A few days ago Jeff Cornwall pointed to this MSNBC list of the Top 10 Entrepreneurs of all time. Jeff points out that the MSNBC list has a few problems and asks for other thoughts on the real top 10 entrepreneurs. I feel myself compelled to rise to the bait, er, challenge, so here is my preliminary list of the Top 10 Entrepreneurs from the U.S. I can't say that I'm qualified to list the top entrepreneurs from the rest of the world, so I'll intentionally restrict myself to entrepreneurs who did their thing in the U.S.
Here is Jeff's post with the MSNBC list:
MSNBC offers its list of the "History's 10 Greatest Entrepreneurs". Its list:
1. King Croesus
2. Pope Sixtus IV
3. Benjamin Franklin
4. P.T. Barnum
5. Thomas Edison
6. Henry Ford
7. Benjamin Siegel
8. Ray Kroc
9. H. Ross Perot
10. Jobs & Wozniak
This list includes a few good choices, but several of their picks were included because they were really good con-men, sleazy businessmen, or even gangsters. YIKES! What were they thinking?! Let's try a list of those who build wealth and did good deeds for society as they made their wealth.
Now here's my list...
UPDATE: I've submitted this entry to the upcoming Carnival of the Capitalists. I'm hoping that it triggers a few more people to create their own lists - I'm especially hoping that some of the COTC readers outside the U.S. submit their thoughts on great entrepreneurs from Canada, Europe, Asia, etc.
MSNBC lists Benjamin Franklin on their list. I can't argue with their logic - Franklin in some respects is the archetype for the self-made, self-defined (and re-defined) American. But I can't really place him on my top 10 list. So I'm giving Ben emeritus status but not including him on my list.
Here are my holdovers from the MSNBC list:
1. Henry Ford. No doubt about it, one of the top entrepreneurs of all time, worldwide. A great example of how great entrepreneurs aren't necessarily admirable human beings in all respects. But an unbelieveable entrepreneur.
2. Ray Kroc. Maybe not quite as clear a choice, but who can argue Kroc's impact on modern society. I'd give Harlan Sanders an honorable mention, fast food division, but Kroc capitalized on post-war changes in American society to create an entirely new order of business.
2. Jobs & Woz. I'm not sure how this entry will stand the test of time but I've got to go with MSNBC on this one. They weren't the first to create a personal computer and you can say that what they did was inevitable - but then most breakthrough entrepreneurial ideas look that way with the benefit of hindsight.
Here are my additions to the list:
4. Samuel Insull. WHO? You heard me, Samuel Insull. MSNBC goes with Thomas Edison but I've got to disagree. Edison is a great inventor (Top 10 list for inventor's, absolutely) but NOT a great entrepreneur. Insull is my pick as the entrepreneur how did the most to bring the benefits of many or most of Edison's inventions to the mass of Americans. Insull started out working for Edison and helped create real businesses around Edison's inventions. Then, after JP Morgan put together General Electric out of a combination of Edison's businesses and competitors, Insull pioneered the modern system of electrical distribution starting in Chicago. Insull's empire collapsed in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash and he was vilified at the time, but he played a major role in creating the modern American electrical infrastructure. My attempt to point out that not all great entrepreneurs made it into today's history books, particularly given our society's ambivalent attitude towards business - especially among the academic types who write the history textbooks.
5. Sam Walton. Wal-mart is every bit as great a creation as anything else on the list in terms of its impact on business and society. A classic entrepreneur whose story is not yet fully told as his legacy is still unfolding.
6. TIE John D. Rockefeller. Creator of the modern oil/energy industry. As much a business model innovator as anything else, but then that's true of many of the names on this list. Also, in the second half of his life, an incredible social entrepreneur and philanthropist - he's on my list as much for this as his business career. Along with Carnegie (see below) he helped reinforce the very American expectation that those who create massive wealth are expected to share that wealth with the rest of society through philanthropy and good works. This expectation is still strong today and can be seen in the evolving philanthropy of Bill Gates and others of the new information age wealth class.
6. TIE Andrew Carnegie. Along with sidekick Henry Clay Frick (think Gates and Ballmer or Dell and Rollins) Carnegie helped create the steel industry. That would be enough to get him considered for the list, but as much or more than Rockefeller, Carnegie's social entrepreneurship was incredible. Just how much impact did the 5000-plus public libraries that Carnegie funded (think about that number - 5000!) have on our society in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century?
Now it starts to get harder...so many candidates, only 4 entries left. Should there be someone on the list representing the railroad industry? In the second half of the 19th century, railroads were the epitome of high technology and the railroad industry grew to employee more people than any other industry in America. But who - Vanderbilt? Scott of the Pennsylvania RR? Thomas Durant of the Union Pacific and his counterparts Huntington, Stanford, Crocker, and Hopkins of the Central Pacific? What about the modern transportation analog - airlines? One of the early aviation pioneers like Juan Trippe of Pan Am? How about Herb Kelleher for creating the modern low-cost carrier and reshaping an entire industry? What about communications/media entrepreneurs? How about Pulitzer or Hearst in newspapers? Or Paley in broadcast? How about computing industry entrepreneurs? Do the Watsons father and son qualify as entrepreneurs? Neither founded IBM, but Watson senior created a great enterprise out of a failing company and laid down the culture whose roots exist today. Watson Jr. arguably has as much or more to do with the modern computer/information age as anyone and made one of the great business bets of the 20th century when he funded development of the IBM 360 series computers. How about Bill Gates or Michael Dell? What about Noyce/Moore of Intel? Or Hewlett and Packard? Or what about the still unfolding story of internet/e-business entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos or Omidyar/Whitman or Filo/Yang or Brin/Page? Or what about Fred Smith at Fedex? or Howard Schultz at Starbucks? or...or...(warning, head will explode in 60 seconds, warning)...
I guess I'm a creature of my times, so I'm going to end up slanting the list to what I know the best. I hope I'm not being unfair to those who came before, but here's the last four slots on my top 10 list.
7. TIE Bill Gates and Michael Dell. Maybe in 20 years it will be clearer which one of these two should make the list but as of today I think they both deserve consideration. I know that Gates is not the most popular choice, especially among the technical elite (he never really invented anything, he just ripped off other people's ideas, etc.) but then I'm listing entrepreneurs, not inventors. How much wealth has Gates created? Just how much impact have his products had on the spread of computing to the masses? Dell is almost in a similar category - Michael Dell didn't invent the PC but his business model innovations have helped drive the price of personal computing inexorably downward as much as anyone involved in the computing industry. The full story on both these still-young men is not yet told.
8. TIE Herb Kelleher and Fred Smith. In my mind, these two deserve to be on the list as great entrepreneurial re-definers of existing industries. Kelleher (with honorable mentions to Freddie Laker and Donald Burr) has built the quintessential low-cost air carrier and in the process driven the still unfinished redefinition of the airline industry. He has also shaped one of the great corporate cultures in business history. Fred Smith is not as obvious a re-definer - his creation, Federal Express created the overnight express business. But I see him more as having fundamentally redefined the postal and package delivery "industry". Postal delivery was a government monopoly and small parcel delivery was not much more competitive before Federal Express. Now Fedex is helping to redefine the entire logistics industry. I think that one of the great underlying themes of business in the late 20th century was the inexorable reduction in cycle times and increase in the tempo of business. Fedex was a great facilitator of that theme.
9. TIE Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar/Meg Whitman. It is far to early to identify the great entrepreneurs of the internet so I nominate Jeff Bezos and his creation, Amazon along with Pierre Omidyar and Meg Whitman of E-Bay as my "most likely" to endure from the current crop of internet entrepreneurs. I think both are marvelous enterprises that have reshaped the way everyone thinks about business in the 21st century. Honorable mention to Filo/Yang of Yahoo. Brin/Page of Google make my watch list of future candidates.
10. TIE Walt Disney and William Paley. I view this entry as a placeholder for the overall mass media/communications/entertainment industry. Paley was a very important entrepreneur in his own right in creating CBS and should definitely get at least honorable mention on any list of great American entrepreneurs. Plus, given the huge impact that mass media have on modern culture, I felt somewhat uncomfortable leaving a representative of that industry off the list. Walt Disney is one of the great entertainment industry/cultural entrepreneurs of the late 20th century.
Honorable mention - Howard Schultz of Starbucks. Gotta have my man the caffeine king on the list.
So, I copped out and ended up with 15+ plus names on my Top 10 list given ties. Hey, it's an entrepreneurial thing - redefining industries and pushing boundaries. It's at least as legitimate as MSNBC having Bugsy Siegel on their list. Besides, if you disagree, you can define your own list - go for it.