There are thousands of articles written on the tips and tricks of the millionaires who created successful companies, worth billions of dollars. Few of these editorials from university town actually asked those wealth creators themselves about their philosophy, motivation and inspiration. Even less asked them to recommend their own suggestions for emulating their achievements.  

If you really want to know what you need to know, should you be thinking about setting up a multi-billion dollar company of your own, it’s best to take the practical, warts-and-all-advice of those who have already done it. Those who, as Frank Sinatra sings, “took the blows and did it their way”.

Take for example Richard Branson, the English business magnate, investor and author. Branson is best known for founding the Virgin Group 50 years ago, which today controls more than 400 companies, and according to Forbes, estimates Richard’s net worth at around $4.4 billion.

In a keynote speech at the Veritas Vision conference, Branson explained how he got into the airline business ‘by accident’. He was booked to go to the Caribbean on holiday, but his flight was cancelled. Branson didn’t want to keep ‘a beautiful lady waiting’ as he put it, so he hired a plane, borrowed a blackboard and wrote for a joke ‘Virgin Airlines-$39 one way to the British Virgin Islands’. He was amazed when all the passengers who had also been inconvenienced, filled his plane. And the rest as they say is history.

“I have always lived my life by thriving on opportunity and adventure”, he said. “Some of the best ideas come out of the blue, and you have to keep an open mind to see their virtue”. Richard added that he believed that “if the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal, then leading an adventurous life is an upmost priority”.

Michelle Zatlyn is the co-founder of Cloudflare, the web performance and security company currently worth nearly $19.7B. When she graduated from Harvard Business School, she was about to start a job at LinkedIn. Instead, according to Samantha Walravens, ‘she packed her things and drove out to California with her classmate Matthew Prince, to start a new venture’.

Her typically straightforward advice was to prepare for a rollercoaster ride. “When you start a company, all the odds are against you. I feel like luck plays such a big part of success in a start-up. What luck really means is the idea, the timing, and the people”. Michelle says those are three ingredients that you need for success.

The idea is the basic element but can only work if the timing is right. “Finally”, she said, “you have to surround yourself with supportive people. I have an awesome family. An older sister, my husband, my other sister-they are always cheering me on”. She added “No matter where you work, driving things through to completion is so important. From the very beginning of my career, I learned the importance of getting things done”.

Mark Zuckerberg’s modus vivendi is still summed up by Facebook’s original motto, which dated back to his college days, when he had the idea of setting up the world’s biggest social network.

“Move fast and break things”, it shouted. According to many insiders, Zuckerberg’s early personal philosophy was translated into Facebook’s business philosophy and can be credited for the start-up’s meteoric rise.

This philosophy-turned-strategy enabled Facebook to be ‘nimble, take huge risks and think outside the box’. Simply put, ‘breaking things’ means experimentation. As you experiment, it’s unavoidable that a few things will break. However, this strategy allowed Facebook to go against what was already deemed best practice, and win.

William Erbey is an American serial entrepreneur and philanthropist, who founded six multi-billion-dollar companies in the United States and was valued by Forbes magazine as worth over $1.8 billion. He often quotes Winston Churchill who said “A pessimist sees the difficulty and every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity and every difficulty.”

When Erbey was asked after starting a new company, if he expected to repeat the success he had seen with his five companies in the financial sector, he replied “Absolutely! I believe that one has to be an optimist and believe in what one is doing, to be a successful entrepreneur.  There are too many set-backs in building a company and too many reasons to give up. When I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there was a saying “It does not matter how many times you get knocked down.  What matters is how many times you get back up.” That was a great lesson for a career in business as well!”

Erbey puts a premium on good staff too. He believes that human resources are a vital part of any company and the bigger the company, the greater the opportunity to maximize your staffing resources. “Hire the best people possible. Agree on high-level goals and objectives and get out of their way. Make certain that you have more than sufficient capital and liquidity to grow the business and establish a culture of hard work and attention to detail while simultaneously encouraging inductive thinking”.

It’s also worth noting that Erbey never expected more from his workforce than he did from himself.

 “I used to work between 80 and 100 hours a week. I do not work like that anymore. I am 70 years old and have cut back to 60 hours. I’m officially retired but going to work is my hobby. I enjoy the mental challenge of solving problems and really love what I do. I’ve also learned over the years that it’s good to take time to recharge the batteries. I exercise now more than ever, and the dividends are amazing in terms of energy, focus and stamina!”.

All of these multimillionaires, who set up extraordinarily successful companies, have this in common; the belief in their vision, working hard to achieve it, and being prepared to make mistakes. But we mustn’t forget the fourth essential ingredient – everybody needs a little bit of luck along the way too.