Funny thing is, I actually have a prime example of someone who turned a small business into a big success.
I bought my store from Mike Richardson, founder and owner of Dark Horse Comics, Dark Horse Studios, Things From Another World comic chain, etc. etc.
He opened a little hole in the wall over on Greenwood in 1980. He'd been a graphic arts major in college, and his original focus was on arts and books. But he was also a comic book fan, and the store quickly morphed into a comic and game store. (D&D was just coming on strong.)
Bend was coming off a bit of a boom, and in fact, Mike moved into a much bigger space next door on Greenwood. Then the recession hit Bend, and he shrank back to the original store and hung on. He moved Downtown in late 1982 or so, to our current location.
At that point he left Bend, and started a store, first in Beaverton and then in Vancouver, and then another and another. I managed the store for a year, and then bought it. Mike and I kept in touch for a few years, and went our separate ways. He changed his Pegasus stores to TFAW.
But I was there at the beginnings of his empire, and observed some things.
1.) Mike gravitated toward artistic people. I got hired by him, because STAR AXE and SNOWCASTLES had already come out, and ICETOWERS was on the way. He liked talking writing, and art, and he loved the genre. I think he overlooked my social awkwardness because I was a writer.
He knew other writers and artists who were starting out, belonging to an APA, which was a kind of collective magazine, who's list of writers and artists are now well known. He was able to use these connections to publish his first few comics, and then to snag the licenses to Predator and Aliens (it was DH who had the brilliant idea of combining Predator versus Aliens) and the biggest of all, Star Wars.
He hired creative people, like Randy Stradley, who helped him run his empire. He told me once that he wasn't surprised that I'd succeeded, because he knew talented people when he saw them. Who's to argue? He also saw possibilities: his second comic was a one-shot called, BORIS THE BEAR SLAUGHTERS THOSE TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA CRITTERS, which on the heels of all the copies of TMNT, was very timely.
And, little appreciated by me at the time, he was very creative himself. He came in one day proudly showing off a character he created called THE MASK. I think I patted him on the head and said, that's nice....
2.) He was incredibly competitive. He had been a college basketball player, and he was tall! But what I remember was him challenging me to a ski race. Now, here's a guy who had just taken up skiing, and I was someone who had raced competitively from the age of six through high school, and at my peak, I was pretty damn good. Very good, really. But he was serious about racing me....
3.) He was willing to take great chances. He leveraged every business to the hilt, and then leveraged them back. Restaurants, stores, toy makers, cards, anything and everything that he saw as a possibility. Way more risk than I'd ever be comfortable.
I always figure he took that check from my buying the store and published the comic that got him over the hump....
4.) He was a very strategic thinker. I always used to make the joke that I survived in Bend when he couldn't. But the truth was, he was smart enough to see that Bend was a deadend to his ambitions. He told me once that he made more money the very first week in Beaverton than he ever made in a month in Bend. Tactically, I could argue with some of his decisions -- I don't believe he was a great store keeper, frankly, though he was very hardheaded and often made money in situations that I would have simply broke even. But he was always looking at the bigger picture. He saw the Japanese phenom before most people, for instance.
I knew that Mike has made the big time when I read an interview in the USA Today with George Lucus, and the newspaper described the people sitting at the table in Planet Hollywood as Lucus, Spielberg, some other huge muckymuck, and Mike.
I just never really had the ambition that Mike had. I grew my four stores, and when they collapsed, I refocused on keeping my one little store profitable and gave up on getting bigger because I realized I didn't WANT to get bigger. More money, sure, but I thought I could see ways to doing that tactically, not strategically. It remains to be seen.
When I was dealing with Mike, I felt he had integrity, that he got overstressed and over forgetful. I didn't really know he was so ambitious, frankly. I think he went with the flow, and kept on going.
So, yeah, it's possible to get rich starting from a small business.
5 days ago