Posted on Jan 13, 2016

Five Small Business that Made It Big

Who doesn’t love a classic, “rags to riches” success story? The narratives reveal a human desire to see the underdog succeed – and they simultaneously act as inspiration. The stories reveal that anyone can make it big with a good idea, the right planning, and a little luck. But as a small business owner, it can be hard to envision yourself ending up as the main character in one of these success stories. The more common response is, “Great, but that would never happen to me.”

Well, we’re here to change that common misconception, proving that you (yes, you!) can end up like these famous, hugely successful people — who started out as small business owners with only a dream to pursue, a great idea to make it a reality, and the work ethic to see it all through. So pause what you’re doing, prepare your mind for inspiration, and check out these top 5 businesses that made it big:


Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream

Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen of “Ben & Jerry’s” had been friends throughout childhood. Ben decided to drop out of college and Jerry got into medical school. Even though they were on completely different life paths, they took a course on the methods surrounding, of all things, how to make ice cream. This was 1977. When they received a $12,000 investment, they opened their own ice cream shop, and used their wit and charm to create fun names for their flavors. They used healthy ingredients sourced from local farmers and suppliers and kept their marketing simple. The concept caught on as people enjoyed their sense of humor (and politics) while consuming something delicious. The sale of their company in 2000 brought them to about $326 million.


Elon Musk: PayPal, Zip2, Tesla Motors and SpaceX

Born in South Africa in 1971, Elon and his family relocated to the United States. He was fascinated by computer programming and by the age of 12, he had already started his journey to be an entrepreneur by selling a “Basic-based” video game. After college, he and his brother started the Zip2 Company, with a $28,000 loan from their dad. Zip2 was one of the first internet city guides for the newspaper publishing industry. Their contracts with the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times helped to generate revenue until they sold the product to Compaq for $307 million.

One of Musk’s idols was Nikola Tesla, whose vision was to make electricity a free commodity for all. Musk used his imagination to create a future that only he could see. He used this same vision to create PayPal, which was sold to Ebay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. These previous successes opened the doors to Tesla Motors and now SpaceX.

If you’re not familiar with Tesla Motors, Inc. or SpaceX, you’ll be hearing a lot about them soon. Tesla is an automotive and energy storage company that designs, manufactures, and sells luxury electric cars and battery products. SpaceX is one of the few privately operated space programs and Musk has aligned with NASA in quite a few joint missions.


Anita Roddick: The Body Shop

Anita’s background included being born to Italian immigrants after WWII. She was into environmental awareness and carried this with her as part of her life’s mantra. She had an innate attraction to unique philosophies, which fueled much of her success. Her background  allowed her to travel the world, learning from the farming and fishing communities about the ways to have a business while maintaining an ecological balance. She started the Body Shop simply as a way to keep a livelihood for she and her family while her husband traveled.

She learned about the financial and business end while coordinating with vendors to create products that supported her own philosophies and those that wanted healthy and natural products. Her concept of ‘going green’ was her own but was also poised at just the right time when the rest of the world was adopting these same attitudes. She expanded the stores and in 2006 sold the company to L’Oréal for £652 million.


Catherine Cook: My Year Book/MeetMe

It might be difficult to believe that Catherine Cook and her brother, Geoff Cook, started My Year Book when she was 15 years old. The idea came to her when she and her brother moved to a new town and began flipping through a yearbook to see if they knew anyone. They were both astounded at the amount of useless information in the books. They then came up with the brilliant idea of putting all of the information on the internet. Geoff was eleven years older than Catherine and had already started a couple of websites that were doing well. He sold the websites for an excellent profit and took the $250,000 and decided to start the My Year Book website.

Using offshore developers, they created the site and then added a marketing twist by wearing t-shirts to promote it. The text on the t-shirts included “are you the prettiest girl in high school? How about the dumbest? Find Out”. To engage people to join they added games and quizzes that were teenager-concentric. The growth was slow, but as it grew in popularity they got more investors and enhanced the website into a more sophisticated platform. By this time, Facebook was already going viral, and their pitch was not for existing friends, but making new friends. In 2011, US-based social media technology company called Quepasa approached them for a merger deal and that brought a hefty $100 million ($18 million cash). They have since rebranded to “MeetMe.”


Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook

A lot of controversy surrounds the launch of what has become the largest social media network in the world. Mark Zuckerberg was only 19 years old and a sophomore at Harvard University when he got the idea. He was a computer whiz kid, learning how to program an Atari game at an early age and as he got older, he understood the complexities of the coding world; eventually being considered a programming prodigy. While there have been quite a few lawsuits, the main focus has been that others claim that the concept of FB was theirs; a claim that Zuckerberg flatly denies. He did hire some of his fellow Harvard students to help in building the website and some of the more tricky details of the suits surround the type of ‘agreements’ that were in place with these people.

While the cost of a website is not that expensive, this website was a lot more sophisticated, involving layers of privacy and as the popularity grew, the number of supporting servers also grew. In the beginning, it was only being offered on the campuses of various colleges and as it expanded, Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to complete the FB project. He is quoted as saying:

“You know, someone needs to build a service like this for the world.” But I just never thought that we’d be the ones to help do it. And I think a lot of what it comes down to is we just cared more.”

There you have it — Just five of hundreds of thousands of business owners throughout recent history whose great ideas made it big. So matter what challenges you face along your journey, keep focusing on the future and the fact that there is nothing keeping you from being the next big success story. Use these examples to discover new inspiration, fuel your passion for your business, or spark new ideas that could take your company to the next level. It could happen and we believe in you.

Good luck!