January 16, 2015

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, cofounded PayPal and also founded SpaceX. Credit: Maurizio Pesce / Flickr Creative Commons

Today’s billionaires look less like the top-hatted robber barons of the 19th century and a lot more like guys you’d find at the mall.
 
“A lot of them are introverts, a lot of them are not great with people, they’re just quiet geniuses who come up with these brilliant little ideas,” says Forbes editor Randall Lane, author of You Only Have to Be Right Once: The Unprecedented Rise of the Instant Tech Billionaires.
 
As Lane started comparing their stories, he spotted several commonalities. Many of the billionaires started as teenage hackers. They also had access to a computer and a willingness to take risks.
 
But most importantly, they had a good idea that was snatched up by Silicon Valley – for a considerable amount of cash.
 
“Show Me the Money”
 
When Facebook purchased WhatsApp for $19 billion – reportedly the most ever paid for a Silicon Valley tech company, WhatsApp employed 50 people. And we’ve done the math for you: That’s $380 million per employee.
 
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen more cash being generated so quickly ever, in human history,” says Lane.
 
The success story of WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum is also quintessentially American: Koum emigrated from Ukraine and had been on welfare before becoming a billionaire. Koum even sent Forbes a picture of himself signing the Facebook deal on the door of his old welfare office.

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum

Jan Koum, WhatsApp cofounder, immigrated to the U.S. and had been on welfare before becoming a billionaire. Credit: Melies The Bunny / Flickr Creative Commons

Serial Entrepreneurs
 
These tech wunderkinds aren’t settling down once they experience success.
 
After co-creating Twitter, Jack Dorsey founded the industry-changing mobile payment company Square. “These are serial entrepreneurs,” says Lane. “They get bored and they like doing things that are big and they think big.”

He offers PayPal co-founder Elon Musk as another example. Musk went on to transform the car industry with Tesla and then started SpaceX.
 
“They’re almost folk heroes,” Lane adds. He argues that as opposed to the often-maligned hedge fund billionaires, tech billionaires are appreciated by the public because they’re “fundamentally creating things, and they’re creating things that people use, and they’re creating things that make peoples’ lives better.”

Randall Lane, Business, tech, Forbes

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