Before Israeli-American media titan Haim Saban brought "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" from Japan to America and notched his first billion, he had to pay off a lot of debt: about $600,000 worth.
In his early 20s, after serving in the Israeli army, Saban found himself in the music industry. He was playing bass guitar for a band but "holding them back musically," as he told Guy Raz on NPR's podcast, "How I Built This, " so he became their manager, instead. "You manage one band and you manage two bands and then you build a business around that."
By 24, Saban was working as a tour promoter, bringing famed artists like Ray Charles and José Feliciano to Israel. But, "despite my success, quote-on-quote, I was in debt of $600,000" after just a few years, he told Raz.
Saban, who made down payments to artists by borrowing against future ticket sales, took a hit from the Yom Kippur War: "I had a big group of harpists from Japan in October of 1973 ready to tour the country and the Yom Kippur War took us all by surprise. There were no concerts, no shows — there was no way for them to even leave because the airport was closed. I had to return the money. I had paid them in advance."
That, compounded with the devaluation of Israeli currency, he said, left him deep in debt: "I was in a total state of panic."
Saban moved to Paris and his luck turned: He signed a 9-year-old singer, Noam Kaniel, and produced an album that went platinum. That allowed him to start a production company and set up his own label.
After eight years of running his label in Paris, Saban moved to Los Angeles and discovered how profitable music for cartoons could be. He started composing for "Inspector Gadget" and "Heathcliff."
"When people would ask me what do you do, I'd say I make music for cartoons," he told Raz. "I could see the compassion in their eyes. I gotta tell you, there was no room for compassion: I was making money hand over fists."
And Saban had known he wanted to make money from a young age. When he was 12, his family moved from Egypt to Israel, where the five of them lived in a one-room apartment and hustled to make ends meet. His dad sold pencils and erasers door-to-door, Saban recalled: "Some days he would sell three pencils and some days he would sell no pencils, so it was, to say the least, a very hard life. … I wanted to make money because living under these conditions was not a very exciting prospect."
Saban's success writing theme songs for cartoons was just the beginning. On a trip to Japan In 1984, he flipped on the TV in his hotel room and stumbled upon a show that "had these kids in spandex kicking monsters' butts," he told Raz. "And I thought, 'Hey, this looks like fun.'"
He bought the action scenes, wrote a script and pitched his show to anyone who would listen. The few people who heard him out were unimpressed: "They said, 'Why do you embarrass yourself?'"
This went on for eight years, until 1992, when he landed a meeting with Margaret Loesch, an executive at the Fox Kids Network. "She's the only person who said, 'There's something there,'" Saban told Raz, adding: "Her boss even told her that she's playing her career by putting this show on. ... But she believed in it. And she just put it on."
"Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" aired in 1993 and was an immediate hit.
Fox Kids wanted to buy Saban's production company but Saban wouldn't budge. Instead, he struck a deal with Fox's Rupert Murdoch and created a joint venture, Fox Kids Worldwide. When the network sold in 2001 for $5.3 billion, Saban became a billionaire overnight. His share, $1.5 billion, was the biggest cash payout ever to an individual in the history of Hollywood.
Today, Saban runs an investment firm called the Saban Capital Group and is worth an estimated $2.9 billion, according to Forbes.
He has learned that "gut is many times more important than brain," he told Raz. "I have to tell you that the biggest hits that I had in my life and in music and in television and in business have been always as a result of significant rejections and repeated rejections.
"So every time I have an idea that people tell me, 'No, don't do that,' I say, 'Oops, I'm on to something.'"
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