It’s the question that has plagued young people and would-be entrepreneurs for years: How do you figure out your path in life when you are not sure what you want to do?
A good start would be to ask Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. The two billionaire businessmen sat down a few weeks ago with a group of students from Columbia University students and addressed this very question. (You can see a transcript of their entire chat here – it’s a fascinating read).
For Gates, the key to becoming a successful entrepreneur, or having a successful career, is to be passionate about what you do – although it can take years to find out what that is.
"I wasn't even sure it was software. I was kind of obsessed with it but then it wasn't clear it could be a career. When that happened, it was great,” Gates, who started a programming business at high school before founding Microsoft, told the audience.
"Some things will expose you to a lot of different businesses, a lot of different work opportunities. And I think you can make your first few jobs optimized for getting that exposure. And then when you see the thing that you want to be fanatical about and just jump on to that.”
Buffett was even more specific in his advice – forget about money and just go and work for someone you admire.
"I mean, I offered to go to work for Ben Graham because there was nobody I admired more in the business than him. I didn't care what he paid me.
"When he finally did hire me in 1954, I moved from Omaha to New York and I didn't know what I was getting paid until I got my first pay cheque. But I knew I wanted to work for Ben Graham. And I knew I would jump out of bed every morning and be excited about what I would do and I would go home at night smarter than I was in the morning.”
The experience of Buffet and Gates shows that wealthy entrepreneurs often start in very different places to where they end up.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at how some of Australia’s rich business people started their careers.
When Frank Lowy immigrated to Australia from Israel in 1952 he took a job working long hours as a truck driver and eventually started a small delicatessen in the outer Sydney suburb of Blacktown with fellow migrant John Saunders. Seven years later, the pair opened their first Westfield Shopping Centre.
An engineer by training, David Hains appears to have been a natural-born entrepreneur. By the age of 15 he was working and by the age of 18 he was in management. At 20, he had set up his own company buying, restructuring and then selling off mainly manufacturing companies.
Sydney’s apartment king Harry Triguboff might be one of Australia’s most respected property industry figures, but he actually started out studying textile technology in Britain and working there in the textile sector.
Seven Network boss Kerry Stokes started work at the age of 14 and held down a huge variety of jobs – screwing the dials on radio sets, picking grapes, cutting sugar cane, shearing sheep and running a small transport business. In 1959, as television came to Perth, he saw a chance to make money installing television aerials. He would later sell insurance and real estate before getting into shopping centre development.
Retail king Gerry Harvey dropped out of university to enter the world of retail. But his start was a long way from the polished megastores of Harvey Norman – Harvey sold ice-cream and vacuum cleaners door-to-door before starting his first business with partner Ian Norman.
The owner of the WIN regional television empire, Bruce Gordon, started working at the age of 14 as a stage magician, and later became involved in promotion and production on Australia’s famous Tivoli circuit. He would later become the Australian agent for Lucille Ball’s production company and go on to be an executive at Paramount Pictures before buying WIN in 1979.
Some entrepreneurs know exactly where they are going. Linsday Fox’s father worked as a truck driver and when Fox left Melbourne High School at the age of 16 he bought his first truck – before he was even old enough to have a license.
The late mobile phone entrepreneur John Ilhan started out working at on the production line at Ford Motor Company, but left when he was passed over for a promotion. He joined Strathfield Car Radio in 1987 and opened his first mobile phone store four years later.
Port Lincoln-based tuna baron Hagen Stehr started life working as a German merchant marine before entering the French Foreign Legion. It was during a stint as a sailor that he jumped ship in Port Lincoln and fell in love with a local girl. He bought his first tuna boat in the late 1960s and built an empire that now extends into artificial fish breeding.
The founder of financing company FlexiGroup, Andrew Abercrombie, trained as lawyer and started his first firm just two years after graduating from Monash University. The firm’s speciality was film finance deals, which then had some attractive tax breaks. This contact with the entertainment world led Abercombie to represent some interesting clients, including rock band INXS.