Before They Were Billionaires: 7 Stories of Not-So-Sudden Success

Most of tech’s top earners are used to living the good life. From private boats to private, uh, “entertainment,” these guys get all the perks most of us can only dream of. Even the most powerful players, though, started somewhere — and some of their early endeavors are more than a little endearing.

Behold, then, TechCult’s “Before They Were Billionaires: 7 Stories of Not-So-Sudden Success.” Take notes… it might just pay off.

1. Michael Dell (CEO, Dell)

michael dell

HEADLINE: Spicy chicken can make you millions.

NOW: Oh, poor Michael. He slipped 30 full places on a recent Forbes ranking of technology CEO earnings, falling from the sixth-highest annual salary to a pitiful 36th position. Don’t feel too bad, though: The guy with his name on millions of computers has more than a few million dollars. Dell is estimated at a worth of $17 billion — a fortune that makes him the 40th richest person alive.

THEN: Dell’s had a brain for business since long before he developed the body of an adult. Little Mikey D. made some of his first bucks hustling cashew chicken as a 12-year-old. He saved the cash from his Chinese restaurant days and started a stamp collection, buying and selling enough high-price stamps to get his first Apple computer. That led to a newspaper subscription sale startup, which in turn led to his first BMW. He makes it sound so easy, it almost makes you sick.

Dell placated his parents by taking some pre-med classes in college, but his real passion came in his spare time: He bought used computers, refurbished them, and went door-to-door to sell them. Once he hit the $180,000 mark in sales, his folks agreed it might not be the worst career in the world. Dell dropped out, started his company, and pulled in $6 million the first year.

2. Bill Gates (Chairman, Microsoft)

bill gates

HEADLINE: Don’t mess with the LPC.

NOW: Gates was the world’s richest man for more than a decade before relinquishing the title to investor Warren Buffett this past year. That’s right, Billy Boy is slumming it now at an oh-so-yesterday sum of $58 billion to his name. Geez, $58 billion…talk about the poorhouse.

THEN: Gates’ story makes it sound like he has some street cred: He got his computing start working with the LPC. But this initially impressive acronym won’t get you far with the likes of Snoop D-O double-G, you see. The LPC, unlike Snoop’s similar-sounding LBC, isn’t about ganking fools and getting up in yo bitches. Instead, it’s the Lakeside Programming Group — a fittingly dorky clan Gates helped form at his high school. As part of that group, Gates pulled in his first $20 Gs by creating and selling a traffic monitoring program called Traf-O-Data. It saw plenty of success, until its customers realized the guy behind it was only 14 years old.

Gates never had a “real job,” per se. He went straight to Harvard as a pre-law student but soon dropped out to form Microsoft with his buddy, Paul Allen. And the rest, as they say, is history.

3. Steve Jobs (CEO, Apple)

steve jobs

HEADLINE: Illegal business CAN pay off.

NOW: The Jobber only pulled in $14.6 mil last year, dropping him to number 11 on the list of high-earning tech CEOs. That may not sound bad right now, but when you consider that he made $646 million in 2006, it’s a bit of a decrease. Still, we suspect he’s doing all right.

THEN: Jobs’ first job, believe it or not, was working for HP. As a high schooler, the presumably ladykilling teen took a summer gig at the tech giant’s Palo Alto electronics plant. He went on to meet partner-in-crime Stephen Wozniak in college and started a “blue box” business (unrelated to any blue ball business that might have been simultaneously occurring). The boxes let people make free long-distance calls — yes, illegally — and sold like hotcakes for $150 a pop. From that crime-tinged venture, Jobs went to work at Atari, where he helped create the game Breakout.

Jobs then jaunted around the world, spending some time in India and at a farm commune in Oregon before meeting back up with Wozniak and deciding to start a computer company. Wozniak sold a fancy calculator and Jobs sold a van to get the capital, then the two opened their first Apple store in Jobs’ parents’ garage. Ah, how things have changed.

4. Jeff Bezos (CEO,

jeff bezos

HEADLINE: Farming the Internet for a family fortune.

NOW: Bezos is considered the 110th richest person on the planet, with a cool $8.2 billion in his back pocket. Oddly enough, though, his average annual income is only about $1 million. The rest comes primarily from stock — he owns 24 percent of Amazon’s assets.

THEN: Jeffrey the kid grew up on a farm in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His earliest work in the tech field started as a toddler, when his parents say he got ahold of a screwdriver and took apart his own crib. All right, not quite high-tech, per se — but not bad for a toddler.

Bezos worked on Wall Street for a while after his scholastic career, where he first noticed the potential for business on the then-barely used Internet. He researched the most profitable mail-order models and decided books were the easiest to translate into an online storefront. Bezos moved to Texas and set up three Sun systems in his garage, which became Amazon’s first headquarters. His parents, incidentally, were among the biggest initial investors: They put in $300,000 from their life savings. How’s that for building a nice retirement fund?

5. Larry Ellison (CEO, Oracle)

larry ellison

HEADLINE: Parents just don’t understand.

NOW: You might not hear the name “Oracle” as often as “Microsoft” or “IBM,” but the company falls just behind their footsteps when it comes to software production — and its CEO falls within the same club of serious moneymakers. Ellison is estimated to have a fortune worth $25 billion, putting him at number 14 in Forbes’ overall billionaire ranking. His annual salary? About $192.9 million.

THEN: Larry ain’t always been so good-talkin’ and nice-mannered. The seemingly untouchable symbol of success was said to have had a troubled childhood, clashing with his adoptive parents and becoming a bit of a rebel. He moved to California after dropping out of school and worked at some jobs that were slightly low-paying compared to his current career — an insurance company worker, for example, and an associate at a Wells Fargo bank branch.

Before long, though, the illustrious Mr. E landed a gig as a programmer at a company called Ampex. It was there where he met his future partners and planted the seed that would become Oracle. Not bad for a guy who started in insurance.

6. Jen-Hsun Huang (CEO, Nvidia)

jen hsun huang

HEADLINE: Ping pong can have promising potential.

NOW: Graphics processors grab big bucks. As the 61st highest paid CEO on record, Huang commands $24.6 million a year in his role as ruler of Nvidia. How do you like him now?

THEN: Legend has it Huang was sent to a Christian boarding school in oh-so-luxurious Kentucky — by mistake. The story goes that his aunt and uncle, both recent immigrants of Thailand, misunderstood the pamphlets and thought it was a nice prep school.

Huang’s first claim to fame came a few years later and had nothing to do with computers: He played table tennis in the U.S. Open tournament and actually placed third in the junior doubles competition.

From there, Huang finished school and got jobs at LSI Logic and AMD before founding Nvidia. That’s the smashing story, no spin attached.

7. Samuel Palmisano (CEO, IBM)

samuel palmisano

HEADLINE: If you know how to score and have a rep for being great at sax, you will go far.

NOW: Palmisano’s pulling in $24.3 mil a year as head honcho at IBM, helping him snag the number six spot on the overall list of top-paid tech CEOs.

THEN: This guy’s been hitting the right notes since he was a teen. Palmisano actually played sax with The Temptations while he was in high school, believe it or not, filling in for someone in the band while it was in his hometown. It was only a one-time gig, but it earned him a nice chunk of change — $1,000. The soon-to-be Silicon Valley star almost became a star in the sports world, too: Palmisano played as an offensive lineman on his high school football team and, the story goes, was offered a tryout slot to play the same position with the Oakland Raiders. We doubt he regrets turning it down.

There you have it: seven guys who built their own empires from scratch. Sure, a couple of ’em might have had a cushiony start — but others stumbled onto success on their own, without much of an advantage. Just think of Michael Dell and his self-paved path to glory, or Larry Ellison and his trouble-to-triumph tale.

So, what the hell have you done today?