Forbes is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. We’re proud to have served for the past century as the champion of ethical free enterprise, capitalism and the power of the entrepreneur.
So, this is a good occasion to look at how the formula for success in business and industry has changed over the past century since Forbes has been reporting on it. And how it has in many ways remained the same. Forbes celebrates success…How you achieve it and what to do with it.
John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company. Ranked #1 on Forbes’ 1918 Richest Americans list. (AP Photo)
And we’re proud that following our digital transformation, we’ve attracted a younger and younger audience.
Pivotal to our evolution has been Forbes’ extraordinarily successful Under 30 global franchise that we launched six years ago, where we feature the young game changers who are disrupting industries and will be changing the world we live in for the next 50 years.
First, back to the beginning. The very first story we published on the richest Americans ran in 1918, just one year after we got our start, with the byline of our founder, B.C. Forbes. (Malcolm Forbes' father and Steve Forbes' grandfather.)
The headline read, "America’s 30 Richest Own $3.68 Billion." Many of those on the list were landmark, well-remembered figures.
John D. Rockefeller led the list with $1.2 billion (about $22 billion in today’s dollars), followed by many other well-known names: Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, William Vanderbilt, Vincent Astor, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan. How did the "wealthiest" on the first Forbes list earn their fortunes?
In the early 20th century, a host of factors came together to turn the industrial revolution into an explosion of productivity, including increasingly available electric power and efficient new ways to travel, communicate and transport goods.
Determined, far-sighted and sometimes ruthless men found ways either to create the systems that made this all possible, or to take control of existing systems.
Andrew Carnegie, founder of the Carnegie Steel Corporation. Ranked #3 on Forbes’ 1918 Richest Americans list. (AP Photo)
Great consumer markets developed, driven by the growth of mass circulation newspapers and magazines printed on new, high-speed presses, carrying ads for all the exciting new products – not to mention the latest fashion, available in another success story of the era, the first department stores.
America’s industrial capacity grew over the next few decades, especially during World War II, and we remained a nation of great factories through the ’60s and into the ’70s.
However, the centers of manufacturing began to shift, first from the Northeast and Midwest to low-wage, non-union states in the South. Then, starting in the ’80s, to even lower-wage countries like Mexico and China.
Flash forward...we’ve moved from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, and that's directly reflected in Forbes’s most recent World’s Billionaires list.
Not surprisingly, most of today’s great fortunes – Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Oracle, Bloomberg – depend on the high-tech, high-speed systems we’ve developed to move information digitally.
Bill Gates, cofounder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Ranked #1 on Forbes’ 2017 Billionaires list. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
We all know many of the creators’ names – Microsoft’s Bill Gates, who tops the list with $86 billion; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, $73 billion; Warren Buffett, $66 billion; and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, $56 billion.
Not everyone is a tech person, though. Some made fortunes in traditional arenas – retailing like the Walton family; oil, coal and other natural resources like the Koch brothers, or smart investing like Buffett.
Mark Zuckerberg, cofounder of Facebook. Ranked #5 on Forbes’ 2017 Billionaires list. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
Nevertheless, Forbes’ latest list is being taken over by the founders of “unicorns.”
That’s the term coined in 2013 to identify private-equity funded companies valued at $1 billion or more.
“Unicorn” has a larger meaning to me, however, because the word captures the unique character traits of modern entrepreneurs. As a recovering venture capitalist, before joining Forbes I was one, I had the pleasure of working with these amazing, delightful and sometimes challenging creatures.
They not only understand today’s fast-moving technology, they see ways it can be used to create entirely new business models – some with the power to disrupt old models and change how millions of people live.
They take big chances on their ideas, often launching companies right out of their kitchens and garages.
They tend to be narrowly focused, building businesses that do just one thing, like Airbnb, which simply finds travelers places to stay as an alternative to hotels or Uber that has truly simplified going from here to there by hired car.
Evan Spiegel, cofounder of Snap. Ranked #441 on Forbes’ 2017 Billionaires list. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
Many of these unicorns are serial entrepreneurs who refuse to be deterred by failure. Snapchat co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy tried 34 projects before they finally clicked. And look at Snapchat now: It just went public, and it was the largest tech IPO since Alibaba.
Bobby Murphy, cofounder of Snap. Ranked #441 on Forbes’ 2017 Billionaires list. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
The potential for such astonishing success has, in turn, created an unprecedented source of funding – venture capitalists and private equity firms that sometimes invest not just millions of dollars, but billions.
Great successes have already come out of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, like Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR who sold his company to Facebook for $2 billion, and we're certain more will emerge.
Modern entrepreneurs and their counterparts of a century ago are different in many ways, but they still have much in common, including a willingness to give back. Henry Frick and J.P. Morgan’s homes were turned into great art galleries.
Andrew Carnegie created more than 2,000 libraries across the land while, at the same time, giving away almost his entire fortune.
Today, the Giving Pledge has signed up 180 of the world's wealthiest individuals and couples – including Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Mike Bloomberg and Paul Allen – who have pledged to give at least half their wealth to charitable causes. Some have promised to donate virtually all they have.
The world has changed in many ways over the century that Forbes has been publishing, and entrepreneurs have kept evolving and adapting with it.
They continue to be the visionaries who think outside the box, who pursue their dreams relentlessly and who figure out how to sell themselves and their products to investors and consumers.
If we continue to nurture an ethical free enterprise system – and I stress the word ethical – such men and women will continue to innovate and create. They will continue to disrupt. They will continue to shape the world in which we live.
And Forbes will go on enthusiastically covering their achievements for another century.