The Idol Life

Their fame will outlive them, their money will probably outlast their fame, and what these entrepreneurial geniuses learned about running businesses will be passed from generation to generation-starting with you.
Magazine Contributor
14 min read

This story appears in the January 2002 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Quick. Think of the word "entrepreneur." Who comes to mind? Whether you look back in time and think of innovators such as Henry Ford or Nelson Rockefeller or look at today's headlines, each generation has just a handful of names that stand out as examples of the entrepreneurial spirit. We recently talked to five of today's entrepreneurial icons-people whose names are synonymous with success, risk-taking and independent thinking. How have they changed from their early days in business through today's volatile market, ever-changing technology and the always-crowded business landscape? And how has their entrepreneurial spark endured? Let's find out.

  Michael Dell, Dell Computer Corp.
  Anita Roddick, The Body Shop
  Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry's
  Richard Branson, Virgin Group Ltd.

Michael Dell

As a college student, Michael Dell declared that he wanted to beat IBM. In 1983, he began conducting business out of his dorm room at the University of Texas in Austin, selling custom-made PCs and components. A year later, with $1,000 in startup capital, Dell officially set up his business and left school. "Being an entrepreneur wasn't on my mind," insists Dell. "What was on my mind was the opportunity I saw ahead, which was so compelling."

Blast From the Past
Want more insight from Michael Dell? Then click to our extensive Q&A, Dell On , that we ran in 1999.

He had no idea how big that opportunity really was. Dell Computer Corp. is now a $31.9 billion behemoth. Though Dell himself had "no idea the Internet would come along," his company now sells approximately $50 million worth of products on the Net daily, making it one of the world's largest Windows-based e-commerce sites. These days, Dell spends most of his time planning company strategy. "Strategy is the biggest point of impact I can have as the company is much, much larger-it has 40,000 employees," he says. "So my ability to make an impact on anything else is pretty small."

Unless you're talking about the September 11 terrorist attacks. Dell's company did its part, shipping more than 35,000 computer systems to affected customers in New York and Virginia. Because the company already knew the configurations of customers' machines, replacements were ready to go.

Dell says he feels as entrepreneurial now as when he started. "There are plenty of markets to discover," he says, "and each new venture requires tenacity and a willingness to take risks."

Entrepreneur: How do you define "entrepreneur"?
Michael Dell: Somebody who has a new idea or different idea and takes a risk and works hard to make it work.

Entrepreneur: Who is your idea of an entrepreneurial icon?
Dell: Sam Walton, who took a business and refined it with cost structure and logistics, and took it to levels nobody ever imagined. And Henry Ford. He designed a new business process and he created an industry-or at least revolutionized it.

Entrepreneur: How do you keep your entrepreneurial spirit alive?
Dell: There's always a new challenge, whether it's a new product line, a new customer, a new service, or some new milestone.

Entrepreneur: What was your dream when you started out?
Dell: My plan was to sell built-to-order computer systems directly to end users. I recognized there was a big opportunity there because of the inefficiencies of the indirect system.

Entrepreneur: What's your legacy?
Dell: Well, I don't plan to be remembered anytime soon. I'm 36 years old. But I hope they would think, this is a guy who built a company that created tremendous value for its customers, its employees and its shareholders. And perhaps, this is a guy who helped people realize the power of computing and the Internet. And then the last piece, which is something only a [few] people would know, that this is a guy who was a great dad and a great husband.

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Anita Roddick

As a young girl, starting a business was the last thing on Anita Roddick's mind. "I wanted to be an actress," she says.

Even when she began to pursue what would become The Body Shop, her environmentalism-minded skin- and hair-care company with more than 1,800 stores in 49 countries, Roddick's goal was not to be an icon. "My business was a response to the extravagance and waste of the cosmetics industry," she says.

Roddick opened her first shop in 1976 with 25 hand-mixed products, eventually franchising The Body Shop and then going public in 1984. The Body Shop now offers more than 1,000 items and reached sales of more than $1 billion in 2000/2001.

Blast From the Past
We wrote about Anita Roddick back in 1996. See what we had to say .

Though she no longer sits on The Body Shop's executive committee, Roddick still serves as co-chair, finds new products and keeps the company active in human rights, environmentalist and animal-protection issues.

In 1997, Roddick helped launch a master's degree program in conjunction with Bath University in England, with the aim of making business education more socially responsible. More recently, she established The Body Shop's Human Rights Award, which recognizes individuals and organizations that focus on social, economic and cultural rights.

The biggest challenge has been people's cynicism. "People feel there has to be an ulterior motive to The Body Shop's activism, as though our principles are a marketing ploy," Roddick laments.

Have the challenges affected Roddick's feelings about entrepreneurship? Not even slightly. "I don't think being an entrepreneur is something you question," says Roddick. "It's just something you are."

At press time, The Body Shop was considering buyout offers, but hadn't reached any decisions.

Entrepreneur: How do you define "entrepreneur"?
Anita Roddick: Entrepreneurs are obsessive visionaries, pathological optimists, passionate storytellers and outsiders by nature.

Entrepreneur: Who is your idea of an entrepreneurial icon?
Roddick: Ben and Jerry. They turned a $20 ice-cream-making course into a leading light of socially responsible business.

Entrepreneur: How do you keep your entrepreneurial spirit alive?
Roddick: [By being] experimental. Success is twin-edged: Managing success seems to kill the entrepreneurial spirit. So to maintain it, you must keep on experimenting.

Entrepreneur: What was your dream when you started out?
Roddick: My business was a response to the extravagance and waste of the cosmetics industry. I [felt] there were plenty of people like me hungry for an alternative.

Entrepreneur: What's your legacy?
Roddick: The future is being shaped by the forces of global business, so I would hope that I've helped change the vocabulary and practice of business, and contributed to the awareness that it can and must be a force for positive social change.

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Ben & Jerry

Jerry Greenfield was trying to become a doctor. Ben Cohen was trying to become a potter. They joke that their foray into entrepreneurship re-sulted from being failures at what they were trying to do in their careers. Today, Ben and Jerry's names are synonymous with socially responsible business and all-natural ice cream in innovative flavors.

Starting with one ice cream shop in a reno-vated Vermont gas station in 1978, by 1999, Ben & Jerry's had more than $237 million in sales from nearly 200 shops and a vast array of products sold in grocery stores and other outlets.

Blast From the Past
We ran an excerpt from Ben & Jerry's Double Dip in 1997; read it here .

More than just a monetary success, however, the pair brought to entrepreneurship a responsibility-to be a good business, not simply do good business. "The prevailing thought had been that [being] a business engaged in social activities would take away from your ability to make money," says Jerry. "The more our company was involved with social interests, the more profitable we became."

As entrepreneurs, Ben and Jerry are complementary opposites. Says Jerry, "I'm more of a supportive person. Ben is a visionary. He would rather fail at something new than do something that has already been done before. Sometimes you just have to let someone go with something."

In 2000, Ben and Jerry struggled with letting go in a different sense. Under pressure from their board, they sold their company to a major conglomerate, Uni-lever. "It was a very difficult time emotionally," says Jerry. Neither will discuss the selling of their company further, preferring to talk about their current work.

Ben, no longer with the company bearing his name, is enthusiastic about his main projects: The Priorities! Campaign, focusing on education and health care for children, and several VC funds for social-minded entrepreneurs (see October's " Money Buzz ").

Jerry is still employed by his former company, working with the Ben & Jerry's Foundation to fund nonprofit organizations dealing with grass-roots democracy and various globalization issues.

Looking back, Jerry says he and Ben worked well together because of the different qualities each brought to the business. "If either of us had started it on our own," he says, "we would have failed-or not been as successful."

Entrepreneur: How do you define "entrepreneur"?
Ben Cohen: [Someone who] has a tremendous amount of drive and is willing to sacrifice most anything to bring this business vision to fruition.

Entrepreneur: Who is your idea of an entrepreneurial icon?
Jerry Greenfield: It's Ben. He's the one who keeps looking under rocks. He doesn't really need to look under rocks-he sees ideas on top of rocks.
Ben: Paul Newman. He knew what assets he had-his name, his face, his reputation. [And he created] a business to raise money for charities.

Entrepreneur: How do you keep your entrepreneurial spirit alive?
Jerry: Getting the right people in the company is the most critical thing. If you don't have people who believe in [your] mission, you run into problems.

Entrepreneur: What was your dream when you started out?
Jerry: Ice cream for the people. We realized early on that the only way to stay in business was if the community was supporting us.

Entrepreneur: What's your legacy?
Jerry: I hope the message from the company was that you could have a business that was not in existence solely to make money; it had a purpose and mission that was larger than that. And that [entrepreneurs] who want to have businesses that address social needs can do that in a way that also makes money.
Ben: What he said. And on top of that, to have a role that is restorative, to help make things better, not just not do bad. On a very small scale, Ben & Jerry's demonstrated that.

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Richard Branson

Richard Branson echoes the feeling of the rest of our icons: He didn't mean to become a world-class entrepreneur-he just wanted to make his dream come true. "I wanted to edit a magazine aimed at young people [in] schools," says Branson. "I wanted to put the world right, as you do when you're 15 and believe you can do it. I only became an entrepreneur to make sure my magazine, Student, survived."

After publishing his magazine for a while, Branson observed that mail order discount music companies were doing well. In 1970, Branson started his own mail order record company, and the same year, he and several friends opened the first music discount store in England, calling it "Virgin." Over the years, Branson has tackled numerous businesses, mostly out of frustration with how particular industries were run. "Some of those industries I would never have dreamt of going into," he says. "In the end, when they've worked, they've worked pretty spectacularly."

Virgin took on the airline industry, going head-to-head with British Airways, which eventually led Branson to sell his music company in 1992 to provide his airline with much-needed funds. Today, Virgin Airways Ltd. brings in 51 percent of the revenues for Virgin Group Ltd., its parent company, with sales of more than $2.1 million in fiscal-year 2001.

Other industries Virgin companies are tackling include modeling, bridal services, financial services, book publishing, music stores, electricity and gas, British rail, and even a new music company-V2. Today, there are nearly 170 companies under the Virgin umbrella.

While Branson says his favorite part about being an entrepreneur is the freedom it gives him to do what he wants with his time, the reverse is also true. Being a successful entrepreneur means he doesn't always have the freedom to do whatever he wants. The responsibility is great, particularly with more than 50,000 people working for him.

Branson strives to live by his own business advice every day. "Make sure that anything you do," he says, "you create the best."

Entrepreneur: How do you define "entrepreneur"?
Richard Branson: An entrepreneur is somebody who is willing to go where others are not. Who doesn't often listen to accountants. Who if somebody says [something is] impossible, is determined to prove them wrong.

Entrepreneur: Who is your idea of an entrepreneurial icon?
Branson: Herb Kelleher, who started Southwest Airlines. He pioneered low-cost travel in America, and now we've got an airline in Australia which is taking on Qantas and driving the cost of air travel down. I don't think I would have started that if it hadn't been for Herb Kelleher.

Entrepreneur: How do you keep your entrepreneurial spirit alive?
Branson: Challenging what people think of [as] the norm, seeing if we can make a difference, creating things we can be proud of.

Entrepreneur: What's your legacy?
Branson: I would hope people will say that we made a difference-we created the best rail network in the country; we shook up the airline industry; we created good music. Some of those things will live on, but [I hope they say] "He had good fun and a good time whilst he was doing it."

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