In 1916, John D. Rockefeller, the father of the petroleum industry, became the world’s first billionaire. Over a century later in 2023, there were 735 American billionaires and a total 2,640 billionaires worldwide, according to Forbes. That number may in fact be low — the Wealth-X Billionaire Census estimates there were 927 American billionaires in 2020.
Identifying those who are billionaires among those who have significant wealth can be difficult, because many are reticent about publicly discussing details of their wealth.
Also, for many, growing personal wealth is not a goal, but the byproduct of their business activities. In his book “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump — the only billionaire president in history, listed at number 1,259 on the Forbes Billionaires rankings as of 2023 — explains that money was never a big motivation for him, except as a way to keep score. “The real excitement is playing the game,” he says.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1916, Rockefeller was the only billionaire of the approximately 102 million people in the United States. As of 2023, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there are about 336 million people in America. With 735 billionaires in the country by Forbes’ count, that works out to one for every 457,000 residents or so.
Assuming that the number of U.S. billionaires will continue to increase at its historic rate of 6.49% annually, there will be more than 4,800 American billionaires by 2050, or one billionaire for every 91,000 people of the projected 439 million total U.S. population. Dreams of becoming a billionaire may not be as far-fetched as once believed.
What Is a Billionaire?
Simply stated, a billionaire is a person who has a net worth of $1 billion or more. In other words, if you can sell all of your assets for cash, pay off your debts, and have $1 billion remaining in the bank afterward, you are a billionaire. Having $1 billion in assets with debts of $900 million doesn’t make you a billionaire, although you and your family are unlikely to worry about future college expenses or retirement.
A billion dollars, like all large numbers, can be difficult to comprehend. As J. Paul Getty, named by Fortune magazine as the richest living American in 1957, once said, “If you can count your money, you don’t have a billion dollars.”
Here are some examples to help you wrap your mind around the concept of a billion dollars. For example, counting to $1 billion at the rate of a one dollar bill per second would be a lifetime career for three people working a standard 40-hour workweek. If you hired them at age 21, they would complete the task more than 44 years later, assuming they worked eight hours every day without taking a single sick day. The counted $1 bills would fill a building the size of a football field to a height of 8.3 feet and weigh more than 1,100 tons.
In terms of purchasing power, a billion dollars is the equivalent of the following:
- 9.174 million daily Disney theme park passes (25,134 years worth of daily visits, or pay for 1,000 friends to go to a Disney park daily for 25 years.)
- 27,000 Cadillac CTS luxury sedans, enabling you to drive a different luxury car every day for nearly 74 years. Alternatively, if you’re the frugal type, you could purchase a new Honda Civic every day for 128 years.
- More than 66 million Pizza Hut Pepperoni Lovers’ hand-tossed large pizzas or 167 million Big Mac meals, complete with french fries and a soda.
- More than 1,739,000 rounds at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, enough tee times to cover you and 99 of your best friends to play every day for over 47 years at this iconic and very expensive golf resort.
While some billionaires indulge in their wealth, own yachts, drive exotic cars, fly in private jets, and reside in multiple mansions around the world, others are surprisingly frugal. Warren Buffett, 5th on the Forbes list in November 2021, still lives in the same house in Omaha, Nebraska, that he purchased 50 years ago for a little over $30,000. And David Green, founder and CEO of Hobby Lobby, eschews the use of a private airplane, preferring to fly coach, according to a Forbes interview.
Common Characteristics and Experiences of Billionaires
While billionaires are unique individuals, a review of the Forbes list suggests many share common experiences:
Achieving Billionaire Status Takes Time
The average Forbes billionaire is over 60 years old. There are some notable exceptions to the rule as younger people are joining the ranks, generally because of products and services now possible through technological advances.
A few billionaires are under age 30 or were when they first joined the Forbes list, such as DoorDash founders Andy Fang (peaked at number 1,549 in 2021) and Stanley Tang (peaked at number 1,526 in 2021), and Luminar Technologies’ founder Austin Russell (peaked at number 1,991 in 2021). And 40-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (number 16) has a fortune estimated to be in excess of $60 billion in Meta stock.
Education Is Important, But Not Required
Many — but not all — of the billionaires listed by Forbes are college graduates. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the top billionaires have no college degree, including Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Zuckerberg (both Harvard University dropouts). Michael Dell (Dell Inc., University of Texas at Austin) and Larry Ellison (Oracle Corporation, University of Chicago) also failed to graduate from college.
Family Money Helps, But Is Not Critical
Statista reports that only about 10% of all billionaires considered themselves to have inherited their wealth. More than 72% of them believed they were entirely “self-made” billionaires. Others credited a combination of inheritance and hard work.
About one-quarter are partially self-made. They inherited family money and went on to create fortunes. Among them are Carlos Slim Helu, also known as “the Warren Buffett of Mexico” (number 16), the Koch family, Mars family members, and Abigail Johnson of Fidelity Investments (number 85).
About 15% are billionaires from their inheritances alone (Sam Walton’s legacy accounts for quite a few on the Forbes list). That is a bit more than the self-reported figure but is broadly in line with the notion that most billionaires grew their wealth over time.
Marriage for Billionaires Is a Mixed Bag
Marriage doesn’t seem to predict wealth, nor does wealth guarantee a happy marriage. As of 2023, about 45 of the 50 wealthiest Americans on the Forbes billionaire list had been married at some point. About 30 out of those 50 were currently married, including those who had previously been divorced or widowed.
Several of the richest people on the planet have had multiple marriages, such as Oracle’s Larry Ellison with four past wives and Revlon’s Ronald Perelman with five marriages.
Even fairly long billionaire marriages aren’t immune to breakups, like those of Bill Gates and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, which ended after 27 and 26 years, respectively. However, Nike’s Phil Knight (number 25) has been married to the same woman since 1968.
Careers in Tech, Finance, or Real Estate Can Pay Off Big
The source of wealth for many billionaires is their development of a disruptive technology and going mainstream through a public offering of their company. For example, Microsoft (Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Ballmer), Google (Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt), Amazon.com (Bezos), and Facebook (Zuckerberg) are companies made possible only by new technology.
Other billionaires participate directly in the financial marketplace, leveraging their own funds with capital investors to make extraordinary gains. Warren Buffett is perhaps the most famous Wall Street investor, but hedge fund managers such as George Soros (number 396), Ray Dalio (number 90), and James Simons (number 52) are representative of the 20% of billionaires who consider Wall Street home.
A third group — the real estate magnates — built their fortunes by owning and developing real estate, what many call the classic leverage system of a minimal down payment and a huge mortgage. This group includes Donald Bren (number 102), Donald Trump (number 1,259), Jeff Sutton (number 1,262), and David Walentas (number 1,333).
Keys to Becoming a Billionaire
Achieving billionaire status is not just a matter of hard work and determination, although those are necessary ingredients. Many of the uber-wealthy, including Buffett, Bezos, and Zuckerberg, acknowledge luck as having played a part in their success.
In addition to recognizing luck of birth and family background in their wealth, many of the most wealthy would likely also advise aspiring billionaires to do the following:
1. Listen to Your Own Drummer
Find your own niche, and don’t try to copy what has worked for other people. Concentrate on discovering what the world wants and needs.
For example, according to Fortune, a young man trying to find a cab in Paris in 2008 couldn’t find one, leading to the founding of “UberCab” and the development of a mobile app that connects riders with drivers in a sharing economy. The app was launched in 2010 in San Francisco and is now available in countries around the world. Uber‘s two co-founders — Travis Kalanick (number 724) and Garrett Camp (number 855) — are enjoying the fruits of their labors today.
According to Forbes, two MIT students, Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowski, founded a file-hosting service in 2007 because they were constantly forgetting their USB flash drives. Their service, Dropbox, made file sharing easier, yet secure. Dropbox trades publicly on the Nasdaq and its CEO, Drew Houston (number 1,518), has a net worth estimated at $1.8 billion.
Pursue those ideas that fascinate, compel, and will sustain you when the going gets tough.
2. Dream Big
What can you bring to the world that is unique, compelling, and helpful, with the ability to change lives and create a new business? No billionaire started a company to be mildly successful. As Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk said, “There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to live. Why do you want to live? What’s the point? What inspires you?”
At age 19, Bill Gates was one of the first to recognize that personal computers could revolutionize business, education, communications, and entertainment if their operation could be simplified so that everyone could use them. This led to the founding of Microsoft.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, recognized a future where virtual retailers could replace brick-and-mortar operations with lower costs, wider selections, and better customer service.
Billionaires are adept at discerning what can be and making it come true.
3. Be Totally Committed to Success
Forget passion — success is about obsession.
Mark Cuban (number 546), a billionaire in his early 30s after the sale of his company Broadcast.com to Yahoo, advises, “Don’t start a company unless it’s an obsession and something you love. If you have an exit strategy, it’s not an obsession.” When building his company, Cuban couldn’t keep a girlfriend, went seven years without a vacation, and didn’t even read a fiction book during that time: “I was pretty focused.”
Bill Gates never took a day off during his 20s while building Microsoft. Elon Musk has said, “Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.”
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
Realize that it is impossible to avoid all mistakes and pitfalls, so don’t be afraid of failure — even those of the magnitude that others consider spectacular and humiliating. Sam Walton’s first store in Arkansas went broke. Apple’s Newton platform was a colossal failure, but the lessons learned led to the iPad and the iPhone. And Apple’s Lisa computer was such a failure that Jobs lost his position with the company.
James Dyson (number 195, the English inventor of the revolutionary Dyson vacuum cleaner, created 5,127 prototypes over 15 years before having a product he could take to market. Carlos Slim Helu believes the greatest opportunities lie in situations where others are afraid they might fail, stating, “When there is a crisis, that’s when some are interested in getting out — and that’s when we’re interested in getting in.”
Forbes quotes Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Meta/Facebook, as having said: “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”
5. Pay Attention to the Details
According to Harvey S. Firestone, the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, “success is the sum of details.”
Steve Jobs, a co-founder of Apple and a recognized visionary, was notorious about his attention to details — according to associates, no detail was too small to be overlooked. According to NPR, Jobs once called a Google executive on a Sunday morning to explain that he was not satisfied with the color of the Google logo as it appeared on the iPhone.
In the early stages, companies are more likely to fail due an overlooked detail, not because the entrepreneur missed the big picture.
6. Build a Trustworthy Team of Advisors and Partners
No person achieves billionaire status alone — everyone needs help along the way. Just as Batman had Robin, Gates had Paul Allen and then Steve Ballmer beside him building Microsoft. Similarly, the “two Steves” (Jobs and Wozniak) led Apple in the beginning. Warren Buffett has worked with Charles Munger (number 1,274) since 1975.
A trusted confidante backs you up, serves as your sounding board, and is unafraid to deliver criticism when you need it. If you are the wagon master, he or she acts as scout to ensure nothing is missed or overlooked. He or she keeps you grounded and focused. Never be afraid of working with people smarter than you are or who possess tools you lack.
7. Never Forget the Customer
Invent, innovate, and invest in your products and services, always keeping customer satisfaction your number one goal. J.Paul Getty claimed that “the man who comes up with a means of doing or producing almost anything better, faster or more economically has his future and his fortune at his fingertips.”
Forbes contributor Jeffrey Doorman notes that 75% of the world’s billionaires made their money by selling something that their customers wanted. He notes that they made their customers better off and the result was a win-win for the customer and the billionaire providing the product or service.
Knowing that such incredible success is possible, you should keep in mind the following:
First, super-wealth doesn’t automatically lead to happiness. Russell Simmons, co-founder of the music label Def Jam and an almost-billionaire, claims, “If I know 15 billionaires, I know 13 unhappy people.” Warren Buffett has claimed that gaining the love of others is more important than financial success: “If you get to my age in life and nobody thinks well of you, I don’t care how big your bank account is, your life is a disaster.”
In short: Billionaires and those seeking to become billionaires frequently sacrifice family and relationships in their pursuit of the goal. Avoid that at all costs.
Second, statistics can be misleading. While the odds of being a billionaire today (1 in 457,000) appear to be more favorable than the odds of winning the Powerball lottery (1 in 175,223,510), becoming president of the United States (1 in 10,000,000), or being struck by lightning (1 in 700,000), achieving that level of assets is directly dependent upon the quantity and quality of “good ideas” you have that are implemented — and maybe how much you inherited from your parents or grandparents too.
In other words, success requires inspiration, dedication, and hard work, in addition to lots of luck.