5 Celebrities Who Started Surprisingly Successful Businesses
Achieving fame in one area sometimes gives people the misguided idea that they’re destined for greatness in all things. Perhaps that explains the string of failed celebrity business ventures, from Steven Spielberg’s Dive, a submarine-themed restaurant that lasted for a few years in the mid-1990s before quietly sinking, to Natalie Portman’s line of vegan footwear, which flopped back in 2008. Apparently, building a successful business requires more than just a famous face.
Yet a handful of celebrities have managed to buck the trend of business failure. Whether it’s because they are natural entrepreneurs or just have the good sense to surround themselves with competent partners, they’ve turned their ideas into cash cows. In some cases, efforts that initially seemed like a vanity project or lark have turned into seriously large companies, with millions of dollars in revenue and numerous employees.
Here are five celebrities with surprisingly good business sense.
1. Francis Ford Coppola
Many people are aware of Francis Ford Coppola’s side business in wine. But The Godfather director also owns a cafe in San Francisco, a literary magazine (Zoetrope: All-Story), a line of pasta and pasta sauces called Mammarella Foods, and five resorts in Belize, Guatemala, Argentina, and Italy.
The success of all these ventures, plus his film production company American Zoetrope, has allowed the acclaimed filmmaker to stay largely independent of Hollywood in recent years. Coppola has used the profits from his wineries and other businesses to fund movies that might otherwise not get made, like 2007’s Youth Without Youth. Coppola has said he doesn’t see a big difference between making movies and making wine.
“People find it unusual because I am an artist and also a businessman but all I am doing is following my instincts for things that seem to be fun and pleasurable. I don’t have any secret formulas,” he told the Financial Times in 2015.
2. Jessica Alba
Jessica Alba is the modern poster child for celebrity business success. She founded The Honest Co. in 2011 after conventional baby products left her with a rash on her arms. Today, the company is valued at $1 billion, but it took years of work to get the venture off the ground. When she initially approached people about her business idea back in 2008, they were skeptical.
“People just saw me as this girl in a bikini in movies kicking butt — maybe not the brightest bulb,” Alba said at the Forbes Women’s Summit in June 2015. “It took three and a half years of condescending nods and pats on the back of ‘good luck,’ or ‘go back to endorsing things’ or ‘go do a perfume.’”
Surrounding herself with experienced business partners, from tech people to product developers, was key to turning The Honest Co. into a thriving venture, Alba has said.
“If I went in there and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to put together this business from scratch all by myself,’ I’m sure it would have been a lot more difficult to get VCs to take me seriously, but once you have the right partners, it isn’t,” she told Inc. magazine.
3. John Elway
Athletes have a decidedly mixed record of financial success after their playing careers end, with many blowing through their generous salaries and ending up bankrupt. But some, especially those with recognizable names, are able to find success in other lines of work.
Opening up a car dealership is a particularly popular option for former sports pros. Everyone from Michael Jordan to Alex Rodriguez has set up shop, with mixed results. Jordan’s single dealership in North Carolina seems to be doing fine, while Rodriguez recently sold his stake in his Houston Mercedes-Benz dealership.
Hall-of-Famer John Elway is one of the more successful celebrity car dealers. The ex-quarterback has been involved in the car business since 1989. He spent a decade building up a chain of Denver-area dealerships, which he sold in 1997 for $82.5 million. He’s since gotten back into the business and now owns several dealerships in California and Colorado.
4. Jay Z
Jay Z was a businessman long before he was a rapper, even if his business wasn’t a legitimate one. The hip-hop mogul who’s now worth at least $550 million got his start selling crack cocaine as a teenager in Brooklyn in the 1980s. And he says the experience taught him valuable lessons that he’s used to build a successful career.
“I know about budgets. I was a drug dealer,” he told Vanity Fair in 2013. In fact, his career as a performer was initially supposed to be a stepping stone to bigger things.
“I threw everything I had into Reasonable Doubt, but then the plan was to move in to the corner office and run our label,” he wrote of his first album in his autobiography Decoded.
Jay Z’s career as a rapper may have lasted a bit longer than he planned, but he didn’t let the corner office dream slip away. He’s founded a successful record label, entertainment company, sports management agency, and clothing line, and he’s also the force behind the streaming music company Tidal. The latter venture hasn’t been nearly as successful as his other efforts, but that’s a rare misstep from someone who’s previously seen most things he’s touched turn to gold.
5. Paul Newman
At this point, there’s probably an entire generation of people who know Paul Newman not as an Academy-Award-winning actor but as the face of his eponymous food brand, Newman’s Own, which he founded in 1982. Since its inception, the company has donated all its profits — more than $430 million — to charities like the Farmer Veteran Coalition and Safe Water Network.
But Newman (who died in 2008) didn’t set out to start a big business or even give a lot of money to good causes. He was just a man who was famously finicky about his salad dressing. He’d prepare his own combination of oil, vinegar, and seasoning in restaurants and at home, sending any extra home with family and friends in an empty wine bottle.
Eventually, Newman got the idea that he could sell the stuff, and what started out as a lark eventually turned into a multi-million-dollar business. At first, he even resisted the idea of putting his name and face on the bottle, but finally realized that his fame would help move the product. It did, and Newman’s Own turned a profit in its first year.
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