Awfully lot of businesses among the NYC skyline. None of them "self-made"

The Myth of Being “Self Made”: What’s so Wrong About it

There’s a lot about people singing the praises of the “self made”, and it really grinds my gears. The implications of this myth, that the interconnectedness, mutual co-dependency, and trust humanity relies on doesn’t exist, at least, in the context of entrepreneurialism, are concerning. Great minds do contribute disproportionately more to human progress and success than others. But the fact remains, human progress relies on the combined efforts of people. Society itself, and the security and structure it provides are nothing more than a mental construct forged from the tacit and implicit agreements we all make. The fortunes of business mavens comes not solely from their own efforts, but from the efforts of those they lead in addition to themselves.

There are many different rabbit holes we can get lost down trying to pin down what self made really means. For the sake of my argument, I’ll go with the very textbook “having become successful or rich by one’s own efforts.” To add to that, self made means only by one’s own efforts, again, for the sake of this argument.

That may seem outlandish to some, but in my experience people really do seem to believe some people are successful and wealthy due solely to their own efforts. While they will certainly acknowledge something like a company has and needs employees, the connotations attached attenuate the contributions of employees to that of simple, mindless cogs in the machine. Replaceable to the extent they largely don’t matter. So, while those who argue to support the myth of the self-made may pay lip service to the reality that a successful entrepreneurial endeavor requires employees, they simultaneously downplay those employees into irrelevance, incurring a contradiction.

Where to Begin Dissecting “Self Made”

So, I’ll start by saying “self made” is a myth because when one considers the facts honestly, the resulting view of the employee should not be so reductionist. The simple fact of the matter is that business does not succeed without employees. Ones who meet a certain level of competence. Whether it’s burger flippers at McDonald’s, or engineers writing code or building machines, there is no success without others. You may replace individual employees, but you will still need others besides yourself to make a venture successful. An entrepreneur won’t make his/her business successful alone anymore than Julius Caesar could have completed the conquest of Gaul without his soldiers.

The need for the contributions of others doesn’t simply stop there. Employees, after all, are people, not cogs, but even cogs don’t come from some void. They have to be built, just like competent employees need to be forged by a society, that system of agreements I mentioned. Your business needs laws and enforcement to protect its property and the persons involved. It needs neutral third parties (courts) to settle disputes, infrastructure to enable logistics and so much more.

The needs provided for the entrepreneur by a stable, functioning society are nearly endless. They include technological advances, like the internet for instance, which was originally an army project, and has become the catalyst for the sexy, lean startup everyone fetishizes nowadays. So much has to be aligned for business success that has nothing to do with the entrepreneur him/herself. But I don’t want to bore anyone by listing those things ad nauseum. Rather, I’d like to use examples from successful entrepreneurs to show particular elements of their stories that demonstrate how they benefitted from the help of others. While immensely capable and successful, they most certainly did not go it alone.

Self Made: Elon Musk

Elon Musk, the not very self-made Tesla CEO
By Duncan.Hull – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86942193

If you’re one of the very few who has followed along with me thus far, you’ll know I’m not afraid to criticize Elon Musk. I almost feel a sort of obligation to since so many people are so willing to lick his boots.

But I’m not here to express disdain for Musk. I’ve even praised some things I like about him, such as his work ethic and business acumen. So, you can trust I’m being impartial.

Musk got his start with his brother Kimbal and a man named Greg Kouri in 1995. They created Zip2, an internet city guide, the development of which was funded by angel investors. Right off the bat you can find several people whom Elon depended on to get his career as an entrepreneur started. How would things have panned out without his partners and angel investors? Quite differently I suspect, otherwise, why involve them?

Musk became a household name originally because of his work with PayPal. At PayPal, Elon was joined by none other than the legendary Peter Thiel. As the Wikipedia article points out, sourced from Elon’s biography written by Ashley Vance, the two had a row. Apparently, a preference for Microsoft software over Linux caused Thiel to resign. The board brought Thiel back as CEO, ousting Musk after technological issues and lack of a cohesive business model were causing problems. Elon remained the largest individual shareholder, earning $100M when eBay acquired PayPal. It stands to reason he would not likely receive this bounty had it not been for Thiel righting the ship Musk was steering into uncertain waters.

The Real McCoy: Self Made at Tesla

In recent years, Elon and Tesla have become all but coterminous. And that is not accidental. Elon’s done a great job of promoting his image as the pioneer that built Tesla from the ground up. What most people don’t realize is he didn’t start the company.

Tesla was started by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning in July 2003. They saw financing through to Series A, which Musk helped finance. While Elon helped oversee the development of the Tesla Roadster, he was not heavily involved in day to day operations. That is, until things began to change in 2008. A series of escalating conflicts led to the ousting of the Tesla founders, with Musk replacing them as CEO. The lawsuits that inevitably ensued resulted in Elon getting credit as a co-founder. Clearly though, in reality this is not the case.

While Elon was undoubtedly an instrumental part of much of what Tesla has achieved, it’s undeniably true that his success there was not “self made.” Would he build a successful car company (with other people’s help) without the original Tesla founders, among others? I don’t know. But, what I do know is he clearly didn’t make Tesla all by himself. He didn’t even start the company.

In addition to co-founder, Elon has conjured up another title. Long live the Technoking of Tesla!

The Queen of Bumble: Self Made?

Whitney Wolfe-Herd, not so self-made queen Bumble Bee
By TechCrunch – 775208326GB00030_TechCrunch, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92140792

This has occurred fairly recently, so I’m sure you’re quite familiar with this story. Bumble, the dating app that stood apart by mandating women send the first message, recently IPO’d. Whitney Wolfe-Herd founded Bumble in 2014, and has accomplished much, making the brand ubiquitous, also becoming the first woman to take a company public. She’s also being credited with being the youngest female self-made billionaire in the world. Naturally, employees and others previously mentioned that are a part of any business venture throw some cold water on that claim. But, what I’d like to get into are the unique parts of Wolfe-Herd’s journey that brought her here.

Wolfe-Herd had an entrepreneurial bent from an early age. Her first venture, at the age of 20, was selling bamboo tote bags to benefit areas affected by the BP oil spill. A very noble endeavor to be sure. Also, an ironic one considering her husband is an oil heir. I’ll touch on that in a bit.

Wolfe-Herd was an early employee at Tinder, which was the first dating app to bring the swiping mechanism to the mainstream. She split acrimoniously from the company, and her departure was followed by a lawsuit that settled in Wolfe-Herd’s favor for $1M plus stock. Afterwards, she was contacted by Andrey Andreev, founder of Badoo, a Russian dating focused social media platform and the largest individual owner of Bumble. It goes without saying Badoo’s investment and support was instrumental in Bumble’s success, chipping away at the “self-made” claim.

Final Point

Wolfe-Herd comes from a fairly wealthy family. Case in point, they went on a sabbatical in Paris when Wolfe-Herd was in fourth grade.

Additionally, Wolfe-Herd’s husband comes from a fabulously wealthy family. The article I linked to about him explains Mr. Herd was selling his family compound for $28.5M. I have no idea how much money Mr. Herd gave his wife to fund Bumble, if he gave her anything at all. They weren’t married when she started Bumble, they had been dating for a year.

One thing I do know is that having a wealthy family and significant other, by themselves, do a lot to support an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is risky. Failure can be costly. This is why many people can’t become entrepreneurs. They don’t have a safety net to fall back on should they fail, the risk of which is always a fact of starting a business. So, while I respect everything Wolfe-Herd has done, and don’t think Bumble would be what it is without her, I can’t help but imagine things had a strong chance of turning out differently had she not had significant help and support from several places.

The Largest Fortune in the World: Certainly Not Self-Made

In case you’re wondering who I’m referring to in the header since I’ve already discussed Elon Musk; it’s Jeff Bezos. As of this writing, Bezos has reclaimed the top spot among richest people in the world, mostly due to the recent losses in Tesla stock.

Jeff Bezos is lauded by many (yours truly included) for his business acumen and decried by many for his business practices. Those practices include, according to his critics, most notably Bernie Sanders, underpaying many of his workers crucial to the timely fulfillment of online orders, and forcing them to work in hazardous conditions, such as when the COVID-19 panic was kicking into full gear. Certainly seems like a poor way to treat the many people you rely on to conduct business.

Also, while not unique to Bezos, he did have access to something many people trying to go into business for themselves do not; people who can really help him. In this instance, that help came in the form of significant start up capital.

Jeff Bezos was born the son of Jacklyn Jorgensen, who divorced his birth father soon after Bezos’ was born and remarried to Cuban immigrant Miguel Bezos. Bezos soon after formally adopted Jeff. Jeff always considered Bezos to be his father. In fact, he didn’t learn Miguel Bezos wasn’t his biological father until he was 10, and was reportedly unfazed by the news.

Miguel Certainly Showed Jeff The Love and Affection of a Father

What many people probably don’t know about Jeff Bezos is that in order to start Amazon, he relied on a $300,000 gift from his parents. Other sources say ~$250,000, but the point remains. That should hopefully dispel any notions that Bezos is entirely self made, since it was due to the efforts and generosity of others that Amazon was able to get off the ground in the first place. Bezos’ success is naturally a product of the company that his parents had as much, if not more, to do with than even Jeff himself.

Bezos told his parents and other investors he thought Amazon had a 30% chance of succeeding. Given what I know about entrepreneurship, I’d say that was very optimistic. Nonetheless, the fact that they were willing to invest what was a large portion of their retirement funds into Jeff’s vision makes everything he’s accomplished not deserving of the label “self-made.”

In Conclusion

This is not meant to downplay the achievements of entrepreneurs. As someone who writes about entrepreneurship weekly and podcasts just as often with entrepreneur interviews, I would certainly not trivialize what entrepreneurs do and contribute to society. But I think the myth of “self-made” needs to be dispelled in order for everyone to get a better understanding of what does make for successful enterprise.

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