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13 Brilliant Ideas That Turned These People Into Self-Made Billionaires

7 minute read

In general, nine out of 10 startups fail. But the ones that make it all have one thing in common: a brilliant idea — like the ones these self-made billionaires used to start their companies:


Larry Page and Sergey Brin

TIME magazine cover from Feb. 20, 2006David Strick for TIME

Larry Page and Sergey Brin were Ph.D. students at Stanford when they first came up with the idea of a search engine. But their idea was a little different than the other search engines on the market: It would examine the number and relevance of links between pages, not just the keywords on them.

Google’s search engine now dominates the market, and the company has more than $66 billion in sales. It’s now involved in other businesses too — it makes the most popular mobile-phone platform in the world (Android) and runs the most popular video website in the world (YouTube). It’s also experimenting with all kinds of futuristic projects like Google Glass (seen here). Page and Brin are now each worth almost $30 billion.

Mark Zuckerberg

mark zuckerberg cover
TIME magazine cover from Dec. 27, 2010Martin Schoeller for TIME

Mark Zuckerberg was a Harvard undergrad when he came up with the idea of a “hot or not” type of website called Facemash. From that site, Zuckerberg learned how technology could be used to connect people and launched a site called thefacebook.com.

Later, he changed the name to Facebook, and in less than a decade turned it into a $250 billion company. Zuckerberg is now worth over $35 billion.

Michael Bloomberg

TIME magazine cover from Oct. 21, 2013Charles Ommanney for TIME

Working as a Wall Street trader in the 1970s, Michael Bloomberg quickly realized financial companies were willing to pay big bucks for reliable business information. Bloomberg launched a business that provided important financial information quickly through dedicated computer terminals.

Bloomberg, with over $8 billion in annual revenue, is now one of the most powerful media and financial-information companies in the world. Bloomberg’s net worth is estimated to be roughly $37 billion.

Jeff Bezos

TIME magazine cover from Dec. 27, 1999Gregory Heisler

Jeff Bezos was working at a Wall Street firm in the early 1990s when he decided to start his own company. He eventually settled on an idea to launch an online bookstore.

Now Amazon sells everything from books and furniture to gadgets and wine. It’s worth about $200 billion with over $88 billion in annual sales. Bezos is estimated to have a net worth over $38 billion.

Larry Ellison

Growing up in Chicago’s south side, Larry Ellison had a rough childhood, dropping out of college twice. But once he moved to California at age 22 in the mid-1960s, he came across an IBM report about a database-programming language called SQL.

Inspired by the IBM paper, Ellison took SQL and created the Oracle database, which could run on non-IBM computers. After a few years, Oracle took off, becoming the most popular database ever sold. Now Oracle is worth $195 billion, and Ellison is one of the richest people in the world with a net worth estimated at around $65 billion.

Bill Gates

bill gates cover
TIME magazine cover from Mar. 22, 1999Michael O'Neill for TIME

In 1975, Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen came across an ad for the Altair 8800, one of the earliest forms of microcomputers. They built a programming language called BASIC, which became the foundational code for Altair 8800.

Soon Microsoft built an operating system called DOS and licensed it to IBM. A few years later, Microsoft built Windows, which had a more graphical interface than DOS. Since then, Microsoft has become one of the biggest tech companies ever, dominating the PC and software market. It’s a $370 billion business spanning servers and data centers, as well as video games and mobile phones. Gates is the richest man in the world with a net worth approaching $80 billion.

Marc Benioff

Marc Benioff had a revolutionary idea when he founded Salesforce in 1998. He wanted to deliver software over the web, or the “cloud,” making it faster and easier to install and update.

Salesforce started out as a service for salespeople, but now it has different software for marketing, customer service, and even data analytics. It’s one of the fastest business-software companies to ever reach $5 billion in sales, and Benioff is worth about $3.8 billion. He’s also credited with pioneering the cloud market, which is now one of the hottest areas in tech.

Mark Cuban

Mark Cuban was an early internet entrepreneur in the 1990s, and built a company called Broadcast.com based on the idea of providing customized satellite broadcasts over the web.

He later sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo for $5.7 billion. Broadcast.com no longer exists, but there’s no question Cuban — now worth about $3 billion — is one of the most successful self-made tech entrepreneurs of all time. He’s also the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and an active startup investor. His role on “Shark Tank” has turned him into a popular TV personality as well.

Jack Ma

Jack Ma was captivated by the internet after visiting the US in 1995. He soon launched two internet startups, which both failed. As his third venture, Ma started Alibaba, an online marketplace where exporters could post product listings so customers could buy directly from them.

Alibaba took off and, by 1999, raised $5 million from Goldman Sachs and $20 million from Softbank. Just about 15 years later, Alibaba had the largest US IPO of all-time, and now it’s worth over $200 billion. Jack Ma has a net worth in excess of $24 billion.

Jan Koum

Jan Koum wanted to build a sort of phone-book app with status updates showing up next to individual names. It would show things like location or whether the person was on the call or not.

WhatsApp later evolved to include push features and automatic notifications, before turning into the messaging platform it is now. In 2014, WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. It now has over 800 million monthly active users. Koum is estimated to be worth over $6.8 billion.

Jerry Yang and David Filo

TIME magazine cover from July 20, 1998Arthur Hochstein and Ed Gabel for TIME

As students at Stanford, Jerry Yang and David Filo came up with the idea of building a directory for websites. They launched “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.”

Within a year of launching, it became one of the most popular websites in the world. They changed the name to Yahoo, which to this day is one of the biggest web portals in the world. It has a market cap over $38 billion. Yang isn’t involved with the company anymore, instead running his own VC firm. His estimated net worth is $2 billion. Filo is still on Yahoo’s board and has a net worth of about $3 billion.

Michael Dell

While a student at University of Texas, Michael Dell realized there was a way to bypass salesmen to sell PCs directly to consumers. He launched a startup called Dell that custom-assembled each component of the PC and sold it at a much lower price.

Dell had $6 million in sales in its first year. Soon its sales blew up, and by 2001, it became the world’s largest PC maker. Dell took his company back private in 2013 by paying roughly $24.9 billion. He’s worth about $18 billion now.

Nick Woodman

As an avid surfer, GoPro founder Nick Woodman simply wanted to help surfers take better photos of themselves surfing so they could look like a pro. He spent years perfecting the straps that went around the first versions of GoPro.

But it wasn’t until he took it out of the water and put it in front of race cars that GoPro really started to take off. GoPro went public last year and is now worth about $7.8 billion. Woodman has a net worth of about $2.5 billion.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider

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