The American Dream is the heartbeat of our collective ethos. For generations it has promised that through hard work, each of us has the opportunity for success and prosperity—a social mobility brought about by our ability to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and achieve whatever our imagination holds.
This spirit of self-determinism lives on today. Consider the lessons from these modern-day dreamers as you plot your own American success story.
Recognize Your Own Genius
She’s a billionaire now, but in 1998 Sara Blakely was a Georgia-based fax machine sales trainer and stand-up comedian who didn’t like the ugly panty line that was visible through her new $98 pair of pants. She cut the feet out of a pair of control-top pantyhose, the line disappeared, and she could even wear sandals. With that eureka moment, a product was born, but the business was still to come.
Before quitting her day job, Blakely read books on trademarks and researched pantyhose patents at a local college. Blakely had never taken a business course, and the hosiery manufacturers she approached initially told her that pantyhose without feet would never sell. But Blakely’s father always told her that failure was a necessary part of life, so she kept at it until a manufacturer—with two daughters of his own—agreed to take her on.
Making a prototype cost $5,000, which Blakely could barely afford, and she had to be her own saleswoman, slogging through cold calls to department stores. “I called the buyer at Neiman Marcus and introduced myself over the phone,” Blakely told CNBC. “I said I had invented a product that customers would not want to live without, and if I could have 10 minutes of her time I would fly to Dallas. She agreed!” Blakely was even her own model, showing off her product to buyers from Saks, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. The personal touch worked, and the newly named Spanx took off. It certainly helped that Oprah Winfrey named Spanx a favorite product in 2000.
Blakely had wanted to be a lawyer, but the LSATs got in the way. “If I had not failed, I’d have been a lawyer, and there would be no Spanx,” she said. “Failure is nothing more than life’s way of nudging you that you’re off-course.” Spanx (which has diversified into panties, bras and swimwear) is growing rapidly because Blakely’s eureka moment recurs in closets and dressing rooms every day—women like the way they look in Spanx.
Don’t Take No for an Answer
A newly arrived immigrant from Pakistan, Shahid Khan washed dishes for $1.20 an hour when he first came to the United States. Enrolling at the University of Illinois at Champaign in 1968, he told his fraternity brothers to call him “Shad.” He learned about football and baseball, and he studied engineering, moonlighting at a small auto parts company called Flex-N-Gate.
Today he has a net worth of around $4 billion and owns Flex-N-Gate, which has become a major global supplier of car bumpers and other parts to automakers. Khan owns both the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and the London-based Fulham Football Club. But his base is still in Champaign, where it all started for him.
In 1970, Khan was offered two jobs, one as manager of an ice cream shop and the other at Flex-N-Gate. He chose the latter, and gained a higher education in practical engineering. Khan started his own company, Bumper Works, in 1978 with a Small Business Administration loan. He produced a seamless bumper for pickup trucks, and when domestic manufacturers weren’t interested—preferring instead to continue working with their longtime suppliers—he took his invention to Asia, where Toyota was the first to nibble at his hook.
The domestics soon gave Bumper Works their business, too, and that enabled Khan to buy Flex-N-Gate in 1980. He’s been growing the business—and his diverse interests—ever since.
“There is a phrase that if you build a better mousetrap, the world is going to beat a path to your door,” he told Sporting News. “That’s not how life works. You’ve got to build a better mousetrap. Then you’ve got to go sell it. You’ve got to be paranoid enough to keep improving that mousetrap.”
John Paul DeJoria:
It was 1980 when John Paul DeJoria (who was then living in his car) and Paul Mitchell (a hairdresser) pooled their names and energy to found a company, John Paul Mitchell Systems, selling shampoos and conditioners. Their starting capital was only $700. It was a rather inauspicious time to start a business, anyway, with inflation at 12.5 percent and interest rates at 18 percent.
DeJoria, now worth approximately $4 billion, grew up financially challenged in the Los Angeles area. He sold Christmas cards when he was 9 and delivered the Los Angeles Examiner at 11. Without the money to attend college, he took sales jobs, including a succession of positions at hair-care firms—and got himself fired from most of them. That had a profound effect on him, he told Charles Payne on his syndicated radio show. “When people fire you for not being their kind of manager, it makes you want to be your own manager,” DeJoria said.
And so Paul Mitchell was born, but not easily—a major European investor pulled out just before launch, leaving the partners with practically nothing. Labels were printed in black and white because they lacked the money to print them in color.
But before the first bills were due, DeJoria put samples of the new products in his car trunk and took them on the road to suppliers—and landed the company’s first orders. The business remained in considerable peril for the first two years, so on the road, DeJoria often ate at bar happy hours to avoid paying for dinner. “Every week we should’ve gone out of business,” he told Stanford’s business school. The partners’ first dividend to each other: $2,000. But salons kept signing on, and the profits steadily grew. “It got rolling and rolling until it got into the hundreds of millions,” DeJoria said.
Perseverance pays. After Paul Mitchell died in 1989, DeJoria diversified with, among other things, more than 100 hairdressing schools, a stake in House of Blues, and Patrón Spirits, maker of premium tequila. And the core products endure: DeJoria’s privately held company makes 90 hair-care products that are sold in 100,000 salons nationally and in 80 countries.
DeJoria’s advice to business startups: “The American Dream is definitely still alive—more people just have to realize it’s alive…. You can start a business today with little or no money.”