Opportunities

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Asked how he had managed to acquire his vast fortune, Commodore Vanderbilt is supposed to have replied, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” As always, Vanderbilt’s perspicacity was far ahead of his grammar, and he had put his finger directly on capitalism’s secret weapon. In capitalist economies, whenever a new opportunity appears, entrepreneurs quickly find means to profit from it. But because they are free to pursue their self-interests as they see them, they profit as well from myriad ancillary opportunities initially undreamed of by most.

Consider the personal-computer industry, which did not even exist fifteen years ago. Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak got the ball rolling in 1976 when they developed the Apple 1 computer, and they have both profited handsomely from their seminal concept. But so have tens of thousands of others, often in ways far removed from the manufacture of computers.

Today computer word processing is slowly squeezing the life out of the typewriter business. Desktop publishing is profoundly changing the printing and publishing industries. Companies making computer games are thriving. Companies manufacturing modems, scanners, backup and storage devices, monitors, and other hardware have appeared in the hundreds. Software companies have proliferated. Informationretrieval services profitably provide their subscribers with information on everything from stock prices to genealogy to astrological forecasts.

Often the greatest fortunes are created not by exploiting the basic technology but from the endeavors that are derived from it. The country’s youngest billionaire, William H. Gates, never designed a personal computer; he designed the basic software that allows most of them to work.

 

Earlier industries have had similar success stories. Television made such visionaries as David Sarnoff and William S. Paley immensely rich, but nowhere near as rich as Walter Annenberg became. Annenberg was not even in the television industry, for he was a publisher. But his idea to put out a weekly magazine that listed TV programs soon became the largest-circulation magazine in the world, TV Guide. Annenberg recently sold his company for $3.2 billion, mostly thanks to its flagship magazine. Likewise, A. C. Nielsen gave his name to the language—and greatly affected the history of both television and advertising—by developing a way to measure just who was watching what on the tube.

An early example of an American ancillary fortune is that made by Darius Ogden Mills in the California gold rush. Mills arrived in the first wave of forty-niners, and while very, very few of those who rushed to California to moil for gold died rich, Mills died very rich indeed. But he never panned a single ounce of the precious metal.

D. O. Mills (as he was known to family and friends) was born in 1825 in North Salem, New York, then deep in the countryside but now on the outer edge of New York’s suburbs. The Millses were a locally prominent family (his father was North Salem’s town supervisor in 1835), but poor investments reduced the family circumstances, and when his father died in 1841, Mills had to seek employment.

He became a clerk in New York City, and five years later his older cousin E. J. Townsend, who was impressed with Mills’s energy and competence, invited him to become the cashier of his Merchants’ Bank of Erie County in Buffalo, giving him a one-third interest in the enterprise. The bank prospered, and Mills with it. The cousins soon enjoyed excellent credit with the local Buffalo banks and even with the big New York City banks.

The news of gold in California first reached the East in the late summer of 1848. Almost immediately two of Mills’s brothers, James and Edgar, set out for San Francisco with a cargo of merchandise, sailing the twelve-thousand-mile route around the Horn. D.O. at first was not interested in joining them. He was making very good money in Buffalo and saw no reason to abandon a promising and lucrative banking career in order to pursue a will-o’-the-wisp in far-off California.

Then on December 5, 1848, President James K. Polk delivered a message to Congress declaring the gold find to be authentic. Along with the message, the President sent a very impressive bit of proof, a twenty-pound gold nugget that had been found in a stream by an assistant to Col. R. B. Mason, military governor of California.

At once gold fever swept up and down the eastern seaboard, and Mills changed his mind about making the trek to California. His cousin readily assented to Mills’s journey. In fact, he promised to look after their interests in Buffalo, cover any drafts Mills made on the bank, and take a partnership interest in any enterprises Mills might establish in California. Having decided to go, Mills acted with all the quickness and determination that would characterize him throughout the journey and indeed his life. When the friends who were planning to accompany him were held up by business, he told them: “I am going, and I shall start in ten days.”