What can we learn from U.S. entrepreneurs who were our original corporate titans?
Theres a great series by The History Channel titled The Men that Built America, chronicling the lives of American entrepreneurs in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In vivid dramatic re-creations, the film takes a fascinating look at the lives of the men who in many ways laid the foundation to build the most prosperous country the world has ever seen.
Largely forgotten in an age of Zuckerberg, Buffet and Gates, their stories remind us that yesterdays corporate titans shared several important characteristics.
Andrew Carnegies story is particularly American. An immigrant from Scotland, Carnegie arrived in this country with little money in his pockets, but with an incredible sense of drive and ambition. How many times have we heard a story start that way?
We know that Carnegie would eventually become enormously wealthy through his business dealings in the steel industry, but often missed in the telling of his life story is that his success did not come overnight. He worked his way up, starting as a secretary for Thomas Alexander Scott, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, closely studying his mentors every move.
The young Carnegie was in the room when Scott was cutting deals with Rockefeller. From Carnegie we learn how important it is to find mentor and to learn from those who have come before you. Rarely is an industry created overnight. Instead it is improved and refined, adapting to the market and the trends. Carnegie knew this and it helps explain his enormous success.
John D. Rockefeller
As an entrepreneur John D. Rockefeller also understood this. As we learn in the documentary, he did not discover fossil fuel in the fields of Ohio, but instead applied his acumen for precision and detail to create the largest oil refinery in the world— and in the process making himself the richest man in the United States, at least for a time. Quite a remarkable achievement for a man that grew up in the most modest of circumstances having to help support his family from an early age because of his con-man fathers absenteeism.
And finally, we see Henry Ford, who was so determined to create the automobile for the everyday man that he refused to acquiesce to the rules imposed on the industry by the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufactures (ALAM), prohibiting the creation of new automobiles that did not meet the consortiums standards. Sensing a new tide against monopolies (and needing essential investment for his business),
Ford challenged Alexander Winton, the owner of the biggest car company at the time and a prominent member of ALAM, to a highly publicized automobile race in Grosse Point, Michigan. Fords victory captured Americas imagination and love for the underdog.
What this means for todays aspiring entrepreneurs
These stories matter because todays aspiring entrepreneurs must know that the setbacks and frustrations they currently face are not unlike anything else that their predecessors went through. What set these historic men apart from others was their ability to look where others werent looking and persist, even when the odds looked bleak.
An important lesson to keep in mind for todays aspiring entrepreneur looking for the next big thing.”
Why not draw inspiration from those that went before you?
To learn from their mistakes, and emulate their success. Good advice for anybody, especially for those in business.
Sure, a lot has changed since the late 19th and early 20th century, but some things remain timeless. Perhaps the secret is striking a balance between the time-tested virtues of hard work and persistence while applying the same principles of innovation and creativity employed by the corporate titans of the past.