Almost every big business today began as a startup–Apple, Google, Starbucks, you name it. In the beginning, most of them also had a shoestring budget and little investor interest. In fact, they were probably at a disadvantage compared to today’s startups. Even 10 years ago (let alone 20 or 30), “angel investors,” “crowd funding,” and shows like “Shark Tank” were not well known or didn’t exist. Startups from long ago had to build a reputation and get investors the old-fashioned way–with almost no digital tech for help.
If you’re thinking of starting a company or you’re already knee-deep in the process, you could probably use a little inspiration. Check out these startups that truly “started from the bottom”–and now find themselves more profitable and valuable than most companies.
1. Starbucks: The very first Starbucks opened its doors in Seattle back in 1971, founded by three former students from the University of San Francisco. One was a writer and the other two were teachers. They didn’t brew coffee or sell pastries–they simply sold beans after being inspired by roasting legend Alfred Peet. Eight years later, it was a savvy former Starbucks employee who ended up buying the company and helping to turn it into the mega chain it is today.
2. Apple: Most people know the story of Apple. It started in a garage, headed by a college dropout. You don’t need a ton of money (or really any at all) to necessarily create your first product. You do, however, need to fill a gap in the market and–if possible–offer something that’s never been seen before.
3. Kentucky Fried Chicken: “The Colonel,” or Harland Sanders, was 62 years old when he began the move toward profiting on his chicken recipe. He’d already had numerous careers, including working as an insurance salesman and a gas station employee. He started selling chicken from a roadside stop in Utah during the Great Depression and began to find success. It was a welcome break from hamburgers and became one of the first chains to go international. However, in the beginning, Sanders simply traded his services for free rent at the filling station.
4. McDonald’s: Two brothers opened the first McDonald’s “carhop” in 1937 after moving to California from New Hampshire. In the early years, they sold mostly BBQ but, after a decade, discovered burgers were their most popular menu item. In order to up efficiency, the carhop approach was replaced with the “production line principles” that make up what we think of as fast food today, and the menu was re-created to feature burgers, fries, and shakes. Historians say it was almost always cheaper (and easier) to open a restaurant in the 1930s than it is today, as it required no outside investment in some cases.
5. Google: In 1995, a couple of college kids met when one was giving the other a campus tour. Computer geeks through and through, they eventually started the first version of what would eventually become Google–BackRub–one year later. Within the next five years, the students who initially worked out of garages found enormous success and even tried to sell to Excite (remember them?)–but were turned down. Of course, it all worked out for Larry and Sergey in the end.
6. Arthur Murray Dance Studios: Arthur Murray was a startup king before “startup” was a word. He was a private dance instructor at the turn of the 20th century, and in 1914 was asked to teach Baroness de Kuttleson. Word spread, and within five years Murray was teaching thousands of children. Adults followed, and by the 1930s Murray had so many students knocking at his door that he began to hire and train more instructors. He was forced into franchising (though he didn’t complain) and had stumbled onto an industry with almost zero overhead. Teaching private lessons can be done in homes and requires only skill–with very few supplies or tools.
Let’s not kid ourselves. It takes a certain amount of luck to find success like these companies did. Murray made it because he met the right person at the right time (the aforementioned Baroness) who liked his work. You also don’t necessarily need money in order to kickstart your small business, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. These folks found success because they saw needs that weren’t being addressed, and had the skill to provide the right solutions. In the end, though, don’t discount timing and networking. It might only take one thing to push you down the path to success.