The year was 1897. Hotelier and author Orison Swett Marden sat in a small bedroom on Bowdoin Street in Boston churning out the very first issue of SUCCESS Magazine. Celebrating its 125th year in 2022, the magazine in your hands was created by writers, designers and editors located in different cities across the globe, a feat the magazine’s founder never could’ve imagined in his wildest dreams.
From early cover lines about why fine clothes are an asset in business to recent ones about how to turn social media followers into customers, the magazine has gone through a massive transformation. After all, it had over a century’s worth of change to keep up with. But the core components of entrepreneurship and personal development, it turns out, have remained astonishingly the same.
An overview of the long and winding history of SUCCESS wouldn’t be complete without first discussing Marden. An orphan at age 7, Marden lived with five different families. In his teens, he came across the book Self-Help by Samuel Smiles. It changed his life. He connected deeply with the themes in the book and became a fervent follower of the New Thought movement, which was centered around self-determinism and positive thinking. He created SUCCESS because he wanted a periodical dedicated to sharing ideas from this movement.
A year after founding the magazine, Marden and his quickly growing staff moved from Boston to a small office in Cooper Union in New York City’s East Village. The magazine’s popularity grew exponentially, building a readership of about half a million and a staff of 200 employees within 10 years. In 1908, the staff moved to its very own 12-story building—the SUCCESS Magazine Building—on 22nd Street. Here, they printed, bound and mailed each issue. The building, which still stands today, overlooked Madison Square Park.
“We like an outlook of trees and grass where we can plan, and dream, and build, and take a little pleasure in life as we go along,” Marden wrote in the February 1908 issue of the magazine. Today’s editor-in-chief, Josh Ellis, has a similar view. “Now that our entire team works remotely, it’s up to everyone to create their own office setup,” Ellis says. “On nice mornings I head out to my patio with my laptop and a strong coffee and create a magazine that helps people build better lives for themselves. It’s the best job in the world.”
Marden helmed the magazine until 1912, at which point the publication was acquired by The National Post Company, which published The National Post, a more politically driven bi-weekly magazine. For a short time, the two titles ran together, with covers that read: SUCCESS Magazine & The National Post. (Although SUCCESS wasn’t as political as The National Post, the magazine was much more news-centric than it is today—articles regularly covered war and Washington intrigue, and were often written from a perspective that was progressive for the time.)
Over the next few decades, the magazine underwent myriad changes. At first, it was monthly, then weekly, then back to monthly again. At one point, it had a different name entirely: New Success—Marden’s Magazine. However, despite these constant changes, the magazine persisted in publishing the most important self-help content at the time.
During the Great Depression era and following Marden’s death in 1924, the magazine was out of press. However, in the 1930s, two important books were published that carried the mantle for personal development: Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. These are widely considered the most significant books in motivational literature, with Carnegie’s book selling over 30 million copies and Hill’s selling over 100 million. Along with SUCCESS, these books have helped form the foundation for what personal development is today.
In 1954, the magazine shifted yet again. Hill and W. Clement Stone, another writer and major personal development figure at the time, founded a new version of the magazine, effectively a spiritual heir, SUCCESS Unlimited. They eventually brought on another well-known motivational author, Og Mandino, as executive editor.
Under the moniker SUCCESS Unlimited, which lasted until 1980, the magazine took a more brass-tacks-of-business approach. Instead of focusing on self-help and personal growth, the magazine leaned more on its entrepreneurial side, with advice for how people could succeed in business. Articles during this time period focused on topics like mentorship, the qualities of good salespeople, and the importance of working for oneself.
During this time, the publication’s cover art evolved from primarily illustrated work to photographs of successful people. This approach—profiling a high achiever with the cover story—is still a core component of the magazine today, as is the content centered on entrepreneurship and running a small business or solopreneurial hustle.
Although SUCCESS has encouraged and inspired readers for over a century, its record is not without blemishes. A look back at articles from decades past exposes both racism and sexism pervasive in society at the time. A 1902 article was titled, “Should Wives Work?” In the 1980s, the magazine struggled to adapt to the reality of more women entering the workforce, with a 1984 coverline that read: “Two Career Marriages—Share the Secrets of Couples Who Are Making Them Work.” The first cover subject of color, newspaper publisher Jim Goodson, didn’t appear until 1972 (and even then, the story wasn’t without its faults).
“Most of these cases were sadly reflective of the time period in which the issues were published,” Ellis says. “While we’re celebrating the magazine’s history and all the positive work that has been done through the years, it’s important that we also acknowledge past mistakes. If we do that, we can recognize progress that has been made to make SUCCESS more welcoming and inclusive of everyone, which I am proud of and focused on continuing.”
The magazine has featured female writers since the early 1900s, but it took nearly a century before women held decision-making power. Following a bankruptcy in 1999, Victoria Conte headed a rebirth for the title as president and publisher. The magazine had a short run with former National Magazine Award winner Gay Bryant as editor-in-chief beginning in 2006. Then, following an ownership change in 2007, SUCCESS named another woman to the post of chief editor: Deborah Heisz.
“I think the magazine is becoming much more diverse with every decade,” Heisz says. “It’s changing, and I think the audience is requiring it to change. You see more women and minorities starting businesses, and more micro-entrepreneurs taking that path because the boardrooms are still locked up by 50-year-old white men.”
After decades of publishing consecutively, the title had some gaps in circulation in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2007 SUCCESS was acquired by VideoPlus (eventually renamed SUCCESS Partners), an educational and marketing tools company based in Dallas. Author and speaker Darren Hardy joined as publisher, and the magazine completely relaunched in 2008, bolstered for the first time by its digital component, SUCCESS.com.
“Even though we had the name SUCCESS, it truly was a startup publication at that time,” Heisz says, adding that the staff’s primary goal with the new iteration of the magazine was to help people stay focused, improve themselves, set and accomplish goals, and build the life they truly wanted. “We focused on both personal development and micro- and small-business assistance for entrepreneurs, and we really had a winning combination.”
Heisz stepped down in 2012, and in 2016 Hardy and the brand parted ways. But the startup mentality has persisted. In 2018, the magazine shifted from a monthly printing schedule to quarterly, and then went bi-monthly beginning in 2019. In December 2020, eXp World Holdings—the parent company of eXp Realty—purchased the magazine and its affiliated media properties including SUCCESS.com, the SUCCESS Podcast Network and Achievers All-Access. Glenn Sanford, the CEO and founder of eXp World Holdings, became CEO of SUCCESS Enterprises.
“When I found out SUCCESS was for sale, I jumped at the chance,” Sanford says. “It’s like the house that never ever comes on the market. What excites me about SUCCESS is what it has meant over all these years. It really has been the brand that has encompassed personal development for many years—something I’ve been exposed to since I was a kid—and we’re able to lean in and help people all over the world think about how to be better at anything they’re doing.”
No one knows what the next 125 years will bring for SUCCESS. But we have a hunch that when a writer sits down to create an article celebrating the magazine’s 250th anniversary, many of the core components of personal development will stand the test of time.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.