels. When the "corundum" turned out to be anorthosite, they tried using that to make sandpaper, but that didn't work either. That was around the turn of the century. I think they came up with Post-it notes about 75 years later, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of inventions and products in between.

If I had to roll all this up into one neat piece of advice for all you would-be entrepreneurs, it would be this: Whatever unique quirks make you what you are, embrace them. Put them to work for you, at least for now. We're all strange in our own way, and more often than not, that's what makes the difference. 

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Steve Tobak is management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive of the high-tech industry. As managing partner of Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting, he's been a trusted strategic advisor to executives and business leaders for more than a decade. Contact Tobak.

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