5.01.2014

What Inspired 10 Successful Entrepreneurs to Become Founders

By

Every entrepreneurial journey starts somewhere. See if you recognize yourself in these stories.
Every entrepreneur has that moment--an experience, an epiphany, getting fired, getting desperate, getting fed up; getting lucky enough to have the right mentor--that inspired them to someday become an entrepreneur.
So I asked 10 successful entrepreneurs to share their original inspirations. Here they are:

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"In 1998 I was a copywriter/account manager at a small ad agency in NYC. I liked what I did, but working in jammed quarters with ten people (and one stinky bathroom) and being told when to show up and when I could go home was getting old.
I was just twenty-seven but knew I was doing good work for our clients and that I had some talent. Then I noticed a freelancer coming in and out of the office on his own schedule yet doing pretty much the same work as me. He'd come back all tanned from the Hamptons and would do his work while he was there.
I was so envious. And then I found out he was making way more money than me.
But then I realized my envy simply meant I wanted more freedom for myself. So I didn't get mad... I got smart. I took him to lunch, asked how he got started, and once I kind of understood the first few steps I quit my job.
I didn't have any clients, I had never taken a business course, I was cash-poor and in over $15,000 of credit card debt. But I somehow knew I could hustle. And it was just more painful for me if I had stayed at that job and never known what would have happened if I didn't try.
I stopped at Staples on the way home and put a new printer-fax machine on the last bit of room I had on a credit card. I printed business cards that said I had offered marketing communications services. I attended any networking meeting I could find. I asked for referrals. I met a lot of people but nothing was happening. And I was getting tired of ramen noodles.
When I didn't have the money for my next rent payment on my tiny apartment, I was getting nervous all this wouldn't work. But one day, after praying for guidance, the phone rang. One of the agency's clients had looked up my number. They said they had no reason to stay with the agency if I was gone. They became my first real client--one that at least paid for my rent, groceries, and Metro card.
And from there, you couldn't stop me." -- Ali Brown, founder & CEO, Elevate
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"As a kid I was dyslexic and had bad eyesight. That meant I often couldn't see the writing on the blackboard and even when I could, I still couldn't read it.
Unfortunately it took a long time before either problem was recognized. Before that I was simply labeled lazy, unwilling or stupid. By the time I was fifteen I was three years behind and very unhappy. Then one day I decided to drop out of school and apply to the circus school. Officially I was too young but I was determined and had talent for juggling so my parents supported my decision.
The teachers at my school weren't so supportive. They took turns trying to persuade me to stay and all said the same thing: "If you drop out now you will never amount to anything."
They tried to persuade me by threatening me but their strategy had the opposite effect: I felt liberated and even more determined to choose my own destiny. I figured if leaving meant starting from zero and being labeled as an outcast, than everything I would accomplish from now would be to my own credit. I felt empowered and excited at the opportunity to design my own life without someone else telling what I could and couldn't do.
For me that was a defining moment. I've always felt like the rules didn't apply to me and I could do what I wanted. After I graduated circus school I applied to an art academy, graduated cum laude, and then started my first Internet business, one I sold three years later.
Although you never start a company alone and I had many partners to thank, I did feel I truly earned my success as a self-made man when we signed those contracts, and I definitely thought back to those teachers who told me I would never amount to anything." -- Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, founder of The Next Web
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"While I had three mentors in my life that helped and influenced my culinary career, I learned entrepreneurship from my mother. From a young age, my mother instilled in me a sense of responsibility and inspired me to lead by example. My mother ran a successful home as well as a successful business in fashion--she owned and managed several boutiques.
Her aspirations and ambitions encouraged me, even as a child, not only to achieve my goals, but also to become a leader in what I do." -- Eric Ripert, co-owner and chef, Le Bernardin
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"You can't run a legitimate business from your home in NH while you raise your girls." That was the feedback I got when I started exploring the idea of building my company after leaving the corporate world to be with my kids.
Then it was, "You can't build a virtual career coaching practice. Everybody knows the best coaching is done in-person." Again my idea was trashed by people who thought they knew better.
Ironically, I've never taken well to being told I couldn't do something (thanks Mom and Dad!)
So, looking back, I realize what got me into entrepreneurship, and more importantly, what helped me succeed were all those naysayers. I never intended to run a company, but the road filled with people trying to push their negativity on me only helped me to see how much I needed to start my own business to prove them wrong.
I'm grateful for those people who said it couldn't be done." -- J.T. O'Donnell, founder of CAREEREALISM
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"I'm pretty sure "entrepreneur" was one of the first words I knew how to spell. I simply can't remember not wanting to be an entrepreneur. It was a desire ignited by my father, and his father before him.
My dad, a serial entrepreneur, was a joyful workaholic. He had a contagious love for his work even when times were tough. I wanted to be like him. Inspired by dad, I filled my youth with small ventures of my own. One of my earliest childhood memories is buying 10-cent toys from the grocery store vending machine and reselling them for 25 cents on the playground.
Getting a "real job" was never an option. I consider myself blessed that the magnetic pull of entrepreneurship led me to Road ID, a company my father and I started together." -- Edward Wimmer, co-founder of Road ID
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