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Flash Fortunes: How the Suddenly Rich Make Their Money

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At least once every day, I allow myself to indulge in an elaborate fantasy in which I win the lottery ($120 million, to be precise) and promptly quit my job, buy a bunch of houses and an island in the South Pacific, and settle into life as a fabulously wealthy woman.

A girl can dream, right? But we all know how unlikely it is that that scenario will come to fruition. Don’t people who want to stockpile money have to work hard for their entire lives? Not necessarily. Some individuals, in a matter of months or even hours, find themselves with more dough than they know what to do with. What’s their secret?

They Sit Back and Collect

In October 2008, it had been ten years since a student named Sergey Sudev, from the Republic of Moldova, had seen one of his uncles. But that didn’t stop Sudev’s relative from bequeathing a staggering 950 million euros (in 2010, the equivalent of more than US$1.3 billion) to his nephew. Agents showed up in Moldova to let Sudev know that he’d made such a lasting impression on his uncle a decade earlier that the man had decided to leave Sudev his fortune. In a country where the average monthly salary was a mere US$350, Sudev found himself skyrocketing so fast to the top of Moldova’s weathiest-people list that the first chunk of his inheritance likely went toward whiplash treatments.

Hardworking New York accountant Mort Zachter didn’t come into quite as much money as Sudev did, but the sharp contrast between what he believed to be his real life and the truth of his family’s circumstances made his sudden inheritance no less shocking. Zachter grew up in a Brooklyn tenement with parents who toiled 119 hours per week in an East Village bakery owned by Zachter’s uncles Harry and Joe, who paid Zachter’s folks in leftover bread and cakes. Life was hard, but it was all Zachter knew … until one day in 1994, when he was thirty-six, he discovered that Harry and Joe had actually amassed—and were gifting him—$6 million. Even more surprising, Zachter’s parents had known about Uncle Harry’s wealth all along, as well as about the fact that young Mort would inherit it all one day, but they’d been too proud to accept a penny of his money as income. Finally given some financial breathing room after all that time, Zachter took advantage of his windfall to chronicle the whole saga in a 2007 autobiography entitled Dough: A Memoir.

They Bring a Simple Idea to Life

Princeton University computer genius Jeff Bezos started out with a down-to-earth dream: to sell books online. His scheme capitalized on the notion that people would rather purchase their reading material in the comfort of their own homes than spend hours browsing bookstores and library shelves. By eliminating the need for inventory, Bezos was able to sell his literature at a discount that proved irresistible to customers. The result: a little website called Amazon.com (perhaps you’ve heard of it?), launched from a Seattle garage, that netted Bezos an $8.2 billion fortune when he took the company public, and that allowed him to begin exploring his passion for extraterrestrial travel with a new company called Blue Origin, which is currently working on a plan to transport paying clients into space aboard a rocket-propelled vehicle.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Italian Moretti Polegato kept two feet planted firmly on the ground and dedicated his energy to designing Geox shoes in 1994. The shoes’ soles are covered with tiny holes that release foot sweat, and thus odor—who wouldn’t want to pay for a pair of those? Not Nike, apparently, which rejected Polegato when he tried to sell the concept to the footwear mega-manufacturer. Too bad, Nike—Geox is now a publicly traded company that, as of 2008, had earned Polegato a cool $3 billion and made him no stranger to the finer things in life, including luxury cars and five Arabian horses. Giddyup, Geox.

They Invent Something Silly

Jonah White has enough money to buy a home anywhere in the world, but he chooses to live in tiny Calhoun County, Illinois—and for good reason: it’s the seat of his entire fortune. Back in the fall of 1993, White was at a college football game at his alma mater, Missouri State University, when he noticed a dental school student named Rich Bailey wearing a gag mouthpiece filled with buck, gap, crooked teeth. White, a budding entrepreneur, approached Bailey after the game to inquire about his hillbilly appearance; the two became fast friends and, soon, business partners. Today, the toothsome duo’s company, Billy-Bob Teeth, has manufactured more than twenty million pairs of prosthetic dentures—and earned a similar amount in profit.

In 1987, Scott Stillinger, who had studied product design at Stanford and had two young children, realized that his kids were having trouble mastering the skill of catching. To help them, he bought a box of rubber bands and fashioned them into a ball with loose, easy-to-grab pieces. The result was so successful that Stillinger and his brother-in-law Mark Button decided to try their hand at mass-producing the toy. Within its first twelve months on the market, their Koosh Ball (so named for the koosh sound it made when it landed) became wildly popular; it went on to sell fifty million units. In 1994, Stillinger and Button sold their company, OddzOn Products, to toy manufacturer Russ Berrie and Company, Inc., which Hasbro bought for a whopping $100 million three years later. On the ball, indeed.

They Develop a Smartphone App

For Brian Greenstone, the founder of Austin, Texas–based Pangea Software, branching out from designing gaming applications for Mac computers to designing apps for the iPhone—namely, Enigmo and Cro Mag Rally—proved to be the best business decision of his life to date. Between July 2008 and January 2009, Enigmo, a physics-based puzzle game, was downloaded more than 810,000 times, which translated into almost $1.7 million in profits for Pangea—after Apple took its 30% commission. Soon after, in March 2009, Greenstone announced that Pangea had decided to abandon Mac-based applications altogether and focus exclusively on iPhone software development. His main reason? Pangea’s former earnings were “lunch money” compared with the killing the company could make in its new incarnation.

In February of that same year, more than twenty thousand paid iPhone apps were available—but, surprisingly, that didn’t mean the market was saturated. An independent developer and Sun Microsystems engineer named Ethan Nicholas spent months of his free time finalizing the details for a video game app called iShoot, before releasing it to the iTunes App Store in October 2008. While Nicholas waited for his product to take hold, he simultaneously developed a free version of the app, called iShoot Lite, which featured an ad for the paid app to attract prospective customers. Of the 2.4 million people who downloaded iShoot Lite, 320,000 liked the game so much that they decided to purchase the full app for $3—which caused iShoot to, well, shoot to number one on the app-popularity list. The game’s success garnered Nicholas $37,000 in a single day (which just happened to be the same day he quit his job at Sun) and more than $1 million over the course of the app’s life to date.

Mo’ Money, No Mo’ Problems

Some people work day jobs and pour their energy into making a side venture successful, until all their hard work finally pays off—both literally and figuratively. Others, eschewing the nine-to-five lifestyle in favor of promoting harebrained schemes that they think will get a laugh—and a buck—out of the general population, earn their money the zany way. And still others strike it rich when they least expect it, inheriting millions of dollars from some curmudgeonly relative who’s invested wisely. No matter how these folks come by their cash, their lives have changed dramatically in a brief period of time, and they’re still reaping the long-term rewards. So who says money can’t buy happiness? Certainly not I.