john henry entrepreneur

Story of the John Henry Entrepreneur: The Man Who Built a Billion-Dollar Empire

Elena Hudgens
By Elena Hudgens 9 Min Read

John Henry was an entrepreneur with a vision. He had the patience and the perseverance to make his dream come true. He had insights about how hard work, passion, and dedication could lead to success. He also knew how to think like an outsider, question conventional wisdom, and make big bets on what he believed in. Here are six lessons that you can learn from this legendary entrepreneur about building your own empire.


John Henry Entrepreneur’s story

John Henry Entrepreneur origin story is a heartwarming story about perseverance and believing in your own vision no matter the odds. He started as a blacksmith at an early age but never gave up on his desire to pursue his dream. He spent hours a day at his forge but he always dreamed of building the biggest industrial steel-driving company in the world. It took John Henry two decades to become a multi-millionaire. In the late 19th century, industrial technology was the norm. The horse-powered steel mills were common, and owning a successful business was like being a king. However, John Henry had a vision to modernize steel-driving technology and break the mold of the industry. He ultimately became the richest man in America, but this guy was anything but average. 1. Move fast and break things.

What can you learn from John Henry Entrepreneur?

1. Start before the miracle of your ability to create your own business has come to you. Every John Henry enterprise started small, even the Big Iron Mill. John was a coal miner in the 1800s. He studied hard, practiced the grueling job, and developed the unique set of skills and talent to become a coal miner. He took enormous risks. He and his family slept in bunkers underground to survive the dangerous work. He was underpaid and overworked. He struggled to support a family of six children. And yet, his incredible gifts led him to build a true empire. 2. Do your homework before you jump into anything. John was heavily involved with his ironworks before he bought his first share of stock.

Where to find the right team

Most of the inventions that have altered the world around us were thought up by many people in many different organizations. Charles Eames, Ray Kroc, and William Shockley, all had their work tested and approved before being added to the world of the newly-created product. Other inventors also thought of ideas but they didn’t know how to push it to the next level. John Henry Entrepreneur was well aware of the challenges he faced. In order to make his vision a reality, he spent years just struggling to find the right people to join him and execute on his vision. John Henry created teams of the right people because he knew that it took them to the point where their ideas and execution were ready. Inventing and financing a huge business How do you create a company with a billion-dollar impact?

Where to find your inspiration

We all have ideas that we think will change the world. Sometimes we have a clear vision of what we want to do, and other times we may have an abstract idea that we may never have considered. Either way, your goal is to be patient and persistent until you find an idea that gives you what you are looking for. John Henry said, “Hurt not thyself with pluck or cry: for courage is bird that looketh upon thee, and casteth upon thee in strength.” Related: The 21 Most Successful Female Entrepreneurs in the World I suggest that you find out what makes you excited and then turn that inspiration into action. You have to be willing to put in the work, though. You have to stay the course. You can never give up. This is how you develop perseverance, strength of character, and grit.

Keep it simple

There are many obstacles to overcome, and John Henry was no different. With his limited resources, he was often forced to be resourceful. He frequently opted for simplicity over complexity. For example, many successful entrepreneurs will begin with a single product. Building a large enterprise with multiple products or services requires serious discipline and years of effort. Instead, John Henry chose to hone his skills with just one product: a simple cart. A simple cart is an inexpensive, portable device that allows users to easily transport and lift heavy loads, such as shovels, wheelbarrows, and buckets. By designing and marketing such a simple, robust product, he became the inventor of the modern wheelbarrow.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

It’s an incredible feeling to know you’ve created something big. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes, it feels like you’re going down the wrong path or not getting enough support from your team. John Henry had an incredible ability to compartmentalize and turn his feelings into action. He also had an uncanny ability to bounce back from his setbacks. As an entrepreneur, you’ll get the benefit of both perspectives if you face challenges head on instead of trying to pretend you didn’t make any mistakes. Keep your eyes on the prize. It’s easy to get sidetracked and let your goals become blurred.

Be willing to pivot

In 1993, John Henry approached Dan Gilbert, owner of a construction company, and asked him to build a new home for him and his wife. Dan Gilbert was unwilling to take a gamble on the unknown entrepreneur, so he refused. But the entrepreneurial spirit was strong in John Henry, and he kept trying to get Dan Gilbert to accept his proposal. He tried convincing him with excuses, threats, and bribes. Finally, in April 1994, after several years of relentless pursuit, John Henry told Dan Gilbert he had no choice but to take the bet. In the end, the contract for the new home cost John Henry more than he had initially estimated and he had to pay a premium to secure the deal. But he did it, and the home was a success, which was a huge victory for his growing empire.

Where to start?

1. Determine what you’re good at. Every entrepreneur thinks they’re good at something, but the truth is they’re not that good at everything. They have to build up to their skillset. For John Henry, his skillset was a tenacity to get something done, coupled with the courage to fail. In one interview he said, “I’ve tried every way and made every mistake except for one which was fatal to me.” When you get started, don’t get discouraged if your first effort isn’t the one that succeeds. By the time you’re a master of one area, you can move onto a new one.

2. Understand what makes customers come back for more. John Henry understood this. If you don’t spend time understanding the customer, you can’t grow your business. Learn more here.

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Posted by Elena Hudgens
Elena Hudgens is an entrepreneur with 10+ years of experience. She started her journey by building her own e-commerce website on Shopify and turned her $1000 savings to millions in just 2 years. Soon she started different ventures in which she failed and succeeded. And now, she's on a mission to help other entrepreneurs with her life and business lessons.

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