Meet a new generation of founder CEOs changing the way we work, shop, and play.
Innovators and leaders
A trailblazer is a special breed in business. Fortune set out to identify entrepreneurs whose very young companies — they had to have been officially launched in the past five years — are already disrupting industries or changing the way businesses or consumers behave. But this isn’t just a group of innovators. They’re business leaders: Each of these founders is also the CEO (or equivalent) of his or her company. At a startup, that often means setting a vision and a strategy while managing the business, winning customers, motivating employees, and crucially, figuring out ways to remove the challenges that stand in the way of the company’s success. And isn’t knocking down barriers the very definition of trailblazing?
Fadell, 43, wants to do for thermostats what he did for music players as a designer at Apple: Make them smart, sleek, and easy to use. “They’re ugly,” Fadell says of traditional models. Adds Fadell, who was confronted by thermostats’ shortcomings while designing his home in Lake Tahoe a few years ago: “They’re hard to use. And they generate a lot of cost. It makes no sense at all.” He and fellow Apple AAPL alum Matt Rogers launched their first “learning thermostat” in 2011 — a $250 self-programming device that proved so easy to install that 90% of customers do it themselves. The product has won rave reviews and, according to Fadell, is selling as well as the iPod in its early days.
Fernald wants to do Big Ag the organic way. It sounds like a contradiction, but at Belcampo, the food company she founded in 2011 with investor Todd Robinson, she’s built a network of sustainable farms from Uruguay to California, a slaughterhouse, an agri-tourism lodge, and for its rum operations, a 72-foot still and a biowatt power plant. Says the 37-year-old: “I develop ideas, and they get bigger and bigger.” Fernald spends most of her time in California, where the company will open three more butcher shops by year’s end. “We want our product to be the best thing you’ve ever had,” says Fernald, who knows quite a bit about quality foods. She was once tapped by Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters to run a national Slow Food festival, and currently moonlights as a judge on Iron Chef America.
Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz
Andreessen, 41, and Horowitz, 46, are making waves in Silicon Valley not just for their investments (they’ve backed Facebook FB , Skype, and Instagram, among others) but also for the institutional support they provide their portfolio companies. The firm’s staff of 66 offers unlimited assistance in design, marketing, hiring, and more. Andreessen Horowitz has seven general partners, all of them former entrepreneurs; the goal was to create a venture capital firm that the founders would have sought out during their own startup days some 20 years ago. Andreessen co-founded Netscape in 1994, and Andreessen and Horowitz in 1999 co-founded software company Opsware, which Hewlett-Packard HPQ acquired in 2007 for $1.6 billion. Entrepreneurs are also drawn to Andreessen and Horowitz themselves. (The firm doesn’t have a CEO; the co-founders share management duties.) Horowitz is one of tech’s most sought-after CEO mentors, and the superconnected Andreessen sits on the boards of eBay EBAY and HP.
Rent the Runway
Hyman, 32, didn’t revolutionize fashion so much as democratize it. Her rent-a-dress company, founded with Harvard Business School classmate Jenny Fleiss, enables customers to lease high-end apparel at 10% cost. Hyman says the business succeeds because it empowers its 3 million members. “We deliver Cinderella moments,” Hyman says. Rent the Runway is also a dream come true for its 170 fashion brands that have come to view the company as a powerful marketing engine. That’s quite a feat in the exclusive fashion industry, particularly for a woman who broke into the business with no previous fashion, technology, or operations experience. Rent the Runway is also turning into a fairy tale for its investors, including Bain Capital Ventures and Kleiner Perkins. Sources estimate that the company is now valued at about $240 million. Having made fashion more accessible, Hyman is turning her eye to the business world, pushing for family-friendly offices. “Workplace,” she says, “is the new family.”
Chen’s crowdfunding pioneer, Kickstarter, enables quirky entrepreneurs and artists — the kind of folks who wouldn’t normally qualify for venture capital — to raise money. (Some 43% of projects listed on the site get successfully funded, helping to create films, books, art, gadgets, and games. So far these projects have raised more than $400 million.) A populist spirit pervades the enterprise: Funders don’t actually get shares in the projects they back, and Chen says he’ll never take Kickstarter public or sell it.
Lei, 43, is often called China’s Steve Jobs — with good reason. His company, Xiaomi, makes luxe-feeling smartphones, and like the iconic Apple founder, Lei is obsessed with delighting consumers. “I always ask myself these two questions,” Lei writes in an e-mail. “Can Xiaomi give the customer a great surprise? And can Xiaomi customers win praise for their recommendations to friends?” He appears to be succeeding: Last year, the company says, it sold 7.2 million phones and raked in $2 billion in revenue. By making sophisticated, affordable, and hard-to-find phones (Lei limits the number of units he makes), Xiaomi has developed a cult-like following. Just like Apple.
Before there was the term “big data” there was Cloudera. The computing platform, created by Olson, 50, and a dream team of engineers from Google GOOG , Yahoo YHOO and Facebook (co-founders Christophe Bisciglia, Amr Awadallah and Jeff Hammerbacher, respectively) allows IT departments to deploy Hadoop, the powerful but unwieldy open-source framework that processes and stores massive amounts of data. Today “big data” is translating into big business for Cloudera. Customers include eBay, Nokia NOK , Orbitz OWW , and Chevron CVX , and the company is valued at $700 million.
Thanks to Chesky, 31, a whole generation thinks differently about booking accommodations. Airbnb, started when Chesky and co-founder Joe Gebbia rented out air mattresses in their apartment, has helped more than 4 million travelers find lodging. Chesky certainly doesn’t have the same pedigree as other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The former artist, designer, and bodybuilder (yes, bodybuilder) never attended business school, and he didn’t know what an angel investor was. To enhance his business chops, Chesky, along with Gebbia and third co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk, participated in part of Y Combinator’s competitive startup class, a three-month program aimed at accelerating young startups with seed money, exposure to contacts, and expert advice. Today the young CEO regularly stays with Airbnb hosts, though with a company valuation of more than $2 billion, he probably isn’t sleeping on any air mattresses.
Ljung and co-founder Eric Wahlforss created their user-generated audio site mostly out of self-interest. The two engineering students and amateur musicians wanted a platform to freely exchange their music and provide instant feedback. There was YouTube for sharing videos and Flickr for sharing pictures but nothing to share audio. “We were really frustrated that it was so hard to connect,” says Ljung, 31. “Sound had been completely left out of the Web.” They launched Berlin-based SoundCloud in 2008 for hobbyists and professional “sound creators” and went head-to-head with MySpace, which at the time was the preferred site for sharing music. SoundCloud’s simple interface won the day, and the company has continued to innovate with products for smartphones and tablets. Indeed, a growing number of consumers are using SoundCloud to record and share audio from live events (think music festivals or even breaking news). Today the platform boasts more than 30 million users, including Beyoncé, 50 Cent, and Skrillex.
Dorsey’s mobile-payments company, co-founded with Jim McKelvey, has been transformational for small merchants, enabling them to accept credit cards. Some 3 million businesses use the platform to process about $10 billion in annual payments. Dorsey’s out-of-the-box thinking also applies to his management style: At the company’s San Francisco headquarters, the 36-year-old CEO can often be found working on his iPad at one of the company’s “open collaboration” tables. Dorsey says this allows him to be more accessible to his company’s 450-plus employees. (He also leads a weekly neighborhood cleanup project with staff.) But Dorsey’s unconventional leadership approach doesn’t mean he isn’t seeking mainstream success. Last year he struck a deal last year to process all credit and debit transactions at more than 7,000 U.S. Starbucks locations.