Skip to Content

Book Summary: The Self-Made Billionaire Effect – How Extreme Producers Create Massive Value

Has The Self-Made Billionaire Effect by John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

The prevailing wisdom is that self-made billionaires are geniuses who never sleep, got extremely lucky, and made it big at a young age. In reality, they simply have a few critical habits of mind that make them able not only to exceed expectations but also redefine them. In this book summary, you’ll learn the five unique habits of mind that enable self-made billionaires to create unexpected value.

Book Summary: The Self-Made Billionaire Effect - How Extreme Producers Create Massive Value

Learn the habits of mind that set highly successful entrepreneurs apart from the pack.

The Self-Made Billionaire Effect (2014) reveals the secrets behind the world’s most successful companies and entrepreneurs. These blinks show that it isn’t luck, age or external factors that got some of the world’s wealthiest people where they are today. Find out how self-made billionaires became masters of duality by integrating imagination and design, and juggling opposing ideas.

What do Elon Musk, Larry Page, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Ilitch all have in common, apart from being famous? They’re all self-made billionaires, each one of them at the helm of huge business empires.

But that’s not all they have in common. When you look at the success stories of these and other entrepreneurial giants, you begin to see a pattern of underlying skills and abilities. It’s no coincidence they are all at the top – so what are their essential skills?

In this summary of The Self-Made Billionaire Effect by John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen, you’ll learn

  • how Hui Lin Chit made a fortune selling napkins;
  • what billionaire Alex Spanos learned from selling sandwiches; and
  • how to partner for success.


  • Want to learn what visionary billionaires have in common
  • Don’t feel your unique skill set is valued in the workforce
  • Want to harness the talents that are going to waste in your company

Content Summary

Exploding Myths of Extreme Entrepreneurship
Empathetic Imagination: The Art of Designing the Blockbuster
Patient Urgency: How Billionaires Thrive Despite the Uncertainty of Time
Inventive Execution: How Producers Bring Blockbusters to Market
Reversing the Risk Equation: How Producers Avoid Risks Others Take and Take Risks Others Avoid
The Producer–Performer Duality: How Producers Find Their Complement
The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #1: Self-made billionaires excel at juggling multiple ideas and perspectives.
The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #2: Self-made millionaires have creative ideas that keep consumers in mind.
The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #3: Running a multi-billion dollar business requires the right mix of time and timing.
The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #4: Self-made billionaires apply their imagination and innovation at every stage of product development.
The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #5: Billionaire producers have a different attitude toward risk than other entrepreneurs.
The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #6: Self-made billionaires know how to partner to create synergistic effects.
In Review: The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Book Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview


Motivational, Entrepreneurship, Business, Economics, Finance, Currency, Money, Self Help, Personal Development, Personal Finance, Management, Leadership, Organizational Behavior


This methodical study of self-made billionaires (not those who inherited most of their wealth) sheds light on how they got rich. The study challenges stereotypes. Most billionaires do not succeed alone or bloom young. Most made their fortunes after age 30 and in well-established, competitive industries. John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen of PricewaterhouseCoopers suggest that anyone can profit by adopting these billionaires’ “habits of mind and action,” such as profound empathy with consumer problems and the ability to identify creative solutions. The narrative distinguishes “Producers,” who bring together a range of resources and people with ability, from “Performers,” who have special talents in certain functions. getAbstract recommends this insightful overview of self-made billionaires’ decision-making processes – and its suggestions for ways to emulate them – to leaders, managers, entrepreneurs and up-and-comers of all stripes.


  • Most of the 120 self-made billionaires surveyed got rich in a non-tech field after age 30.
  • More than 80% made their fortune in established, competitive industries.
  • Many seem to be “Producers” who integrate resources from multiple disciplines to create value, as opposed to “Performers” who show talent in particular disciplines.
  • “Producers” take urgent short-term actions in pursuit of long-term rewards.
  • “Leadership partnerships” propelled many billionaires, like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who had a long managerial partnership with former CEO Steve Ballmer.
  • Self-made billionaires reap creative benefits with “divergent thinking.” Your firm can find similar benefits by supporting “positive deviance” among your employees.
  • The “Prospect Theory” introduced the concept of “loss aversion,” a tendency to feel greater dread about a possible loss than your level of desire for possible gain.
  • Self-made billionaire Cheung Yan takes a “relative view of risk,” and considers the consequences of action and inaction.
  • Corporations avoid risk and often falter due to poor risk management.
  • Firms should integrate the activities of their functional departments.


What do self-made billionaires have in common? Many of them were in management positions in large corporations before growing frustrated and setting out to achieve their vision alone –– or getting pushed out by superiors who didn’t like their unconventional leadership or work styles. Before Apple, Steve Jobs was Atari’s biggest unrecognized asset. Before AOL, Steve Case was the same for PepsiCo. These men — and dozens of other self-made billionaires — were forced to leave the shelter of their well-off firms and start their own empires.

This means that these corporations lost out big time because they failed to recognize the worth of the talent right under their noses. It’s true that these talents are unusual; self-made billionaires have particular habits, skills, and experiences that set them apart from the pack. But companies can learn to harness this talent by learning to identify the five traits that self-made billionaires possess:

  • Empathetic imagination: Self-made billionaires have great ideas because they think outside the box and empathize with their customers’ practical needs.
  • Patient urgency: Billionaires are able to patiently prepare for the exact right market circumstances to launch their product and then do so with ferocious energy.
  • Inventive execution: The self-made billionaire doesn’t see any part of their product or launch plan as set in stone; rather, they are able and willing to reinvent any aspect as needed.
  • Relative view of risk: Self-made billionaires understand that losing what you stand to gain is often a bigger risk than losing what you already have, so they avoid the risk of missing out on opportunities.
  • Producer–performer partnership: The self-made billionaire recognizes that they must partner with a “performer” whose unique and specific skills complement their ability to harness that talent.

Exploding Myths of Extreme Entrepreneurship

When Mitch Cohen and John Sviokla set out to review the existing studies on selfmade billionaires to find out the traits they had in common, they found that there weren’t really any such traits. All our so-called knowledge about billionaires came in the form of myths –– myths that Cohen and Sviokla quickly dispelled when they conducted a study with PricewaterhouseCoopers, a global tax, consulting, and professional services network.

The main ideas we hold about self-made billionaires are as follows:

  • The tech sector is the main source of their wealth.
  • They came up with brand-new ideas.
  • Luck was a major factor in their success.
  • They made their first billion at a young age.
  • Their ideas were overnight successes.

The reality is quite different. Of the sample Cohen and Sviokla carefully selected, which only included billionaires who made all their money themselves or increased their inherited wealth by a factor of at least 100, only 20% were in tech. Instead, 80% were in markets that were already highly competitive, not new and innovative. The fact that more than 90% were successful in multiple business ventures indicated that luck was not the determining factor. Most of those polled didn’t make their first billion until after 30 or even 40, and that was usually a result of years of hard work, starting at a young age.

Additionally, they didn’t have many external factors in common: Some grew up poor, and some affluent; some dropped out of college, while some earned doctoral degrees. Instead, it appeared that what these successful people had in common were particular habits of mind.

Cohen and Sviokla also found that, while corporate culture rewards “performers” — leaders who excel at one particular talent — self-made billionaires tend to be producers. Produces are those who have a vision, can gather the people and resources needed to make it happen, and then market it to customers who didn’t know what they were missing. They’re able to see how things could be but aren’t too blinded by idealism to carry out their goals realistically.

Most people aren’t great at this kind of dualistic thinking –– holding two ideas that seem to be in tension with one another –– but it’s the key trait that makes highly successful people stand out.

Empathetic Imagination: The Art of Designing the Blockbuster

The first duality is empathetic imagination. This is the producer’s ability to come up with extraordinary, profitable ideas based on intuitiveness about what customers need. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean developing a new market — most self-made billionaires’ products arose in markets that already seemed saturated.

Spanx, for example, became a bestseller in an undergarment market already dominated by Hanes and L’eggs, but it offered a new and innovative take on the traditional form. Their design was born out of an intuitive understanding of what customers truly wanted out of undergarments without even realizing it.

Producers have a way of tapping into an idea that seems incredibly obvious in hindsight but that no one else has had both the vision and pragmatism to carry out before.

Patient Urgency: How Billionaires Thrive Despite the Uncertainty of Time

In addition to having unique ideas, producers have a unique perspective. While they’re ready to act at the drop of a hat if need be, they’re also comfortable with being patient and allowing an opportunity to ripen.

Eric Lefkofsky, for instance, had the idea for Groupon on the back burner for a long time. He knew that consumers wanted a business model like it. In fact, other entrepreneurs had tried and failed to launch similar businesses in the previous decade. But he also knew that it would require a social component that simply wasn’t possible until the arrival of social media. Once Facebook and Twitter were on the scene, he knew the time was right for Groupon, which he had patiently prepared. When the time was right, he acted with urgency to debut it. Because he waited until the market conditions were just right, Groupon was basically an overnight success.

Inventive Execution: How Producers Bring Blockbusters to Market

The third duality that sets producers apart is their flexibility regarding execution. Many companies adhere to a rigid plan when launching, but the ability to pivot and be creative is the key to self-made billionaires’ success. Producers are not only able but also willing to redesign any aspect of a product that might not work instead of just sticking to a projected outcome and hoping for the best.

When Michael Jaharis bought Key Pharmaceuticals, which he thought was a small but modestly profitable business, it turned out they were failing financially. Their main product, a long-acting nitroglycerin pill, was being proven ineffective in an industry that was recently required to show proof of effectiveness. In response, Jaharis reinvented the form and came up with a topical nitroglycerin patch that was so long-lasting, it brought the company back to life and led to an acquisition deal worth $2 billion.

Reversing the Risk Equation: How Producers Avoid Risks Others Take and Take Risks Others Avoid

It’s a common myth that billionaire entrepreneurs take huge risks, but that’s actually not true of producers. They don’t take outsized risks, but they don’t avoid risk either. Instead, they have a unique ability to view risk as relative –– to realistically evaluate cost and benefit.

Instead of being afraid to risk losing what they have, which is how most people operate, producers don’t want to risk missing out on a good opportunity. If an opportunity doesn’t pan out, they have the resiliency to try something else. While producers won’t typically take irrational risks –– unlike, say, famed Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who has broken world records with dangerous speedboat and hot-air-balloon trips –– they won’t take the risk of losing future career opportunities by not making a move out of fear of failure. Further, they understand that the consequences of failure are manageable.

Compare Steve Jobs to one of his original partners at Apple, Ron Wayne. Wayne had already launched a business that failed, and he went to work at Atari, where Jobs also worked. When Jobs launched Apple, he asked Wayne to be the third partner to balance out his vision and Steve Wozniak’s talent. But he was so afraid of the consequences of the company’s failure that he backed out just days after the paperwork was filed. Jobs, meanwhile, took a relative view of the risk of failure versus the risk of not taking this leap, and it paid dividends.

The Producer–Performer Duality: How Producers Find Their Complement

The final duality that works so well for producers is one that goes against the myth of the solo genius. Self-made billionaires actually don’t do it alone –– rather, they’re exceptionally good at choosing the people to help them make it happen. Producers excel at bringing together all the elements needed to execute an outstanding idea, and one of those elements is the perfectly complementary performer.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the original partner and engineer of Apple, are a famous example of a highly successful producer–performer pair. Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight of Nike are another. Bloomberg LP’s Michael Bloomberg found his complement in Tom Secunda; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg found his in Sheryl Sandberg; and Microsoft’s Bill Gates found his in Paul Allen.

The producer has a knack for choosing the right performer and creating the environment that brings out the best in their specific talents.

The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #1: Self-made billionaires excel at juggling multiple ideas and perspectives.

What does it take to be a billionaire these days? To reach such heights, you have to approach your goal very differently than the average entrepreneur. In a constantly changing world, you no longer have the luxury of focusing on one thing at a time; you have to learn how to juggle multiple ideas.

Self-made billionaires maintain multiple ideas and perspectives, both big and small, at all times. Most people and companies will try to focus on one thing at a time to avoid complications. But others, like Bill Gates, achieve their success by operating in an environment of dualities, managing multiple ideas and actions simultaneously.

Bill Gates demonstrates not only the success of handling multiple ideas, but also of juggling multiple companies at the same time. It’s a little known fact that while running Microsoft, Gates also started Corbis, a photo and video licensing company, as well as Cascade Investment, a holding and investment company.

This mindset of embracing duality, of juggling different ideas and investments at the same time, are common among producers. These are people who have a clear vision and bring innovative ideas to the table. Producers can unite the right kinds of people and know how to use all their resources to their advantage.

On the other side of coin are the performers. These are talented and highly specialized people who excel in a specific field.

We can look at Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the couple behind the successful juice company POM Wonderful, as an example of how producers and performers work together successfully.

Lynda is a natural born producer who brought together all her skills to identify a great product and create the right marketing strategy to sell it. Stewart is the performer who balances the budget and oversees the company’s operations and finances. This way, Stewart can keep Lynda in check if she goes overboard in the creative department and can make sure the company continues to make a profit.

Rather than focusing on one idea at a time, self-made billionaires embrace the power of duality. The following book summarys will reveal the five most important dualities.

The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #2: Self-made millionaires have creative ideas that keep consumers in mind.

So what is the unique set of skills that enable self-made billionaires to reach this elite level of success?

A billion-dollar business idea begins with something called empathic imagination: a merging of creative ideas with an understanding of and empathy for potential customers’ needs.

To come up with these ideas, billionaire producers must be experts in divergent thinking, that is, freeing your mind to allow for competing ideas in order to find a novel solution to a problem.

For example, in the early 1980s, finding information on different mutual funds was a time-consuming process. Entrepreneur Joe Mansueto empathized with how frustrating this was for investors, and came up with a solution to assemble the information and make it easier to digest: he took $80,000 of savings and created Morningstar, a publication that would provide investment data in a simple and accessible format.

Mansueto’s thinking paid off. Mutual funds went on to become a mainstream investment tool and, as a result, Morningstar became a leading investment research and management firm.

Blockbuster ideas like this are the product of empathy and insight that comes from years of market research, as well as a gut feeling for what investors and customers want.

This was the case for Hui Lin Chit during the 1970s in China. He started by manufacturing zippers for clothing and later founded an apparel company; neither business turned out to be a smashing success. But Mr. Chit knew precisely who his target customers should be, namely low-income women in rural China, and understood their needs well.

Mr. Chit would seize the opportunity when a friend brought up the subject of sanitary napkins. Mr. Chit bought a machine to manufacture them for $80,000 and produced a product that was cleaner, safer and preferable to what his customers were using at the time. His company, Hengan International, is now one of China’s leading domestic manufacturers.

The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #3: Running a multi-billion dollar business requires the right mix of time and timing.

The old saying is true – time is money. But for a billionaire idea, it’s also true that timing is money.

Self-made billionaires know the importance of when to be patient and when to take action.

Take Steve Case for example. During the 1970s, he took ten years to patiently gain experience at companies like Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo before taking action and forever changing the way we communicate as the co-founder of America Online (AOL).

Steve Case saw his opportunity in 1984 when his brother introduced him to Control Video, an early interactive video game company. This venture was ultimately unsuccessful, but it connected him to the people with whom he would go on to create AOL. Some people might have called AOL an overnight success – but Case jokes that, to him, it was ten years in the making!

As you can see, to be a self-made billionaire, you have to be patient and await your chance. But you also can’t hesitate to take action when presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Alex Spanos is one such billionaire who seized the moment. Spanos started out selling sandwiches to migrant farm workers in California. But he saw an opportunity when the local farmers kept asking him if he knew where they could hire more workers. After all, more workers would mean greater demand for his sandwiches.

When Spanos drove down to the Mexican border town of El Centro to see what he could find out, he met another farmer who had just hired 350 new workers and desperately needed housing facilities for them. Spanos jumped at this chance as well, and agreed to help the farmer – even though he wasn’t exactly sure how. He ended up investing the profits from his sandwich business into building homes for the workers.

His willingness to take action paid off. The resulting housing facilities became his first step into the real estate market, a business venture that would ultimately make him a billionaire.

The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #4: Self-made billionaires apply their imagination and innovation at every stage of product development.

So let’s say you have that billion-dollar idea. Now comes the question of how you successfully get that idea into the marketplace!

This is done through inventive execution, a process that combines imagination and design to bring problem-solving products into the market. This is something great producers do: they think up a new product while simultaneously designing it for optimum value.

As a result, producers can take action even when a market appears saturated by redesigning or changing an existing product to reach a broader audience. By reevaluating a product’s design, pricing, method of delivery and marketing, you can take it from a niche market into the mainstream.

This is what Micky Arison did as CEO of the cruise ship company Carnival Corporation & plc. He was only in his thirties when his father named him his successor at the head of the company. And with only three ships in their fleet, business was slow.

But Arison was eager to make an impact and redesign the cruising experience in a way that would turn the company into a billion-dollar business. To do this, he decided to market cruises as something everyone could afford, not just the wealthy. So, he dramatically expanded the number of ships in the company’s fleet to lower costs and, by the late-1980s, Carnival was the leading cruise brand worldwide.

When you pay attention to the details of product design, you’ll see that ideas powered by inventive execution can flourish when inserted into major markets. But as we’ll see in the next book summary, product design isn’t everything. Launching your idea into an existing market requires a good sense of risk management as well.

The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #5: Billionaire producers have a different attitude toward risk than other entrepreneurs.

Since our current economic climate is constantly changing, being a risk taker is essential for survival. But are successful entrepreneurs always rewarded for extreme and fearless risk taking?

What billionaire producers have is a relative view of risk. In contrast to other entrepreneurs, this gives them a better assessment of their potential gains against their potential losses.

Studies show that billionaires actually don’t take more or greater risks than the average entrepreneur. According to renowned scientist Daniel Kahneman’s theories on human decision making, what separates billionaires from other people is that they are simply less afraid of losing what they have in the pursuit to earn more.

Zhang Yin displayed this attitude when she decided to shut down her successful paper-trading company in Hong Kong and start over in the United States. The risk paid off: with her husband, she launched the company America Chung Nam, which became the leading paper exporter in the United States and made Zhang Yin one of the richest people in China.

It doesn’t always work out so smoothly. But even when losses happen, future billionaires will display perseverance and try again.

This resilience can be seen in former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 1981, after eight years of employment and having become the company’s head of equity trading, Bloomberg was fired from his job at the Salomon Brothers investment bank. Despite his credentials, he had a hard time finding a new job. But he didn’t give up.

Instead, he decided to start the financial software company Bloomberg L.P. The company grew to over 15,000 employees and has spawned a radio network and TV station. Bloomberg took yet another successful risk in 2002 by leaving his company to launch a political career as the mayor of New York City.

These examples show us that producers are not afraid to risk what they already have when opportunity knocks. And their persistence in the face of setbacks shows us that success can come from being open to new ideas, taking chances and learning from our mistakes.

The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Key Idea #6: Self-made billionaires know how to partner to create synergistic effects.

It should be noted that most of the self-made billionaires in this book summary didn’t transform their ideas into multi-billion dollar enterprises alone; this was accomplished by finding the right partner: a performer.

Putting together the right producer and performer is like finding the yin and yang of a successful business. The right partners will complement each other with their respective skill sets and will show a mutual trust and support that allows the other to succeed.

One such famous partnership is that of Apple Computers’ Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Both had a vision of launching a product that could change both people’s lives and the marketplace. And they both knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses when it came to doing business: Jobs focused on the business side of Apple and Wozniak focused on product technology.

With this balance of responsibilities, producers and performers can each play to their strengths and grow their business as efficiently as possible.

Consider Mike and Marian Ilitch, who turned Little Caesars Pizza into the United States’ third-largest pizza restaurant chain.

Because of his empathic imagination, Mike took on the producer role, spending hours in the kitchen testing recipes and coming up with the famous marketing slogan “Pizza Pizza”. As a self-taught accountant, Marian took on the performer role, managing the finances and helping Little Caesars grow to a $2 billion company.

You can think of a producer without a performer as a bird without wings. They might know where to go, but without the necessary help, they won’t be able to take off. Combined with empathic imagination, a relative view of risk, patient urgency and inventive execution, business partnerships are the final key to billion-dollar success.

In Review: The Self-Made Billionaire Effect Book Summary

The key message in this book summary:

Billionaires thrive in a world full of complexities due in large part to their ability to practice dual thinking. With enough training and dedication, anyone can develop and increase their working memory and juggle multiple ideas. By honing these mental habits, you can take your first big steps toward a business breakthrough.

Actionable advice:

Give your employees some think time!

Allow employees who show the potential to become successful producers to have some think time: dedicated time that can be set aside for them to come up with new projects and ideas.


Studying Self-Made Billionaires

The academic research on self-made billionaires is sparse. Few researchers have systematically assessed billionaires who made their fortunes instead of inheriting them. This need for original research led to an intensive study of 120 self-made billionaires, including interviews with some of them, to determine how they generated so much wealth. Many of the study’s observations challenge broadly held notions – that self-made tycoons are all young Internet-driven tyros – of what makes entrepreneurs exceptionally successful:

  • Not just tech – Fewer than 20% made their fortunes in technology.
  • Maturity matters – More than 70% of the self-made billionaires in the study group succeeded after age 30.
  • Older industries – More than 80% got rich in older, competitive industries, not in new industries with few rivals.
  • Practice makes perfect – Nearly 70% owned a business by age 30. These early ventures taught them new, important skills and improved their existing ones.
  • More than luck – More than 90% started more than one profitable business; they did not luck into their professional success.

“Producers” Versus “Performers”

Performers show exceptional talent in certain functions, while Producers bring disparate talent together with other resources to create value. Many self-made billionaires seem to be “natural-born Producers” – they are dynamically responsive to the need to alter plans to make an idea a reality. They “adjust…business models” on the fly to optimize their design.

“What enables self-made billionaires to create such massive value?”

Few people get a chance to make a “billion-dollar idea” a reality, but everyone can take steps to make their work more valuable. Many self-made billionaires report several different ways of assessing and seizing opportunities, including:

  • “Empathetic imagination” – Producers have deep empathy for consumers and prove exceptionally imaginative in conceiving solutions for them.
  • “Patient urgency” – Producers concede their inability to predict the best time to invest in a venture. Instead, they “work fast, slow, super slow and in all of these modes at the same time” while waiting for the right opportunity to unfold.
  • “Inventive execution” – Businesses typically segregate creative tasks from operations. But successful producers execute with an integrated, inventive, cross-functional strategy.
  • “Relative view of risk” – Self-made billionaires consider potential losses on an investment and the opportunity costs of declining a potentially profitable investment.
  • “Leadership partnership” – Few become billionaires alone. Producers usually build exceptional businesses by sharing leadership with a skillful Performer.

A Billion-Dollar Idea

Self-made billionaires ignite their creativity with “divergent thinking” – making new associations in a “free flow of different ideas” to solve a problem. Performers focus on incremental progress and resist untried ideas. “True Producers” fight the urge to reject an idea because it poses execution challenges or has a high probability of failure. Company leaders must support such “positive deviance” alongside operational improvement.

“Why aren’t existing corporations able to create massive value the way these self-made billionaires have?”

The book Blue Ocean Strategy defines “blue oceans” as new markets with few competitors and “red oceans” as established, “bloody” markets where fierce competition prevails. Producers pay little attention to such distinctions, and, undaunted, venture where they please. Their arenas “all look purple,” because billionaires imagine new approaches to satisfying older, contested markets. Eighty percent of the billionaires in the study got rich in red oceans – hard-fought markets in which they identified outsized opportunities. They include:

Hui Lin Chit, Hengan International

Billionaire Hui Lin Chit once was a farmer in the Anhui region of China in the 1970s. The Chinese government introduced economic reforms that included allowing private company ownership. Hui started a zipper factory, which required little capital, but drew many competitors who started their own factories. Hui diversified into small-scale apparel manufacturing, and he turned to producing sanitary napkins, targeting his affordable, high-quality product toward overlooked lower-income women. Procter & Gamble entered the Chinese market in 1985 with a line of expensive feminine products for wealthy women. Hui “expanded up-market.” By 1992, he turned his company, Hengan International, into P&G’s direct competitor. Hengan is now China’s largest domestic producer of sanitary napkins, tissues and disposable diapers.

Eric Lefkosky, Groupon

The founder of Groupon, the online discount service individualized to various cities, always projects his business thinking into the future. Building on his success, Eric Lefkosky and his business partner run a venture capital firm called Lightbank. They focus on trends that are likely to emerge over the next decade. For instance, they expect that biotechnology and life science will be as prosperous in the future as Internet ventures are today. To prepare for this slow-developing opportunity, Lefkosky works at a brisk pace building his portfolio of companies and new products. “We do everything quickly,” he says.

Steve Case, AOL

Internet service provider America Online (AOL) seemed to be a sudden success story when it became popular across the US in the mid-1990s. But CEO Steve Case, who helped start the company in 1985, found that success resulted from an extended struggle. It was not sudden at all. “I used to say AOL was an overnight success 10 years in the making,” Case says. Before AOL could launch its online service, it faced many time-consuming tasks – including forging partnerships with telecommunications hardware manufacturers and network service providers. It also had to develop easy-to-use software.

Alex Spanos, Real Estate Developer

Alex Spanos waited for his big opportunity while engaging in humbler pursuits. A son of Greek immigrants, he devoted most of his 20s to working in his father’s small bakery in Stockton, California. At 27, he started working for himself, initially selling sandwiches to seasonal workers at local San Joaquin Valley farms. He diversified into arranging temporary shelter for those workers, and that led to real estate development. Spanos eventually became the most prolific apartment builder in the United States. He also owns the San Diego Chargers football team.

Sunil Mittal, Bharti Enterprises

Indian entrepreneur Sunil Mittal imported generators into India until the Indian government prohibited generators from other countries and put him out of business. His experience informed his decision to import, and later manufacture, phones and other telecommunications hardware. In the 1990s, Mittal acted urgently to acquire telecom licenses as the government privatized the industry. In 1994, he negotiated a deal with British Telecom and Telecom Italia to offer mobile phone and Internet service through Bharti Airtel, an Indian telecom company. An initial public stock offering in 2002 made Mittal a billionaire.

Creative Execution

The story of Key Pharmaceuticals is a lesson in inventive execution. Michael Jaharis – co-founder of Vatera Healthcare Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in health care businesses – and his business partner Phillip Frost acquired Key Pharmaceuticals in 1982. It seemed profitable, but the US Food and Drug Administration found that one of its main products, a supposedly long-acting nitroglycerin pill, did not work. Internal documents revealed that Key Pharmaceuticals was a money loser, contrary to its former managers’ representations before the sale.

“The fact that so many self-made billionaires held managerial positions in midsize to large firms before striking out on their own suggests [that firms] have the talent but haven’t taken the time to identify or nurture it.”

Rather than jettison the company and cut his losses, Jaharis pushed ahead with a redesign of its existing products. Notably, he oversaw the development of a patch, instead of a pill, to deliver nitroglycerin. The Nitro-Dur patch made Key Pharmaceuticals profitable. In 1986, Jaharis and Frost sold the company to Schering-Plough for $836 million.

“As a rule, companies do a poor job of recognizing the differentiated nature of the talent they have.”

Many self-made billionaires gained sales experience on their path to fortune. Dallas Mavericks owner and serial entrepreneur Mark Cuban once sold business software, for example. Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson sold newspaper advertising. Making deals requires salesmanship, a learnable skill like other Producer capabilities. By repeatedly making sales proposals, Producers hone their ability to craft a compelling message that serves as the framework, or “design,” of a deal in which the “audience is everything.”

“It may be difficult to imagine that Producers will just emerge from this line of inquiry, but our experience from applying the lessons of this book to…recruitment is that the results are not ambiguous. You know when a Producer is in the room.”

Like Producers, companies can execute creatively by taking an integrative approach that blends talent and resources drawn from normally segregated departments. Another tactic is to launch pilot programs that give your Producers the opportunity to “think and do.” Too many companies invest too much in planning and too little in prototypes “engaging directly with customers.”

Relativity of Risk

At age 27, Cheung Yan invested her savings to start a company in Hong Kong to supply paper pulp to mainland Chinese manufacturers. In 1999, when the pulp supply business was five years old and growing, she closed it and relocated to California to restart her business life, even though she spoke only “tentative English” and knew almost no one in the US. Within 10 years, she turned her California business, America Chung Nam, into the US’s leading exporter of paper. Cheung relocated because China had limited resources for making high-quality paper products. North America and Europe have forests, tree farms, and paper waste “spilling out of homes and offices.” Her “relative view of risk” accounted for the possible consequences of inaction.

“There are clear paths to wealth, but there is no tried-and-true road to mega-wealth.”

Billionaire-class resilience includes being able to sustain a “relative view after a setback.” Real estate developer Stephen Ross founded the Related Companies and earned a fortune after he’d lost two Wall Street jobs in less than three years. His failures in working for someone else proved somewhat typical. About one in four self-made billionaires in the study “had unstable experiences as employees.” They traded the risk of inaction for the risk of working for themselves.

“Self-made billionaires thrive in an environment of shifting variables.”

The concepts of “prospect theory” and “loss aversion” help calibrate the idea of relative risk. Loss aversion is a tendency to feel more fear about a possible loss than eagerness over a possible gain. Self-made billionaires are not all-or-nothing gamblers. They tend to keep a reserve of liquid assets in case their business investments backfire. The billionaires in the study expanded their skills by building companies, one after the other. Serial entrepreneurship bodes well for the survival of new ventures, says a study by the nonprofit Kauffman Foundation. Corporations and the Performers they employ may claim they “manage” risk, but actually, they avoid it. Producers see risk differently and do not allow defeats to thwart them.

Powerful Partnerships

Leadership partnerships are common among self-made billionaires. Mark Cuban, a Producer, worked closely with detail-oriented Martin Woodall, a Performer, in their multimillion-dollar business, MicroSolutions. Bill Gates, a Producer, had a longstanding partnership with former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, a Performer, during the time when the company created the majority of its value. Partnerships of two Producers can generate outstanding results. Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, are both Producers; its CEO Eric Schmidt is a Performer.

“These are people who have dealt with the world as it is, made excruciating choices and placed bets based on hard reality.”

Most executive searches target Performers, not Producers. Boards of directors too frequently describe their executive search choices as the difference between one Performer and another. They would achieve better outcomes if they sought and selected Producers instead of Performers. Companies should elevate their Producers and match them with complementary Performers. Working together, they can bring fresh vigor to their employers. Managers must differentiate between company initiatives that need a Producer in the lead and those that demand a Performer.


By being uniquely capable of allowing two characteristics to complement each other — rather than holding them in tension with one another as most people do — producers are able to envision, cultivate, and execute blockbuster ideas that turn them into successful billionaires. Because these habits of mind are not what’s traditionally rewarded in companies, producers typically step away from someone else’s organization in one way or another and create value on an incredible scale on their own. But if companies want to channel this talent and not miss out on the potential to create value, they must redefine how they think and behave.

First, companies have to change what they look for. When creating a new product or service, don’t automatically give the leadership position to a performer –– someone who’s already been in charge of a proven product or service –– but look for someone who has created an opportunity. Instead of hiring someone to improve the sales of a product, for example, hire someone to change the product. Companies must be conscious of the fact that employees who “fit in” are probably performers, and they should seek to identify those who have atypical experiences, ideas, and attitudes. After all, producers are often categorized as “deviants.”

Companies should also focus on recognizing and cultivating any natural performer–pro-ducer partnerships they already have, and to hire producers who will further bring out the talents of their performers.

Finally, company culture has to change. If a producer tried a new idea and it failed — whether because of the idea, the timing, or the execution — most companies would shame the producer in some shape or form. Yet most of these selfmade billionaires are very clear about the ways in which they’ve failed in the past and how those failures were learning experiences. To encourage producers to cultivate their talents at a company, shame needs to be removed from the equation.

Companies must remember that though these dualistic habits of mind may seem unorthodox and unfamiliar, they’re traits proven to be common to some of the most successful people in the world.

About the author

John Sviokla is head of global thought leadership at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC). Mitch Cohen is vice chairman of PwC.

John Sviokla earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate from Harvard University and served on the Harvard faculty for 12 years. He was vice chairman and chief innovation officer at Diamond Management Consultants before becoming principal and US advisory innovation leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

JOHN SVIOKLA is head of Global Thought Leadership at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP). He serves a variety of Fortune 500 clients on the topics of strategy and innovation and runs The Exchange, the firm’s think tank. John has held various leadership roles at PwC as well as at other public and private companies. He was on the faculty of the Harvard Business School for twelve years. John has written for the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Sloan Management Review and has appeared on CNBC and Fox News.

Dr. John J. Sviokla is the head of Global Thought Leadership at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He has written for the Harvard Business Review, Strategy + Business and The Wall Street Journal. He also taught at the Harvard Business School for 12 years.

Mitch Cohen is vice chairman of PricewaterhouseCooper and oversees the US branch’s involvement in the firm’s global activities. He serves on the advisory board of the Smeal College of Business at the Pennsylvania State University, as well as the advisory board of DonorsChoose.

MITCH COHEN is vice chairman at PwC. During his thirty-three years at the firm, including more than twenty years as a partner, Cohen has held a variety of leadership roles and has served numerous Fortune 500 clients.

Mitch Cohen is a vice-chairman at PricewaterhouseCoopers. During his career, he has served a number of Fortune 500 clients. He also serves on the Advisory Board for Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Exploding Myths of Extreme Entrepreneur ship 7
2 Empathetic Imagination: The Art of Designing the Blockbuster 29
3 Patient Urgency: How Billionaires Thrive Despite the Uncertainty of Time 59
4 Inventive Execution: How Producers Bring Blockbusters to Market 85
5 Reversing the Risk Equation: How Producers Avoid Risks Others Take and Take Risks Others Avoid 113
5 The Producer-Performer Duality: How Producers Find Their Complement 143
Conclusion: Creating the Billionaire Effect 167
Acknowledgments 189
Appendix: Billionaires Who Appear in This Book 195
Notes 221
Index 237


In honor of The Self-Made Billionaire Effect purchases, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP is making a significant contribution to, an online charity that connects public school teachers in need of classroom materials and experiences with individual donors who want to help. PwC’s gift will support financial literacy projects around the country.

Imagine what Atari might have achieved if Steve Jobs had stayed there to develop the first massmarket personal computer. Or what Steve Case might have done for PepsiCo if he hadn’t left for a gaming start-up that eventually became AOL. What if Salomon Brothers had kept Michael Bloomberg, or Bear Stearns had exploited the inventive ideas of Stephen Ross?

Scores of top-tier entrepreneurs worked for established corporations before they struck out on their own and became self-made billionaires. People like Mark Cuban, John Paul DeJoria, Sara Blakely, and T. Boone Pickens all built businesses—in some cases, multiple businesses—that are among today’s most iconic brands. This fact raises two profound questions: Why couldn’t their former employers hang on to to these extraordinarily talented people? And why are most big companies unable to create as much new value as the world’s roughly 800 self-made billionaires?

John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen decided to look more closely at self-made billionaires because creating $1 billion or more in value is an incredible feat. Drawing on extensive research and interviews, the authors concluded that many of the myths perpetuated about billionaires are simply not true. These billionaires aren’t necessarily smarter, harder working, or luckier than their peers. They aren’t all prodigies, crossing the billionaire finish line in their twenties. Nor, most of the time, do they create something brand-new: More than 80 percent of the billionaires in the research sample earned their billions in highly competitive industries.

The key difference is what the authors call the “Producer” mind-set, in contrast with the far more pervasive “Performer” mind-set. Performers strive to excel in well-defined areas, and are important. But Producers are critical to any company looking to create massive value because they redefine what’s possible, rather than simply meeting preexisting goals and standards. Combining sound judgment with imaginative vision, Producers think up entirely new products, services, strategies, and business models.

Big companies tend to reward Performers and discourage the unconventional ways of Producers. But it’s the latter who integrate multiple ideas, perspectives, and actions, and who trust their insights enough to make game-changing bets.

This book breaks down the five critical habits of mind of massive value-creators, so you can learn how to identify, encourage, and retain such individuals—and maybe even become one yourself. The Self-made Billionaire Effect will forever change the way you think about talent and business value.

* * * * *

Imagine what Atari might have achieved if Steve Jobs had stayed there to develop the first massmarket personal computer. Or what Steve Case might have done for PepsiCo if he hadn’t left for a gaming start-up that eventually became AOL. What if Salomon Brothers had kept Michael Bloomberg, or Bear Stearns had exploited the inventive ideas of Stephen Ross? Scores of top-tier entrepreneurs worked for established corporations before they struck out on their own and became self-made billionaires. People like Mark Cuban, John Paul DeJoria, Sara Blakely, and T. Boone Pickens all built businesses – in some cases, multiple businesses – that are among today’s most iconic brands. This fact raises two profound questions: Why couldn’t their former employers hang on to these extraordinarily talented people? And why are most big companies unable to create as much new value as the world’s roughly 800 self-made billionaires?

John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen decided to look more closely at self-made billionaires because creating $1 billion or more in value is an incredible feat. Drawing on extensive research and interviews, the authors concluded that many of the myths perpetuated about billionaires are simply not true. These billionaires aren’t necessarily smarter, harder working, or luckier than their peers. They aren’t all prodigies, crossing the billionaire finish line in their 20s. Nor, most of the time, do they create something brand-new: More than 80 percent of the billionaires in the research sample earned their billions in highly competitive industries. The key difference is what the authors call the “Producer” mind-set, in contrast with the far more pervasive “Performer” mind-set. Performers strive to excel in well-defined areas, and are important. But Producers are critical to any company looking to create massive value because they redefine what’s possible, rather than simply meeting preexisting goals and standards.


One of Business Insider’s “15 of the Best Business Books Coming Out in 2015”

“The first billion is the hardest. I know from experience. If you are interested in giving it a shot, The Self-made Billionaire Effect is a good starting point. Great research. Great stories. Great opportunity.”
—T. BOONE PICKENS, Chairman, BP Capital Management

“A fabulous profile of value creation that all organizations need to ponder as they build talent for the future.”

—THOMAS COLLIGAN, former Vice Dean and Director, Aresty Institute of Executive Education, The Wharton School

“Fresh, provocative and insightful, The Self-made Billionaire Effect will challenge your thinking about how entrepreneurs succeed in creating mega-hit businesses. This is a racy read, where storytelling and personalities carry some important lessons to be considered and applied even for those working in stable and slower-growth businesses.”

—DONALD J. GOGEL, Chairman and CEO, Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, Inc.

“This well-researched, fun-to-read book provides top management with a set of insights vital for finding and keeping the talent needed to design and deliver breakthrough value.”

—LINDA A. HILL, Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Collective Genius

“John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen have mined a rich vein—self–made billionaires—in an attempt to find common patterns. What I particularly admire is their nuanced insights: these men and women are not solitary, risk seeking, creative, overnight successes. They work in teams; they manage risks and rewards; they are as good at execution as they are at ideation; and they have been on roller coasters, not rocket ships. Their wisdom is invaluable for entrepreneurs and managers. I recommend it highly.”
—WILLIAM A. SAHLMAN, Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School and coauthor of New Business Ventures and the Entrepreneur

“Massive success does require luck. But it also requires unusual ways of approaching problems. This is one of the most thoughtful books I’ve seen on what the outliers do to make it more likely their attempts will change the world.”

—ASTRO TELLER, Captain of Moonshots, Google[x]

Video and Podcast

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview


Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect. —MARK TWAIN

Imagine what Atari might have achieved in the early 1980s if Steve Jobs had worked inside to develop the first mass-market personal computer? What might Steve Case have done for PepsiCo if he had decided to stay rather than join the gaming start-up that would eventually become AOL? Would Redken have been the first hair care brand to explode the market for salon-quality hair products if John Paul Mitchell Systems cofounder John Paul DeJoria had not been fired for his unconventional sales leadership style? Would Miles Laboratories have succeeded if it had pursued the idea posed by Michael Jaharis, then a young lawyer in its ranks, to proactively brand and market acetaminophen years before Tylenol became a household name? What if Salomon Brothers had kept Michael Bloomberg, or Bear Stearns had exploited the inventive ideas of Stephen Ross?

Jobs, Case, DeJoria, Jaharis, Bloomberg, and Ross, as well as founder Mark Cuban, Celtel founder Mo Ibrahim, oil-and-gas magnate T. Boone Pickens, and scores of other extreme entrepreneurs all worked for established corporations before they struck out on their own. Some fled corporate constraints. Others were pushed out. Each one became a self-made billionaire. They all built businesses—in some cases multiple businesses—that are among the most iconic brands today. The influence of these and the roughly eight hundred other living self-made billionaires is so widespread that few people anywhere in the world can go a day without using, seeing, or in some way encountering the products and services they have created.

But what might their former employers have become if these exceptional value creators had decided to pursue and produce their ideas inside the organizations? Put a different way, why aren’t existing corporations able to create massive value the way these self-made billionaires have? In so many cases, large corporations had the literal talent necessary do so—the self-made billionaires worked for them.

That latter question is top of mind for today’s business leaders—smart, experienced, successful managers who are seeing their organizations pushed to the limits by rapid change. In today’s environment all the base assumptions of how to build and sustain value are constantly in flux: What makes for efficient scale? Who are our competitors? Who are our customers? What do they want? Who owns what? Where is the risk? In a recent CEO survey conducted by PwC, more than half of the respondents predicted they would need to change their strategy either incrementally or wholesale in the coming years. Nearly 70 percent of those same respondents said they were concerned about talent issues, and 25 percent did not pursue a clear opportunity in the past year because they believed they didn’t have the talent to take advantage of it.1 The fact that so many self-made billionaires held managerial positions in midsize to large firms before striking out on their own suggests that the survey respondents just might be wrong about this issue. They have the talent but haven’t taken the time to identify or nurture it.

Taken together, these responses make clear that business leaders are uncertain about how to tackle the particular challenge of continually creating value in today’s environment. Throughout their careers these leaders have taken care to cultivate and promote managers with sound judgment—that celebrated ability to see the world as it is and to make smart, strategic decisions based on reality. Judgment works best when the rules of the game are well established, when the variables are known. But what do you do in a changing world where the variables keep shifting?

To answer that question we decided to look more closely at the leaders and the businesses that have thrived in our era of constant change. Despite the challenges of the day, despite the apparent mismatch between available skills and huge opportunities, there is a group of people creating value at an explosive pace and scale—self-made billionaires. We defined self-made billionaires as those individuals who create wealth of more than $1 billion through entrepreneurial activity; even those who inherited some financial resources or an existing business can qualify as self-made if they expand the value of that resource on the order of 100X or more.

In 2012, there were more than eight hundred self-made billionaires worldwide; they made up more than two thirds of the total billionaire population.2 Overall, billionaire wealth has grown faster than the world economy, more than tripling from 2 percent to 7 percent of GDP between 1987 and 2012.

Why did we focus on self-made billionaires? Because creating a billion dollars or more in value is an incredible feat. If you have discipline and you work hard, you can become a top-notch accountant or a lawyer. Years of dedication and a little luck might propel you to partner status at PwC or a law firm, or perhaps into the C-suite at a Fortune 500 firm. Do that and you will likely achieve multimillionaire status, but your chances of becoming a billionaire along that path are almost zero. There are clear paths to wealth, but there is no tried-and-true road to megawealth. Billionaires have to do something extraordinary to make it as far as they do. Good luck plays a role, but luck will only allow a million-dollar idea to bring in a million dollars’ worth of value. Becoming a billionaire requires luck and a great deal more.

Self-made billionaires thrive in an environment of shifting variables. Take Dietrich Mateschitz, the founder of Red Bull, who has generated cultish devotion for a drink that even devoted fans agree tastes like cough syrup. Or Sara Blakely, a fax saleswoman/stand-up comic, who had the all-too-common problem of visible panty lines under her white pants. Spanx, the hosiery company she created to make the product she wanted, earned accolades from self-made billionaire tastemaker Oprah Winfrey and generated explosive growth in an era when hosiery stalwarts were seeing their revenues plummet. Or Joe Mansueto, the soft-spoken founder of Morningstar, who at the age of twenty-three was forced to sift through dozens of mutual fund prospectuses in order to manage his fledgling personal investment portfolio. Surrounded by piles of paper, he thought, “Gee, this could be a business.” Mateschitz, Blakely, Mansueto, and hundreds of others—these are the people creating hugely profitable businesses in today’s world.

When we looked more closely at self-made billionaires, we found that sound judgment was not in short supply. These are people who have dealt with the world as it is, made excruciating choices, and placed bets based on hard realities. But what truly makes them stand out is that their judgment is balanced by extraordinary imaginative vision.

Cultivating a balance of judgment and vision is a challenging task. Findings from neuroscience suggest that for most people, judgment and imagination sit on opposite ends of a mental spectrum. The more skilled one is at seeing things as they are (judgment) the harder it is to see things as they might be (imagination).3 But somehow, the population of self-made billionaires manages to defeat the binary mental spectrum that places judgment and imagination in opposition to each other.

The tactics and habits we identified that allow self-made billionaires to achieve that balance are the core of this book. They suggest practices that companies and individuals can adopt to enhance their value-creation capabilities.

So what is the source of the self-made billionaire effect? What allows them to create such massive value? How do they rise above the apparent trade-off between judgment and imagination? What other skills, habits, life experiences, or talents distinguish them from the pack? And most important, what can these insights teach us about the talent we as executives need to find and cultivate in order to thrive in challenging times?

We begin to answer these questions in Chapter 1, where we present our foundational findings on what makes self-made billionaires different from the average corporate executive. The findings not only surprised us, they also changed the way we think about executive talent and what we need to look for in the talent we bring into business and nurture.


The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. —F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

In 1984, Dietrich Mateschitz was a bored, forty-year-old marketing executive at the German cosmetics company Blendax. He spent his days peddling toothpaste and cosmetics to retailers around the world. “All I could see was the same grey airplanes, the same grey suits, the same grey faces. All the hotel bars looked the same, and so did the women in them. I asked myself whether I wanted to spend the next decade as I’d spent the previous one.” 1 Then on a routine trip to Thailand—like dozens of others he had taken—Mateschitz had an insight that would change his career.

While reading the newspaper one morning at his hotel, Mateschitz learned that the Japanese manufacturer of a line of supersweet “health” drinks popular in Asia was the biggest taxpayer in Japan. Mateschitz knew the drinks and had taken them for the energy boost they gave as an antidote to jet lag. There was nothing like them in the West. That they were a huge moneymaker had never occurred to Mateschitz, and he decided right then to quit his job and start a company to manufacture and market the drinks in Europe.

Within a few years, Red Bull, the business Mateschitz founded with Thai business associate Chaleo Yoovidhya—a toothpaste manufacturer who also had a sideline in beverages—had launched its signature carbonated beverage in Mateschitz’s native Austria and in Slovenia. Within a decade Red Bull was in the UK, Germany, and eventually in the enormous beverage market in the United States. In all of the markets it entered, Red Bull became an almost overnight sensation. Red Bull was the first in what became, during the 1990s and 2000s, a burgeoning market of “energy” drinks, a beverage category that is neither a sports drink like Gatorade nor an amped-up soda like Mountain Dew. Red Bull charged through as a supersweet, caffeine-infused carbonated beverage that merged the appeal of sweet sodas and extreme sports into something entirely new: a drink that “gives you wings.” Mateschitz redesigned the beverage to be a carbonated, less concentrated version of the syrupy shots he was inspired by, and he redesigned the traditional soda can as an eight-ounce bullet shape that signaled to the buyer that this was not just another cola.

Today, Red Bull is far more than the drink that carries its name. It is a media company; a Formula 1 franchise; a Nascar franchise; a sponsor of mountain climbers and skiers and other extreme sportsmen; a “philosophy,” as its founder has said, of life lived in a heightened state of adrenaline-fused activity—all bred from the modest foundations of a good idea.2


The story of how Dietrich Mateschitz built his brand empire reads on the surface like many examples of extreme entrepreneurial success—there is the serendipitous moment of revelation, the useful connections to the right people, the willingness to risk his career on an uncertain venture. Yet not every insight, every business connection, every risk taken results in a billion dollars of value. That success is not evenly distributed across the range of good ideas made us ask the question that lies at the root of this book: namely, what enables self-made billionaires to create such massive value?

There are plenty of available truisms that get touted by thought leaders in response to that question. Extreme entrepreneurs take bigger risks, for example, or they focus on new markets. We didn’t know at the outset whether any of these ideas were true, but on their own they didn’t seem to explain the scale of success that these people achieve. Many people take risks, but very few reap high returns. Many entrepreneurs launch into new growth markets, but few emerge with a blockbuster hit.

The answer, we decided, was more complex. To find it, we first decided to dig deeper into the business literature to find what business scholars have to say from studying self-made billionaires. We expected to find a strong base of academic research focused on identifying the behaviors, characteristics, and secrets of success of self-made billionaires. What we found surprised us—in fact, no one had done a systematic study of self-made billionaires. We found plenty of isolated stories and first-person narratives culled from magazine profiles and autobiographies. But there have been only a few attempts at systematic evaluation of entrepreneurial success at any scale, and those evaluations often come to contradictory conclusions.3

Quickly it became clear that if we wanted answers, we would need to look for them ourselves. Ultimately, that was a good thing—we didn’t have to contend with prior research making strong conclusions that might influence our thinking.

We set up a research team in early 2012 at PwC, where Mitch is a vice chairman and John is the leader of Global Thought Leadership. To identify our research subjects, we took the 2012 Forbes list “The World’s Billionaires” and eliminated people who had inherited their wealth from a parent, a spouse, or other family member. We also removed billionaires operating in markets that lack the regulatory transparency to ensure fair play—all billionaires take advantage of economic conditions, but we chose to focus on those operating in environments where reasonably transparent and competitive markets predominate.4

Left with roughly 600 people, we randomly selected 120, adjusted to mirror the geographic and industry distribution of the larger sample, and set out to learn as much as we could about them. We collected everything we could find that had been written about our subjects and captured biographical details (place of origin, age, marital status, family makeup) and the trajectory of their careers (When did they start their first business? What were some of the key inflection points in the growth of their primary business? At what point did they transition from modest entrepreneur to massive value creator?). Simultaneously, we invited a number of the people on our list to participate in interviews with us so we could learn more about them.

As we began collecting data and conducting interviews it became almost immediately clear that a lot of the truisms that get touted as the keys to successful entrepreneurship didn’t stand up to the data we had. For instance:


Our tech-dominated era—populated by savvy wunderkinder—has left the impression that most self-made billionaires cross that billion-dollar finish line early in their careers. While it is true that people like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Mark Zuckerberg made their first billion while still quite young—and with the first companies they formed—the majority of people in our sample are like Dietrich Mateschitz, who didn’t hit the billion-dollar mark until well after his fortieth birthday. For more than 70 percent of the sample, the idea or transition that catapulted them to billion-dollar success happened after age thirty (see Figure 1-1).

Figure 1-1: Most Billionaires Are Already Mature Professionals When They Launch Their Blockbuster Idea


Technology dominance has also led many to believe that the main path for self-made entrepreneurs is the tech sector, which is so often held up as a bastion of new wealth and meritocracy, where anyone with a great idea and the willingness to code for long hours can rise to the top. In fact, less than 20 percent of our sample of self-made billionaires came from tech. The money management and the consumer products industries are not far behind tech in terms of the number of self-made billionaires. Overall, more than nineteen different industries were represented in our sample, including oil and gas, apparel, food and beverages, publishing, printing, real estate development, entertainment, and hotels, as well as technology and tech services, among others.

Greenfield Innovators

There is a general belief that self-made billionaires create “brand-new” things. To borrow a phrase from professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, of INSEAD, billionaires are believed to sail in “blue oceans.” There’s no question that exploring new market spaces has the potential to yield large profits, but it’s not the route that most self-made billionaires chart. More than 80 percent of our sample of self-made billionaires earned their billions in red oceans—highly competitive, mature industries.

Dietrich Mateschitz again offers a case in point for this fact—he inserted Red Bull as a new product category (the “energy” drink) into an existing beverage market. He signaled its difference from existing drinks with both the skinny 8.4-ounce can and a premium price more than double that of a can of Coke. Such seemingly small tweaks may not seem as awesome as a new market innovation, but the value is still there.


When we conducted a simple survey asking friends and colleagues about perceptions of self-made billionaires, we heard plenty of comments about “one-hit wonders” and a strong belief that many of the self-made have earned as much as they have because of luck. We could believe in luck if the majority of our sample had only one successful venture. But our data convinced us that luck alone does not explain the success of self-made billionaires, given that more than 90 percent of them have launched multiple successful businesses.

Exploitative Practices

It’s difficult to find any successful organization that hasn’t been accused by someone, somewhere, of unsavory practices. Billionaires in particular are easy targets for such accusations. While we make no claims about their universal purity, as a group the businesses launched by the self-made billionaires in our sample lean toward the socially responsible end of the scale in their industries. Furthermore, a large number of self-made billionaires have signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away more than half of their net worth; a significant portion are active in philanthropy or social projects.

Overnight Success

It may seem that certain individuals form companies and suddenly enter the public consciousness with a meteorically successful product, but the reality is that many self-made billionaires reach extreme success only after many years of professional investment and commitment to a particular market space. They often exhibit early entrepreneurial drive: more than 50 percent had a first job before age eighteen; nearly 30 percent had launched their first entrepreneurial venture before age twenty-two; and almost 75 percent before age thirty (see Figure 1-2). Note that while some billionaires had the kind of humble upbringing that necessitated an early entry to work, they are in the minority—more than 75 percent of self-made billionaires were raised in households with affluence levels in the middle class or above.

Figure 1-2: Billionaires Start Early

Talent, but Also Practice

The billionaires’ early ventures provided a great deal of practice in a couple of key areas, which improved any skills they already had. Seventy-five percent or more had direct sales experience; and almost 70 percent had ownership of a P&L before age thirty.

These are just a few of the counterintuitive findings that made it clear to us that there was a mismatch between what many claim to “know” about extreme success and what the data report.


Left with a clean slate, we began searching for what is truly different about self-made billionaires. We looked at the data through the lens of our premise—that self-made billionaires approach the challenge of creating new value differently from most corporate managers and leaders. Somehow, self-made billionaires vault over the same obstacles to value creation that trip up the vast majority of executives.

We expected to find that self-made billionaires encountered a set of common external factors early in their lives—certain experiences or circumstances—that led them to act or behave in particularly driven ways. Maybe the majority had to contend with existential challenges early in life. Or they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Or perhaps the opposite is true and most of them came from extraordinarily privileged homes. It became quickly apparent, however, that there were no trends in the data to suggest that a shared tenor of circumstances or experiences ran throughout the population. An equivalent number grew up extremely poor as grew up quite rich; an equal proportion failed to finish college as earned PhDs.

As we probed deeper, it became clear that the connection lay not in external circumstances but in what we have come to define as internal “habits of mind.” Self-made billionaires are able to integrate ideas and actions that most individuals and organizations keep separate or even hold in direct tension to one another. We refer to this coexistence of forces as a duality. Self-made billionaires effectively operate in a world of dualities—they seamlessly hold on to multiple ideas, multiple perspectives, and multiple scales.5

These distinctive habits of mind that we observed in self-made billionaires play out in a variety of ways. We have already mentioned the ability to cultivate imagination—that ability to envision what could be—while maintaining judgment—the ability to see things as they are. Similar dualities apply to the way these billionaires approach managing their time, executing a business idea, handling risk, and balancing the talent pool in their own organizations. These dual habits of mind and action enable them to function as what we term Producers: they envision something new, bring together the people and the resources to create it, and sell it to customers who didn’t know they needed it.

In contrast, the modern corporation has evolved to separate many of these dualities into different functions, which are then run by talented people who excel at optimizing within known systems. We call these leaders Performers. Performers are often very good at what they do. But they are celebrated and elevated precisely because they perform so well in one arena. That single-minded talent for reaching otherworldly heights within a defined environment—so necessary in many aspects of business—reinforces function-driven systems that discourage the integrated habits of mind and action necessary for Producers.

The science fiction writer Thomas Disch once wrote that “creativeness is the ability to see relationships where none exist.” In fact, it is part of human nature to look for relationships, but creating something brand-new requires that a person not only be able to see relationships but also be able to separate the real relationships from the false ones. In other words, not all ideas are good ones. Recognizing when you have gold and when you just have rocks requires an integrative approach. It’s about seeing relationships that matter to customers and from there unveiling a new empathetic insight.

Integration is counterintuitive in many organizations. Decades of focusing on optimization and efficiency have led many to specialize in breaking down problems and forming functions to manage the separate parts. They elevate Performers to optimize and excel in those separate functions. Producers, by contrast, revel in bringing clashing elements together.

Operating in a world of dualities is not the same as managing competing demands such as “deliver on time and under budget” or “satisfy the customer and keep costs down.” Corporations are constantly putting objectives in tension, creating challenges, and establishing stretch goals. But in most places it is clear that two requirements that seem to be in tension really aren’t. The official corporate mandate may be to “do both” but everyone knows which metrics matter. If you hit quantifiable, short-term goals, the organization will support you.


The habits of mind and action that allow some individuals to thrive in a world of dualities come naturally to Producers, but they are not natural for the majority of the population gravitating toward the Performer end of the spectrum. There are a limited number of ideas or issues that most executives can attend to simultaneously. People can attempt to increase their “working memory,” that system in the brain that allows us to hold on to multiple ideas or lines of thought, but it won’t necessarily lead us to embrace duality. According to decades of psychological research, human beings do not generally like integrating opposing ideas. In fact, when confronted with ideas that challenge our core beliefs, we tend to discount or ignore them.

Yet we can overrule our inherent nature. Many of the self-made billionaires we studied appeared to be natural-born Producers, but the points noted above about the importance of practice and the long-term commitments that many of them make to the markets in which they eventually thrive show that they also need to hone and cultivate the habits of mind and action necessary to become fully developed Producers. Yes, inborn skill and abilities matter. But everyone—from the natural-born Producer to the gifted Performer—can build and hone the habits of mind that will make him or her a better manager, a better executive, a better entrepreneur, a more imaginative thinker, and a bigger value creator. And all businesses can build the organizational structures that support nascent Producers.

Think about running a marathon. There are a few people in the world with the natural athletic prowess, endurance, and pain tolerance to run with the professionals in a prestigious race like Boston, New York, or London. But the vast majority of healthy adults can finish a single marathon if they are willing to put in the time and effort. And even those who might not be able to run a full 26.2 miles can still achieve significant physical and mental improvement from the training regimen.

It’s the same for the Producer’s habits of mind and action. Not everyone will have and be able to execute a billion-dollar idea. But all of us can take steps to enable us to produce more value in what we do. The first step is to understand the habits of mind and develop them in ourselves, our team, and our organization. The following chapters will show you how to build practically on those habits and take action.

As highlighted in the opening passage of this chapter, a large number of self-made billionaires worked inside established organizations before they left to pursue their own ideas. Some viewed these jobs as way stations, places to learn from before they set out on their own. Many were fired, pushed out, or quit in a wave of frustration because their way of thinking and ideas were not recognized or valued. In all cases, the firms that employed them were not environments that supported creating massive value. And so Stephen Ross, Phil Knight, Joe Mansueto, George Soros, and dozens like them created massive new value by setting out on their own.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Think about how many people have left your organization and gone on to create significant value elsewhere. What might have happened if they had stayed? Business leaders can learn to recognize emergent Producers, nurture their ideas, and create a space that allows them to develop and thrive inside the organization.


Cultivating dual habits of mind starts with understanding the dualities that are most important. The five critical dualities we observed in the self-made billionaire population are:

Ideas—Empathetic Imagination

Producers see blockbuster potential where others see only change. Their billion-dollar ideas come through the marriage of extreme empathy for the customer’s needs and wants, and an imaginative mind-set that allows him or her to come up with and explore new, untested ideas.

Perspective—Patient Urgency

Producers cannot predict the exact time to make an investment or bring a product to market, but they are willing to operate simultaneously at multiple speeds and time frames. They accept that timing is not under their control, and so they work fast, slow, super slow, or in all these modes at the same time. They urgently prepare to seize an opportunity but patiently wait for that opportunity to fully emerge.

Action—Inventive Execution

Typical business practice tends to separate creative functions from the operational departments that bring ideas to market. Producers, on the other hand, approach execution of their ideas with the same integrative, inventive mind-set they applied to come up with a billion-dollar idea in the first place. Inventive freedom allows them to design aspects of the customer experience that others consider fixed, thus unlocking new value.

Attitude—Taking a Relative View of Risk

Contrary to popular wisdom, self-made billionaires are not huge risk takers. But the risks they do worry about are much different from those most corporations focus on. They are not paralyzed by the absolute risk of losing an investment. Instead, their perceptions of risk are relative: they are far less concerned about losing what they have than of not being part of a bigger future. When they do experience setbacks—and many early Producer ventures produce only moderate results, or experience crippling setbacks—they have the resilience to try again.

Leading—Leadership Partnership

The archetype of the solo genius is so pervasive in the way people talk about and think about extraordinary success that it obscures the real story of how good ideas become great businesses. The reality is that Producers are overwhelmingly not alone. Creating billions in value requires both a master Producer, who can bring together divergent ideas and resources into a blockbuster product design, and a virtuoso Performer, who can apply his or her creative acumen to optimizing the potential of that design. Thus, the Producer’s most important duality, in fact, may not be self-contained: it is the partnership built between individuals with complementary skills and mutual trust.

Let’s take a deeper look at this last duality—Leadership Partnership—because it seems to be in tension with the idea we introduced earlier about Producers exhibiting both active imagination and sound judgment. While it is true that Producers maintain a duality of judgment and imagination, they rarely have outlier skills in both. Think of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the Producer-Performer pair behind Teleflora, POM Wonderful, and FIJI Water, in addition to various California agribusinesses. Stewart is strong on judgment—as Lynda put it, “He’s the one who makes sure the businesses are profitable.”6 But converting the pomegranate from a West Coast health food store rarity into an expensive, mass-market drink required Lynda’s imagination. She saw the long-term health-conscious antioxidant craze and she knew how to execute, attending to everything from the taste of the product to the shape of the bottle. Her genius not only moves millions of POM bottles a year but has also managed, within a matter of months, to rebrand a fruit and thus get millions of Americans to refer to clementines as “Cuties.”

Many people with differing talents find themselves threatened by or in competition with one another, their opposing strengths creating a clash of worldviews. By contrast, the self-made billionaires we studied put a premium on the skills and perspectives of their complement. They have the confidence and insight to value the skills of the right partner who brings something necessary and distinct from what they have to offer.


Our research has opened our eyes to our own habits of mind and the myriad ways we inadvertently nudge ourselves and our colleagues to behave more like Performers. We have been pushing people to excel in one area (that is, perform) instead of helping them to bring resources together in new ways to create new value (that is, produce). We were convinced by listening to self-made billionaires reflect on the frustration they felt as employees trapped inside existing organizations that leaders and organizations can and must change to encourage and capture Producer value.

Throughout the book we go into detail on several different ways to change paths. First, organizations need to take actions that encourage all managers to develop Producer habits of mind. Right now the range of talent in your organization resides on a Performer-Producer continuum, the distribution of which resembles a bell curve tilted dramatically to the Performer side of the spectrum (see Figure 1-3).

Figure 1-3: The Standard Performer-Producer Distribution in Businesses

The steps we propose aim to shift the overall organizational profile incrementally from the Performer end toward the Producer end (see Figure 1-4). Not everyone can be a Producer—this is not a value judgment, it’s an economic judgment. Performers play a critical and necessary role in the organization, but they are not the ones creating breakthrough value. Nonetheless, we believe that even the most diehard Performers can benefit from cultivating in themselves and those around them some of the Producer habits of mind. Doing so is critical to thriving in our changeable world.

Figure 1-4: Shifting the Producer-Performer Distribution

Producer talent and skill are nonetheless not evenly distributed and are not valuable or beneficial equally in every role in a corporation. While there are important and obvious benefits to having every manager practice a habit of mind like Empathetic Imagination, not everyone should be spending significant time engaged in Inventive Execution and attempting to change your business model. Even fewer should be adopting a full-on Producer mind-set that deals with risk.