3 things you need to become a billionaire

383515 01: People walk around the Harvard University''s main campus December 19, 2000 in Cambridge, MA. Members of a committee searching for a new president for Harvard University nominated Vice President Al Gore to succeed the retiring president of the institution. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers)
iStockphoto

Commentary:

(MoneyWatch) This week in the Harvard Business Review, Anthony Tjan, a writer and venture capitalist, studied the Forbes list of billionaires to try to identify what they had in common. Guess what? Billionaires, being a class of people for which HBR has a particular regard, are all wonderful human beings. But what they share beyond their lofty goals, according to Tjan, may surprise you:

I believe that there are three categories of purpose that are interesting to observe, and consider which one dominates your company's mission. Here they are:

1. Making the world more beautiful

2. Making the world more fun

3. Making the world more efficient and smart

These purposes purport to explain why some of the world's wealthiest people got that way. Note the clever link between cause (purpose) and effect (billions.) Didn't quite see how it happened, did you? It's magic. You wouldn't get away with this kind of logic in high school, but apparently at Harvard, it's just fine.

Let's think about this a little more carefully for a second. Van Gogh wanted to make the world more beautiful and, I'd argue, he did a fine job of it. Oops, no billionaire. There's a fantastic Scottish painter named Peter Howson. Even Madonna thinks he's great. But sorry, no billionaire. Oh well, what do you expect of artists?

The desire to make the world more fun sounds simple. Lots of teachers do that too. It's hard work and badly paid, so no billionaires there either. Strange. My son is studying music in Boston. He has lots of teachers who've dedicated their lives to making the world more beautiful AND more fun. But I guess they're all losers because -- well, they're not billionaires. Probably, between gigging and teaching and practicing, they're just not working hard enough.

And then there's the desire to make the world more efficient and smart. I guess you could include among that bunch Terry Gou, the CEO of Foxconn. Running one of the world's most profitable companies, he probably is a billionaire. He's also the guy who thought the way to reduce his workers suicides at the company, which makes electronic devices for many of the world's biggest tech companies, was to make them sign a contract promising not to kill themselves. So he's definitely a case we want to study carefully because while Foxconn may not be a very nice place to work, it sure is efficient.

So there you have it -- your road map to billionairedom. Simple really. Makes you wonder why aren't there more billionaires. All those people in hospitals and museums and fast food outlets? Guess they're just not working hard enough.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.