It's More Than Just Luck for the 1%

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My colleague Alex Planes makes the argument that the 1% may have been lucky on their rise to the top, becoming successful because they did something first that nobody else had done. I agree in principle with this sentiment, but it's also my belief that hard work and determination can still lead to successful endeavors for anyone, not just the members of the Occupy movement.

Many of the richest people in the U.S. started from challenging circumstances to reach the height of the American dream. Many did, in fact, win the "birth lottery," being born into affluence. Warren Buffett, the "Oracle of Omaha," points out that he was designed for the American system and feels lucky to be born into it. Buffett had a leg up on most of America, being the son of a prominent congressman and investor who may have helped garner investors for his early investment partnerships, but by most accounts, Buffett is successful because he didn't rest on his family's laurels and actually sought to make a life for himself.

The 0.00013%
The Forbes 400 list is a mixed bag of names, including people who simply inherited their wealth. The people on this exclusive list have an average net worth of $3.8 billion, with a total net worth of $1.5 trillion. A lot of this net worth is held in stock of the companies founded and run by the people in the list, but some is also held in houses, art, private planes, and other such trappings of wealth. Each person on the list has a story behind his or her wealth, and it's surprising how much hard work paid off for some of the people on the list.

Thanks, Big Blue!
Larry Ellison, third on the Forbes list and founder of Oracle (NAS: ORCL) , came from humble beginnings. He was born to an unwed mother in New York and was adopted by his aunt and uncle when his mother decided she couldn't take care of him after an early bout with pneumonia. His adopted father, an accountant by trade, continually told Larry as a young boy that he was "good for nothing." He dropped out of two Illinois colleges and headed west to work for technology companies, eventually settling on the idea for a database company later named for its first product. When another large technology company, IBM, decided to pass on the development of large databases, Ellison stepped in, and the rest is computing history. Since going public in March 1986, Oracle has returned an annualized 22.4%.

Making money in a conventional way
Sheldon Adelson is another example of finding opportunity and turning it into wealth. Before gaining wealth as owner of Las Vegas Sands (NYS: LVS) , Adelson started a business selling toiletry kits to motels, was a mortgage broker, and started a charter-tours business. It wasn't until he founded COMDEX, a premier computer-trade show in 1979, that he made his fortune. He determined that he would be able to rent convention space from hotels in Las Vegas for 25 cents a square foot and lease the space to computer and technology venders for $25 or more. The timing was perfect, as many computer and technology companies started in the early '80s, including Apple and Microsoft. Adelson parlayed the success of COMDEX into the purchase of the Sands Hotel and Casino, demolishing the hotel to build the Venetian, and was among the first to expand gaming into China.

Name the company after yourself, make a fortune
Our last hard-working billionaire redefined the way that consumers bought PCs. Michael Dell was the son of an orthodontist and a stockbroker. Early affluence did not prevent young Michael from working for himself, investing early earnings into stocks and precious metals as a teenager. Later, while at college, he started an informal business upgrading the computers of other students at the University of Texas. This would be the early entity of what would soon become Dell (NAS: DELL) . Instead of designing a new type of PC, Dell made the customization of PCs the name of the game and was soon reporting about $1 million in sales per day from its website. Though it has lost a bit of luster lately, there was a time in the 1990s when Dell was the world's largest PC maker.

A few of many
These are just three examples of megabillionaires who simply took advantage of opportunities presented to them. There are many more. Was there some luck involved in their success? I think so. But there are other components of success beyond luck. If we could predict the future, we could rush headlong into the next big thing before anyone else and make our billions. Or you can do what these three brilliant men did and simply "build a better mousetrap" within things that already exist. The choice is yours. In the meantime, add these three companies to you My Watchlist to track what these men do in the future.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorRobert Eberhardlongs to be in the 1% but owns no shares of the companies mentioned here. Follow him on Twitter, where he goes by@GuruEbby. The Motley Fool owns shares of Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, and Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Apple, Dell, and Microsoft and creating bull call spread positions in Microsoft and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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