Successful entrepreneurs stand a breed apart.
Whether pursuing a singular passion or a burning desire to create, the best entrepreneurs are always probing for improvement, embracing change and learning from failure as much as from success. The lions of entrepreneurship misstep like the rest of us, but they also wield a stubborn confidence and an amazing ability to adapt, survive and thrive.
And one thing Fred Smith, Jeff Bezos and Martha Stewart shared was that they looked beyond potentially paralyzing fears to focus on driving their businesses forward.
FedEx’s startup success story
Smith knows how to deliver—and evolve. His ability to adapt and integrate his company mission through more than 50 fast-paced, competitive and turbulent years provides valuable insight for today’s entrepreneurs.
A young amateur pilot, Smith enlisted in the Marine Corps upon graduation from Yale and served two tours in Vietnam, earning the Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts in the process. He cites the lessons in leadership he learned from the Marines as integral to his success in business.
Upon Smith’s honorable discharge from the military, he returned to the idea that almost single-handedly changed the way business is conducted. Smith purchased a controlling interest in an aircraft maintenance company, cobbled together $80 million in funds alongside his own $4 million inheritance and, in 1973, Federal Express Corp. began operations. (The name came from his failed attempt to obtain a contract to transport checks for the Federal Reserve Bank.)
Committing to your convictions
“People thought we were bananas,” Smith told The New York Times in 1979. “We were too ignorant to know that we weren’t supposed to be able to do certain things.”
Ignorance became bliss. In 1983, Federal Express became “the first U.S. company to reach revenues of $1 billion within 10 years without merger or acquisition” and “the first service company to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award,” according to their website.
The journey wasn’t textbook at times: Stories are legion, such as a cash-strapped Smith flying to Las Vegas to play the blackjack tables (he reportedly wired the money he won back to the company). But over the years, a basic philosophy has continued to drive FedEx’s success: “P-S-P,” or “people, service, profit.” Smith’s belief was that the three concepts work in a circle, each supported by the others. He insisted that treating employees well and fairly would bolster company loyalty, something that would pay off in the long run.
“I think it’s unfortunate that to some degree the word ‘entrepreneur’ has taken on the connotation of gambler,” Smith said in a 1984 interview. “I don’t see it that way at all. Many times action is not the most risky path. The most risky path is inaction.”
In 1984, Federal Express acquired Gelco Express International, “[starting] intercontinental operations with service to Europe and Asia,” according to the FedEx website. In 1994 it changed its name to FedEx.
“Very rarely have I ever seen any business or major undertaking that goes in a straight line,” he said in an interview. “There’s zigs and zags, victories and defeat, and you have to be propelled by that conviction that what you’re doing is right and what you’re doing is important, and to persevere in it. That’s probably more important than anything else.”
Amazon’s startup success story
When Amazon.com Inc. announced that the company was folding Zappos Inc. into the organization in 2009, Jeff Bezos released a video in which he discussed “everything I know. I can guarantee you, everything I know, it’s a very short list.” The brief, informal sermon said as much about why Amazon had been so successful as it did about why the company was interested in Zappos.
Obsessing over customers
“The first thing I know is that you need to obsess over customers,” the then-45-year-old Bezos begins. “I can tell you that we have been doing this from the very beginning, and it’s the only reason that Amazon.com exists today in any form. We’ve always put customers first. When given the choice of obsessing over competitors or obsessing over customers, we always obsess over customers.”
After graduating from Princeton University with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering, Bezos worked at Fitel, a startup company building an international trade network; at Bankers Trust, where he rose to the vice presidential level; and at D.E. Shaw, a hedge fund. After he discovered that usage on the neophyte World Wide Web was increasing 2,300% a year, he methodically studied the top 20 mail-order businesses with an eye toward what made sense for transition to the web.
He settled on books “because books are incredibly unusual in one respect, that is that there are more items in the book category than there are items in any other category by far,” he said in a 1997 video. In 1995, Bezos opened Amazon.com and told his several-hundred beta testers to spread the word. No advertising, no press. Within a month, the company had sold books in all 50 states and 45 foreign countries. It became a master of the up-sell strategy, showing customers interested in one product others they might also prefer. Today, it is the leading e-commerce retailer, offering services and benefits such as lower prices, myriad options and a wealth of product information.
Innovative and long-term thinking
“The second thing I know is—invent,” Bezos says. “It’s really important to invent [Amazon examples are Kindle and EC2]. Anytime we have a problem, we never accept ‘either-or’ thinking. We try to figure out a solution that gets both things, and that often requires invention. But you can invent your way out of any box if you believe that you can. And what we talk about is inventing on behalf of customers—it’s not a customer’s job to invent for themselves. You need to listen to customers. It’s critical. If you don’t listen to customers, you will go astray. But they won’t tell you everything, and so you need to invent on their behalf.”
Bezos also stresses how critical it is to “think long-term” and not just give lip service. “I find that most of the initiatives we undertake may take five to seven years before they pay any dividends for the company,” he says. “They may start paying dividends for customers right away, but they often take a long time to pan out for shareholders and the company…. It’s always been very important for us to think long-term so that we can tolerate being misunderstood…. and if we think we’re right, then we continue. If we think we’re wrong, if we’re criticized about something and we think we’re wrong, we change it. We fix it.”
Bezos concludes with the credo that keeps driving him forward: “And that brings me to my final thing that I know: It’s always day one. There’s always more invention in the future, always more customer innovation—new ways to obsess over customers.”
Martha Stewart’s startup success story
Each life and business enterprise is full of twists and turns. Few people know that better than Martha Stewart.
The story of the lifestyle maven began when she started modeling at 15. She married before completing college and continued modeling to pay her tuition. Eventually, she started a family and found some success as a stockbroker from the mid-1960s to early 1970s. After leaving her Wall Street career, she shifted gears entirely, turning to cooking and catering. In doing so, she set the plate for her own entrepreneurial empire.
Following your passion
Stewart’s rule: ‘Build your business success around something that you love—something that is inherently and endlessly interesting to you.’
In 1976, she tapped into her knowledge and years of accumulated cooking skills to open a catering business she operated from the basement of her Connecticut home. She contributed articles to The New York Times and served as an editor and columnist for House Beautiful magazine.
Finding what people need
Stewart’s rule: ‘Focus your attention and creativity on basic things, things that people need and want. Then look for ways to enlarge, improve and enhance your Big Idea.’
At a party she catered in 1980, the president of Crown Publishing Group asked Stewart to write a book for Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group. Entertaining was an immediate hit, selling more than 625,000 copies. Other successful book projects followed. She began marketing how-to videos, and the juggernaut was launched. Time Warner Inc. (now WarnerMedia) financed the Martha Stewart Living magazine in 1990. In 1988, Time dubbed her “the guru of good taste.” In 1999, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia made its initial public offering.
Sharing your knowledge
Stewart’s rule: ‘By sharing your knowledge about your product or service with your customers, you create a deep connection that will help you learn how best to build and manage your business.’
The legal issues that ensnarled Stewart during the early 2000s challenged both her personal and professional life. While she fought insider-trading charges, the stock value of her company took a nosedive and the brand she had spent a lifetime building was imperiled.
She was down but not out. Her five months of minimum-security incarceration, followed by five months of house arrest, two years of probation and a fine, sent her back to her entrepreneurial roots. In her book, The Martha Rules, Stewart talked of how female inmates, undaunted by their situation, approached her with business plans, dreams and ideas to get her opinion. After one such meeting, she started a candid outline for what would become The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success as You Start, Build, or Manage a Business.
She came back strong, refocusing her energy on Martha Stewart Living magazine and making a comeback on television. In 2005, Stewart joined reality TV veteran Mark Burnett to produce The Martha Stewart Show, a daytime show on the Hallmark Channel, and the less-than-successful The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. She also continued to publish a variety of books.
“However bleak things may at first appear, if you are a good person doing things for the right reason, there is always something to grasp onto to help you carry on or start over again,” Stewart wrote in The Martha Rules. “There is no entrepreneur, anywhere, whose journey is without setbacks and crossroads.”
This article was updated May 2023. Photo by Sterling Munksgard/Shutterstock