Entrepreneurs

9 business icons who turned a career calamity into billions

Tim Mullaney, special to CNBC.com

Back from the professional abyss

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Losing a job can be a bummer, but not the end of the world if you take the right lessons from it.

Indeed, a surprising number of business icons survived bad job experiences and went on to billionaire successes.

Lululemon founder Chip Wilson had a very high-profile "bad" job experience when comments he made in response to complaints from women that his company's yoga pants were see-through became infamous. Billions were shaved off the company's value. Wilson ultimately resigned. "I feel like I've kind of been in prison," Wilson recently told The New York Times as he attempts a comeback with a new clothing company, Kit and Ace.

Alastair Campbell, author of "Winners: And How They Succeed," told CNBC, "Everyone doesn't need to be fired at least once to succeed, but it is important to have a mind-set that tries to get good out of bad. ... Many of the people I interviewed were very clear that they learned more from failure than from success."

Here are nine icons who had bad job experiences before going on to even bigger successes.

By Tim Mullaney, special to CNBC.com
Posted 15 June 2016

Mark Cuban

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in the crowd at their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 27, 2016 in Oakland, California.
Getty Images

Cuban said he got sacked from a computer consulting sales job at 25 after disobeying a boss's order not to meet with a potential client.

By then, after also talking his way out of an earlier job by being too aggressive for his boss's taste, Cuban says he had figured out that "sales cures all."

Now Cuban is worth $3.2 billion. Cuban rolled his share of the sale of start-up Broadcast.com into owning the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, along with other investments. But first he began his own computer-consulting firm — and stole the client his boss fired him over.

The lesson: Some people are really just not built to work for other people.

Walt Disney

Portrait of American movie producer, artist, and animator Walt Disney (1901 - 1966) as he sits outdoors, beside a wooden door, California, early to mid 1950s.
Gene Lester | Getty Images

Walt Disney famously was fired by the Kansas City Star because an editor thought he wasn't creative enough. He went on to found The Walt Disney Co., whose $160 billion market cap these days largely reflects assets like ABC Television and the ESPN sports network that were bought after his death. But its foundation was animated characters and movies that sprang from Disney's own mind: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and a menagerie of other cultural icons.

The lesson: Few managers are blessed with the ability to recognize true creativity.

Mike Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg eyes run for the presidency.
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When Mike Bloomberg was let go by the old Salomon Bros. in 1981, he didn't have to worry about his next meal: He had a $10 million severance. But rather than invest in bonds and collect a mid-six-figure income, he bet the ranch on his idea for next-generation data services that began by serving bond traders like Bloomberg himself once was.

Now the CEO of Bloomberg L.P. and former New York City mayor, 74, is worth $43.5 billion, good for sixth place among American billionaires, according to Forbes.

The lesson: If you have a big idea, don't let one company's inability to exploit it get you down. Or as Bloomberg told New York magazine, "I never, ever, look back. The day I got fired at Salomon, I think I said, '[Expletive] them!' on my way out the door."

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs at Macworld in 2004.
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Most people would love to have had the life the Apple founder did as he turned 30: Rich, creative and celebrated. But he was also about to be fired by the CEO (John Sculley) and board he had brought in to help him build Apple.

During a few months off, Jobs spent time thinking about what to do next and what he really loved. He met his soon-to-be wife, founded NeXT and began Pixar Animation. Apple would acquire NeXT, with Jobs taking his old job back. Then came the iPod, the iPhone and everything else that made Apple. The road to that began with a calligraphy course in college that seemed impractical at the time but charted the way toward the design-conscious sensibility that set Apple apart. "The only way to do great work is to love what you do," Jobs said in his famous 2005 Stanford commencement address. "If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle . ... Keep looking until you find it."

The lesson: Take the time to clear your head after a bad job experience. Plan your next move, connect what you do to what you love — and don't settle.



Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey
Donna Ward | Getty Images

Oprah was sacked from her job as a local news anchor in the late 1970s and shunted off to a local afternoon talk show in Baltimore called "People are Talking." You could say it turned out all right: The show morphed into the nationally syndicated show that ran for 25 years, becoming the foundation of her $3.1 billion fortune. Now she's running her own cable network and shaking up Weight Watchers as a 10 percent shareholder.

Oprah has said this bit of "luck" was in part due to persevering in a bad situation and being under contract. She was unhappy in the news anchor role, but instead of quitting stuck it out. "I lost that job. They said I was too emotional. I was too much. But since they didn't want to pay out the contract, they put me on a talk show in Baltimore. And the moment I sat down on that show, the moment I did, I felt like I'd come home."

The lesson: Fit matters. Just because you're bad at one job and Winfrey has said she wasn't a good anchor doesn't mean you won't be fantastic at something else.

Lee Iacocca

Lee Iacocca
Robert B. Stanton | WireImage | Getty Images

The charismatic CEO saved Chrysler in the 1980s — but only after a humiliating firing as president of Ford, the company he had hoped to lead one day. Accounts differ on how CEO Henry Ford II did the deed and who was at fault: Ford's defenders have painted Iacocca as always scheming to get the top job, while Iacocca himself claimed Ford told him he just didn't like his underling. Either way, Iacocca was out.

The lesson: Never pick a fight with a boss whose name is on the door.


Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank

Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus
Rick Diamond | WireImage | Getty Images

The two co-founders of Home Depot were top execs at Handy Dan, another home-improvement chain, when they were sacked during what they had expected to be a routine 1978 budget-review meeting. They set out to build a company that was the opposite of where they had left: Where their boss had prided himself on being merciless, they would view spending on employees as a capital investment in the business.

"That was definitely a defining moment for my whole life, because it gave myself and my partner the chance to live certain values that we felt — because of our family backgrounds and upbringings and religious orientation — were important to us in terms of making a difference in other people's lives," Blank said in 2012.

The pair is worth a total of $6.6 billion today. Blank, 73, owns the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, while Marcus, 86, runs his family foundation. Handy Dan closed in 1989.

The lesson: Values matter. If the job doesn't fit your values, you're better off without it.

J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter author JK Rowling arrives at Edinburgh Castle where she will read passages Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince.
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The author of the "Harry Potter" series was once a secretary for Amnesty International. It's a professional experience that Rowling discussed in a commencement speech to Harvard University graduates on the theme of failure.

She told Harvard graduates the experience and the "scribbles" of others she came across at Amnesty International made the short-lived job the most important experience of her life.

"There in my little office, I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes. ... I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace. ... I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten eyewitness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes. … Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans to gain or maintain power. … And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before."

With a net worth that reached $1 billion before a surge of charitable giving reduced Rowling's absolute level of wealth, this bad job experience turned out OK. Rowling founded the nonprofit Lumos that works on many global issues.

The lesson: There's more than one kind of "bad" job experience, and some are much more productive than a single, deflating moment of being fired.