10 Famous Businesspeople Fired Before They Made It Big


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The world of business isn’t always welcoming and profitable straight away. Success often requires a huge amount of vision, hard work and perseverance – plus a thick skin. In their younger lives, the following 10 iconic businessmen and women were fired for various reasons, including insubordination, simple clumsiness and insufficient business savvy. Still, whatever these individuals were lacking at the outset, they kept on chipping away at it and eventually triumphed, going on to become inspirations for us all. Sometimes, it seems, getting fired can be just the motivation you need to succeed.

10. Michael Bloomberg


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Business magnate and current mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg spent 15 years working at Wall Street investment bank Salomon Brothers, for nine of those as a general partner. He put in 12 hours a day, six days a week during that prolonged spell, but on August 1, 1981 he was called to a meeting and told that he was out. The company was merging with publicly held trading firm the Phibro Corporation, and Bloomberg wasn’t needed anymore.

The oust hurt Bloomberg, even with a $10 million severance package to console him, but he wasn’t down for long. He used the money to start Innovative Market Systems, which was renamed Bloomberg L.P. in 1987. Having founded the mass media corporation, Bloomberg went on to become the thirteenth richest person in world, with an estimated wealth of $27 billion. Moreover, it would not have been possible if he hadn’t gotten the boot, because, as Bloomberg admits, he would never have left Salomon Brothers under his own steam.

9. Colonel Harland David Sanders


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The founder of now-legendary fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken didn’t taste success right away. In fact, his own wife left him and basically considered him a jobless good-for-nothing. In Sanders’ defense, his inability to hold down a job wasn’t for lack of trying. In his younger years, he worked as a farmer, a streetcar conductor, an insurance salesman, a railroad fireman, and even a steamboat pilot. The problem was, he kept getting fired – as many as a dozen times, and once for insubordination.

Sanders’ true passions were cooking and entertaining people, and he eventually set up a restaurant that saw some success. However, in the end the eatery went out of business, and he landed up with no money and few prospects. Still, if there’s one thing we can learn from Sanders, it’s perseverance. At the age of 65, he drove around the US sleeping in the back of his car, living off a $105 social security check and making handshake deals with possible chicken franchisees. Little by little, he got people on board to become part of his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, and the rest is history.

8. Steve Jobs


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In 1976, at the age of 21, Steve Jobs co-founded Apple. By the time he was 23, the company had become a huge success. Jobs was a millionaire, and everything was looking up, but internal strife ensued between Jobs and CEO John Sculley. Jobs flew a skull and crossbones flag from his building and pitted his team against other divisions of the company, essentially declaring himself a pirate. Worse, Jobs drove his team so hard that they complained to Sculley about him. The Apple board sided with Sculley, and at age 30 Jobs found himself out on the street, humiliated and publicly defeated.

For several months, Jobs was lost, with no idea what to do, but he eventually recouped and started NeXT in 1985 and then Pixar Animation Studios a year later. Apple acquired NeXT in 1996, and within a year Jobs was CEO of the company he had helped establish. This time, though, he made a point of learning how to be a businessman, not just a visionary, and he led Apple to some of its greatest accomplishments. “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life,” said Jobs in a speech to Stanford graduates.

7. Oprah Winfrey


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Oprah Winfrey was just 22 years old in 1976 when she drove to Baltimore to become the co-anchor of WJZ’s 6:00 p.m. weekday newscast alongside Jerry Turner. Despite Winfrey’s initial excitement, the position ended a mere seven and a half months later when she was quite publicly fired. It was the first and most humiliating failure in the history of her TV career. She got bumped from the prime spot to an all but invisible position reading morning headlines. It was a dark time for the young Winfrey, but her sense of humor carried her through.

Then in 1978 Winfrey was paired with Richard Sher on the talk show People are Talking. The show was so successful that in 1984 she relocated to Chicago to host another talk show, AM Chicago. Although previously low rated, Winfrey’s new show quickly became popular and soon eclipsed Donahue. Winfrey found herself rocketing towards fame and success. In addition to acting as CEO, Chairwoman and Chief Creative Officer of the Oprah Winfrey Network, Winfrey is also CEO and Chairwoman of Harpo Productions and has launched several successful lifestyle magazines.

6. Thomas Edison


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When he was 12 years old, Thomas Edison created a job for himself selling his own newspaper, the Grand Trunk Herald, on a railroad line for which the paper was named. Edison set up his printing press in the baggage car and also used the space as his own laboratory. However, in this instance his passion for experiments ended badly, as a chemical fire brought the endeavor to a swift end. The conductor was furious and gave him the boot. Still, undeterred, Edison continued to sell his papers at stations on the Grand Trunk line and carried on learning and developing his inventive mind.

In 1866, when he was 19 years of age, Edison started working for the Western Union Company in Louisville, Kentucky. A year later, however, he dropped sulfuric acid on the floor, which dripped into his boss’ office beneath. This setback cost Edison his job, but it didn’t hold him back for long, and he carried on inventing things. When he was just 22, he sold the rights to his improved stock-ticker to the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company for $40,000. From then on, Edison dedicated himself entirely to inventing, and he eventually went on to change the world.

5. Mark Cuban


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While he was still in high school, entrepreneur Mark Cuban (on the left) drifted from job to job, doing everything from bartending to teaching disco dancing. Then in 1982 he ended up selling PCs for Your Business Software in Dallas. Inside six months in the role, Cuban went from knowing nothing about PCs to being a knowledgeable consultant, generating lots of business for the company and decent earnings of his own. Suddenly, he had enough money in the bank to treat himself to a few luxuries.

However, it all came crashing down one morning, after Cuban’s boss had told him to open up the store. Cuban chose to meet with a client instead. He called a co-worker to cover for him, but he came in with the client’s check the following day to discover that his contract was being terminated since he had gone against his boss’ wishes. Still, from then on Cuban was his own boss, and he set up MicroSolutions. Cuban sold the company some seven years later and made around $2 million after taxes. These days, he owns the Dallas Mavericks, Magnolia Pictures and Landmark Theaters and is chairman of the AXS TV cable network.

4. Milton S. Hershey


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Milton S. Hershey was born in 1857, and while now synonymous with chocolate, he didn’t always seem destined for greatness. Hershey’s early professional life got off to a rocky start when he worked as an apprentice to the editor of a German newspaper in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Hershey detested the work, he was clumsy, and he was summarily fired after he dropped his straw hat into the printing press.

From there, Hershey decided to start making candy, but he failed to start a successful business, despite trying to establish himself in five different major cities across America. Hershey didn’t make any money, and his relatives began to consider him a reckless wanderer. He was well into his late 30s before he struck on a caramel recipe that sold well and made him a million dollars. By 1893, Hershey was an established success, but this was just the beginning. His legacy – and fortune – grew still further when he left the caramel business and began producing the new taste of the future: chocolate.

3. J. K. Rowling


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In 1986, shortly after graduating from university, Joanne Rowling, better known by her pen name J. K. Rowling, was employed as a researcher for Amnesty International in London. Her time at Amnesty taught her about the depths of human evil but also the capacity for human goodness – two themes that obviously left a lasting impression on her. The work, however, wasn’t captivating enough to keep the young Rowling from daydreaming, and she was apparently fired for this reason.

In 1991, having lost her mother, Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English, and by 1993 she had hit rock bottom. “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential,” she says. “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than I was and began diverting all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.” This work involved a young wizard named Harry Potter. Since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first released in the UK in 1997, the series has been an immense success – spanning everything from the books and movies to video games.

2. Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank


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In 1974, Arthur Blank took over as the vice-financial president for the Handy Dan home improvement company. Blank soon hit it off with CEO Bernie Marcus, and together they led the company to incredible success. However, after a corporate raider took over Handy Dan’s parent company, Daylin Inc., a power struggle ensued, and in 1978 Blank and Marcus were fired on trumped up charges.

Determined to continue their experiment with discounting (which they had begun in their previous roles) and create a company of their own to rival Handy Dan, the pair started The Home Depot. And although business at the store didn’t exactly start with a bang, news began to spread. By 1999, 20 years after Blank and Marcus had founded the company, The Home Depot had 800 stores in 44 US states as well as Canada, Puerto Rico and Chile. As of 2011, The Home Depot boasts a staggering 2,248 stores.

1. Walt Disney


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If you can believe it, in 1919, Disney co-founder Walt Disney was reportedly dismissed from The Kansas City Star because his editor said he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” But this didn’t hold him back.

In the early 1920s, Disney started working at Kansas City Film Ad Company, and then he teamed up with co-worker Fred Harman to start an animation business. The two asked well-known local showman Frank L. Newman to run their “Laugh-O-Grams” at a theater. These cartoons were soon very popular locally, and Disney took on more staff; however, he lacked money management skills, and the studio ended in bankruptcy. Undeterred, Disney moved his operation to Hollywood and established an animation studio with his brother, and Disney co-founder, Roy. It was only a matter of time before he developed Mickey Mouse, whose popularity skyrocketed in the 1930s, and spawned the world of Disney we know today.