Many entrepreneurs succeed by thinking differently. They turn unorthodox into gold. Here are just some of the people who gained success – and notoriety – by bucking the trend, never giving up, or just refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer.
Dale Vince: greening the nation
Leaving school at 15, Vince was a traveller before setting up his first renewable energy company in the mid-1990s. Ecotricity
was started in Stroud, using a single wind turbine – which was monitored using equipment also made by Vince (equipment which became Vince’s first commercial success and ultimately funded Ecotricity’s growth). Vince is 100% committed to green energy: he enticed Richard Branson to talk low carbon solutions in its early days through full-page newspaper ads, and Vince now intends to “green football” through his chairmanship of local football team, Forest Green Rovers. The club’s stadium is solar powered (right down to the robot which mows the organic grass pitch), and its match catering is entirely vegan. Vince continues to transform markets from the inside out.
Karl and Bertha Benz: it takes two
Karl Benz’s teenage years were dominated by an idea for a “horseless carriage”. Creating Benz & Compagnie in Mannheim in his early twenties gave him commercial success through the production of gasoline engines. It was the Benz Patent Motorwagen
which finally satisified his ongoing curiosity: a chain-driven vehicle, available to buy from 1888. But it was Benz’s wife Bertha
who improved and popularized the concept; she took it upon herself to travel 100km in the car to Pforzheim, repairing and refuelling the vehicle herself on the way – and suggesting brake linings as a way to stop the vehicle when in motion. A true collaboration.
Henry Ford: process and price
Once Benz had laid down the foundations for how the motor car should work, it was up to a man from Illinois with parents from Somerset to industrialise it. Initially a service engineer for Westinghouse, then Chief Engineer for Edison, he worked on experimental automobiles for the company before going it alone in 1899. Ford was something of an anti-hero: he was a commercial success and renowned for uncommonly fair treatment of his workers; yet he was also tainted by his sponsorship of an anti-semitic newspaper. In 1908, though, the Model T revolutionised the industry by being cheap to produce and thus cheap to sell: it would retail for £5800 today. The idea of production lines is largely attributable to Ford; as is mass-production, which is why he is credited with saying: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”.
Reed Hastings: adapt to survive and grow
The co-founder of Netflix, which offered flat-rate VHS and DVD subscriptions, saw the digital revolution early – just as Blockbuster so famously… didn’t. By 2010, Netflix was growing so fast that it was already the largest source of streaming video in north America. As physical media was declining, Hastings split out the original subscription business and invested heavily in original content (something which Netflix has been involved with since 2006). Now worth over $100bn
, Netflix has become shorthand for high-quality online video, thanks to Hastings spotting trends early and successfully disrupting his own original business model to lay the groundwork for the company’s next phase.
Ruth Handler: commercial success twice over
Handler’s husband Elliot and his business partner Matt set up a houseware and toys company, named after their joint first names: Mattel. In studying how her daughter played with dolls, Ruth suggested to her husband that a more realistic, three-dimensional doll would be better. It certainly was; the Barbie doll (named after their daughter, Barbara) became a success around the world from 1959 onwards, and remains a global leader in its market. However, Ruth didn’t stop there
. After a radical mastectomy, she founded Ruthton Corporation which made realistic breast substitutes – their design and manufacture influenced by techniques used when developing Barbie. She sold the business to Kimberley-Clark in 1991.
Sharmadean Reid: nailing it
Born to a Jamaican family in Wolverhampton, Read started the Wah Nails
salon in Dalston, London in 2009. A result of frustration at the lack of both fashionable nail outlets and safe, fun places for girls to hang out, the salon was soon picked up by Topshop in Oxford Street to host a pop-up store there. Employing single mothers and women on benefits, Wah trains them up to be nail technicians and helps equip them with ongoing life skills. In 2015, Reid was awarded an MBE for her services to the beauty industry.
Zoe Sugg: creating an entirely new business model
The classic entrepreneur story is about launching a global business from a bedroom. It’s never been so true as with Zoe Sugg, a.k.a. Zoella
, who created her eponymous blog and YouTube channel in 2009. Today, she has over 1 billion views on her primary YouTube channel alone, making her one of the first generation of YouTube celebrities and the pioneer of a new business model: sponsored content
. In her case, these are called “beauty hauls”. The author of two books, Sugg has also launched her own beauty line, a housewares range, and ran a ten-day pop-up shop with queues several blocks long in London’s Covent Garden.
Lucy Greene and Pandora Lennard: going against the grain
Fashion may change by the day, but the industry doesn’t: model agencies have the same approach and business model as ever. The urge to do something different led Greene and Lennard to launch – literally – the Anti-Agency. Hand-selecting models from around the world, the Anti-Agency works with “people with real lives” and is therefore much closer to the target audiences of its campaigns than traditional agencies. In just five years, the company has worked with top labels Balenciaga, YSL, Louis Vuitton, DKNY, and Urban Outfitters.
Michael Dubin: turning $1 into $1bn
Offering high-quality shaving products for one dollar seems like such a simple idea, it’s amazing that no-one thought of it first. Michael Dubin launched Dollar Shave Club in 2012, at which time Gillette had a 72% share of the market. With a subscription model that felt more like a club than a service, Dubin perfectly executed on two simple rules: build a great, differentiated brand, and offer a high-value low-price product. Starring in his own, viral-friendly advertising
, Dubin built a company that was sold to Unilever for the phenomenal price of $1bn in 2016: a simple proposition, beautifully executed.
Emmanuel Macron: turning an opportunity into the highest honour
The President of France? Really? Hear us out. His identification of a liberal, centrist opportunity started early: whilst an investment banker at Rothschild, he was also a member of the Socialist Party of François Hollande. Hollande appointed him to ministerial office at a time when the Government was in disarray. Macron quit two years later, spotting an opportunity to develop a new political party (which he smartly called a “movement”) in time for the 2017 elections. Setting up the party, its structures, its business model, the people it was to field in almost every local constituency, and then to win the Presidency took a tremendous amount of vision, foresight, and energy. In just two years, En Marche has grown from being an emerging think-tank and party to being the dominant force in French politics. Whatever your background, whatever your circumstances, if you can spot an opportunity for disruption, then seize it with every opportunity you have. It clearly worked for Macron.