Conflicting ideologies once threatened to tear the world apart. Entrepreneurship is now bringing it together. This unstoppable force is revitalizing ailing economies and creating prosperity for people who never before had a chance to build their own futures. * Most important, it's shaping a new global economy. In his recently released book, The Future of Capitalism, economist Lester Thurow writes, "For the first time in human history, anything can be made anywhere and sold everywhere." * The rise of technology and the fall of Communism have opened up the world for business owners. They are taking over where national governments once reigned supreme. These 11 amazing stories resonate with the power that individuals -- armed with the tools of entrepreneurship -- can wield to transform entire economies and spread wealth. * To find these superstars, we polled business leaders, top journalists, and entrepreneurial organizations. Embassies and trade offices were also instrumental in helping to identify dates. Just as savvy businesses use the Internet to find new opportunities, we tapped it to track down leading entrepreneurs. * We sifted through files on hundreds of candidates to find the best. We weren't just looking for the fastest-growing or the biggest companies -- although some of our profiles do indeed meet these criteria. We wanted true entrepreneurs who created something from nothing and were unyielding in their pursuit of success. We found unbelievable men and women who stood up to critics -- and even oppressive governments -- to further the cause of entrepreneurship in every corner of the world. * Learn from these masters who are changing the universe. Each one has a distinct message for you.
Japan's Man With
"I wanted to start a business where my interest would deepen in the next 50 years. Getting bored is the most dangerous thing for an entrepreneur."
Masayoshi Son was a multimillionaire before the age of 20. While a student at U.C. Berkeley, he invented a pocket translator and sold the patent to electronics giant Sharp Corp. for $1 million. The product later became the Sharp Wizard. He also built a software company and quickly sold it for close to $2 million.
Despite his incredible success in America, Son returned to Japan after graduation. "It's much harder to start a business in conservative Japan," he says. "But I promised my mother I'd come home."
Instead of getting a job at a large corporation like most new graduates, Son took more than a year off to plot his future. "Everybody thought I was crazy," he chuckles. "I follow rules according to my own belief, not someone else's."
Son knew he wanted to start a business, and he came up with 40 ideas. To determine the best opportunity, he tested each idea against 25 strict criteria. The business would have to hold his interest for at least 50 years. He would have to be number one in that business in 10 years. And, perhaps most important, his company would have to generate at least $1 billion in sales before Son turned 40.
The winning idea was a software distribution business called Softbank Corp., and so far, everything has gone according to Plan. Despite having spent three and a half years in the hospital with hepatitis, the 38-year-old Son has grown his original concept to become Japan's largest distributor of computer software, hardware, and peripherals. The Tokyo-based company recently acquired Comdex, a computer trade show outfit, for $800 million and paid $2.1 billion for Ziff-Davis, publisher of PC Week and PC Magazine. Softbank's total revenues for the last fiscal year were $1.6 billion. Son, who holds 57 percent of his public company, has an estimated personal net worth of $4.4 billion.
His acquisitions are part of a bigger plan to create a synergistic software empire. Son is building a huge database that incorporates the names of magazine subscribers and trade show attendees. He will be able to track his 100 million customers to find out what they're buying and when they'll need upgrades.
When Son formed Softbank in 1981, almost nobody owned a personal computer. He realized PCs would become extremely important. He also understood that the people who made software didn't necessarily know how to sell it. He began buying vast amounts of software from manufacturers and reselling it to retailers. Now, 50 percent of all software and hardware sold in Japan pass through Softbank.
Unlike most Japanese businesses, Softbank is infused with the entrepreneurial spirit. To keep his 6,000 employees motivated, Son rewards them with stock in the company, a revolutionary idea in Japan. Even more extreme, Son plans to divide Softbank into 600 virtual companies with 10 members each. "Each of these units can make quick, dynamic, authorized decisions," he says. "Other Japanese companies are hierarchical and slow to react."
Because both his parents are Korean, Son remains an outsider in homogeneous Japan. He's not afraid to shake up the corporate establishment and challenge conventional wisdom. "We operate without fear, and this may be giving a lot of encouragement to other entrepreneurs here," he says. "The outsider is becoming the center of a new age."
"A big changes is under way. People don't have the money to invest more in hospitals, In the future, they will have to take care of the themselves."
Seppo Saynajakangas knew the whole world could benefit from his product. But from his remote office near the arctic circle, how could he get people to know he even existed?
In 1976, Saynajakangas invented a heart-rate monitor that was an immediate hit with local athletes. In those days, people measured their pulse with their fingertips. His heart-rate transmitters, worn around the chest or on the wrist, indicate beats per minute. Users can tell whether they are putting undue strain on their hearts.
Saynajakangas, a professor of electronics, got the idea while skiing in Oulu, Finland. He met a ski coach who asked, "Could you come up with something that measures people's heart rate quickly and accurately? It would help me train my skiers." The concept excited him.
Saynajakangas approached a number of Finnish companies about distributing his newly invented product, but nobody was interested. So he launched Polar Electro OY. Today, Saynajakangas's heart-rate monitors sell in 40 countries, with exports accounting for more than 95 percent of his $125 million in total annual sales. His biggest market is the U.S., where Polar has 40 percent of its sales and nearly an 80 percent market share.
To expand beyond his customer base of hard-core athletes, he needed serious capital. Saynajakangas successfully negotiated government grants and bank loans. He even persuaded the Finnish Olympic Committee to chip in.
By the early 1980s, Saynajakangas was ready to enter international markets. "At the time, very, few Finnish companies had any exporting experience, partly because Finland had a privileged trade relationship with the Soviet Union," says Saynajakangas. But with the help of distributors and import agencies in other countries, he was able to introduce his product abroad.
Now, Polar has offices in Britain, the U.S., Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and Hong Kong. Over the last 10 years, sales have grown by 50 percent to 60 percent annually. The monitors have become true mass-market products, bought by sports enthusiasts, weight watchers, and stress sufferers the world over. The products are priced affordably. The cheapest models retail for $99; the most expensive, at about $390.
But Saynajakangas's growth ambitions are far from satisfied. He's developing new products, such as a blood-pressure monitor, that will move Polar beyond "fitness" into the broader world of "wellness." He's also exploring opportunities in wireless electronics. One promising prospect is Buscom, a newly formed subsidiary that makes smart-card systems for public buses.
In Finland, Saynajakangas is a rare combination of academic and entrepreneur. His country has traditionally eschewed entrepreneurship in favor of government-owned businesses and big industries. But with unemployment at a whopping 16 percent, the country is increasingly looking to entrepreneurs like Saynajakangas to create...