5 CEOs Who Started Out in SMEs

1 Minutes

When your business is looking to recruit a CEO, it’s a big decision that shouldn&rsquo...

By Pareto Team


When your business is looking to recruit a CEO, it’s a big decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Because they’re tasked with driving the strategy for your entire business, most companies will play it safe, opting for someone who has swathes of experience and a proven track record.


However, it’s important to remember that no CEO is born with that experience. Everyone has to cut their teeth in the world of business and start at the bottom of the ladder. It could even be the case that your future executive recruit is already working for your business, just waiting to be discovered. Even some of the world’s most successful and celebrated CEOs had to start somewhere, spending time growing with the company, taking on new challenges and training to gain the skills they needed in their later career as a powerful exec.


Here are our top five CEO stories, focusing on people who started their career in an SME before going on to become business powerhouses.  


1. Howard Schultz – former CEO of Starbucks

Now a household name in his own right, Howard Schultz joined Starbucks before the world’s most famous coffee brand was even well known. In 1982, Schultz was appointed as director of retail operations and marketing, at a time when the brand had only 60 stores in the Seattle region. It wasn’t until Schultz visited Milan that he saw an opportunity to turn Starbucks into a social hub selling specialist coffees, rather than a shop for purchasing coffee beans.

The original owners were reluctant to turn Starbucks into a café chain, so Schultz left and started his own small café chain – Il Giornale – before later purchasing Starbucks and turning it into the global phenomenon it is today, with over 30,000 cafes in 78 countries[1]


2. Jeff Bezos – Amazon CEO

Jeff Bezos may be one of the wealthiest people in the digital world, but his vision for Amazon was originally much smaller – starting off as a virtual bookstore run from his garage at home. Within the space of just a few months, Amazon had managed to branch out across the world and surpass traditional bookstores, becoming an e-commerce powerhouse that gave people a platform to shop with ease. Eventually, Bezos expanded Amazon into the world of CDs and videos, then games, clothing and electronics.

Today, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer[2]. Bezos also owns the Washington Post, has over 100 million people subscribed to Amazon Prime and has developed a raft of cutting-edge technology, including the Kindle, Fire TV and the Amazon Alexa.


3. Reed Hastings – Netflix founder

Not a born businessman, Reed Hastings originally studied mathematics before joining the US marines. After a few years, he returned to America, became a software developer and founded his own SME – Pure Software – in 1991. Producing tools for troubleshooting software, the company grew exponentially in its first few years, but Hastings struggled to manage the responsibilities of a CEO. He sold the company in 1997 and used the money to co-found Netflix, originally a DVD rental service, alongside Marc Randolph.

Learning from his challenges with Pure Software, he became the company’s CEO and recruited the best talents to support the growth of the company. In 1999, Netflix offered a subscription service to rent unlimited DVDs and by 2007, introduced the streaming channel that has become synonymous with the brand, amassing over 150 million subscribers worldwide[3]


4. Susan Wojcicki – CEO of YouTube

Susan Wojcicki had no idea the difference she would make to the world when she decided to rent out her garage space to Sergey Brin and Larry Page in 1998. The two would later go on to form Google, the world’s leading search engine. At that time, Wojcicki worked for a small consultancy firm, R.B. Webber & Company, before being appointed Google’s first marketing manager, making her only the 16th employee of the company in 1999. While Google was already making headway as a free search engine, Susan focused her efforts on paid ads, overseeing the development of services like AdWords, Google Analytics and AdSense. She also supervised Google’s video services, but found they were constantly competing against YouTube. This prompted her to push the founders to purchase YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006[4].

In 2012, Wojcicki became CEO of YouTube and continued to grow its market share, with the company’s estimated worth now over $100 billion.


5. Emmett Shear – Twitch Co-founder

Straight out of university, Emmett Shear started his own website with three others called Justin.tv. Relatively small and very simple to begin with, the site included a 24-7 live feed of one of the partners, Justin Kan. From there, the four founders saw an opportunity to open the website up to other live streamers. The site grew from there to become one of the largest of its kind, with gaming the most popular type of content published by users.

Shear quickly noticed the staggering difference and set up the gaming-specific live streaming service we know today as Twitch. A few years later, the company was sold to Amazon for just shy of $1 billion[5] and has since grown to welcome more than 15 million viewers every single day.



Recruiting the perfect CEO can make a huge difference to your company, but finding the right person with the right skills and background can be a challenge. As these success stories show, however, even the most successful of business leaders sometimes have humble beginnings.


At Pareto, we know the impact the right person can have on the direction and future of your company. Explore our executive recruitment and training options and find your next CEO superstar today.

Get in touch on 0808 271 9872

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