What do billionaires have in common? What is it that they do better than anyone else? Why do we admire them, or their companies’ products and services, so much?
I’ve spent some time trying to identify common traits in the Forbes list of billionaires and other similar lists of the world’s wealthiest. I’m particularly interested in finding patterns in the types of people whom I respect. It’s less about all that dough they’ve accumulated than about better understanding how and why they made their fortunes.
It turns out there are many ways to make a billion dollars: real estate, investing, gaming and entertainment, retail, technology, and good old-fashioned inheritance. But the most interesting (and most respected) businesses and personalities are also the ones with the strongest and most authentic purposes behind them. My business partner, Mats Lederhausen, was one of the first advocates I knew of purpose-driven business and entrepreneurship. I credit Mats with helping me understand that purpose is neither something soft nor something overly lofty. Instead, purpose is the bigger why of a business. All of us understand the what of any successful business, but what about the why?
More from Harvard Business Review:
- Passion & Purpose
- Purpose is Good. Shared Purpose is Better
- You Should Be Able to Get Rich in Charity
- Wisdom of Warren Buffett: On Innovators, Imitators, and Idiots
- Idolize Bill Gates, Not Steve Jobs
While billionaires and their companies are bucket companies by industry (i.e. the what of the company), I believe that there are three categories of purpose that are interesting to observe, and consider which one dominates your company’s mission. Here they are:
1. Making the world more beautiful.
2. Making the world more fun.
3. Making the world more efficient and smart.
1. Making the world more beautiful. These are the people who make us look, eat, and live more beautifully. It is a broad definition of outer and inner beauty. The best are able to make us look and feel good. The beauty category of billionaires includes the larger-than-life fashion figures of Ralph Lauren, Bernard Arnault (of LVMH), and recently minted billionaire Tory Burch. It is actually quite amazing to see how many of the world’s richest come from the fashion, retail, and design worlds. And then there are those who aren’t explicitly in the design, style, or beauty business but nonetheless identify strongly with these themes. Apple, of course, is the poster child for this ethos, as it puts design first for everything from its software to the industrial engineering of products. For Apple, it is not just design that matters — what’s paramount is using design to connect to the user.
Beyond beauty sensed with our sight and touch, there are the founders in this category who have focused on our inner beauty and health. Indeed, there are people like Hamdi Ulukaya (the Turkish founder of Chobani Greek Yogurt) or the founders of a variety of biotech and pharmaceutical firms who have achieved this through focusing on the purpose of healthier ways for us to eat and live.
2. Making the world more fun. One name that springs immediately to mind is Richard Branson. His mission and purpose center around fun and play. Disney is another icon that has redefined the entertainment experience. But perhaps my personal favorite of a billionaire founder who has spread his creative fun around the world is Cirque du Soleil founder Guy LalibertÃ©. Making the world more fun is noble and creates greater happiness for us all. The billionaire founders who get this and who have succeeded in doing so help to put more smiles, more laughter and yes, more fun into a world that is too often dull and mundane. Fun is a good business model — and it does not need to be a billion-dollar enterprise. It is perhaps because it is relatively easy to think of small ways to create fun that it is even more impressive when people such as these are able to scale fun on a massive level.
3. Making the world smarter, more efficient, and more relevant. There are more “knowledge workers” today than ever before. In this world, we have all become familiar with the technology and Internet moguls (e.g. Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page) who have helped to make us smarter, faster and more efficient in our daily lives. Doing work via shared Google Docs versus a word processor versus a typewriter — yes, we’ve come a long way. The connected social economy and its companies like Facebook and LinkedIn are all about how we can try to do more, faster. That is, these companies allow us to have more communication moments in ever-shorter time segments. And there are also information and media moguls, like Mike Bloomberg or the Thomson family behind Thomson Reuters, who dominate financial and legal information, respectively, and are viewed as being mission critical to professionals in those fields. As these firms enable more, faster, and smarter throughput of information, a challenge will be to maintain relevancy. As more and more information is thrown at us, we are now ironically often seeking less and less of it. And this is perhaps what the next great wave of tech and info billionaires will address — as curators whose purpose will be to find greater meaning, context, and relevancy in this mass information world.
So, while there are many ways to make money, there tend to be some common patterns of higher purpose. The three purposes illustrated here help explain why and how some of the world’s wealthiest have gotten so rich, and made our lives richer as well. These three purpose categories likely blur at times, and certainly co-exist in terms of the culture and value propositions of the truly great companies. But the take-home lesson is to ask yourself which of these purposes you are willing to strive to become the absolute best at. Companies and founders that make a singular and unwavering commitment to excel along any of these three purpose dimensions not only have the chance to make our lives better, but also to leave an imprint on our culture, on how we view and experience this world. That, and they might just end up as billionaires.