It’s easy to look at major corporations and assume that their progress has been a straight line. Someone had a brilliant idea and some good business sense, they founded a company, and that company grew. It turns out that most of the companies that you can recognize in an instant have a history nothing like that.
Some companies start out creating a product that is a lot different from the product that they’re famous for, today. Others decided that they needed to get into business for bizarre and esoteric reasons. If you’re curious how the biggest names in business today got their start, keep on reading. You’ll find yourself surprised. These are not the tales of ingenuity we’ve been taught in school. Instead, they’re weird, wacky, and occasionally confusing tales of accidental success. Read on to find out if you’re on the right path to build a famous company.
Every company has an origin story.
It’s a little bit like superheroes but with less spandex and more accountants.
For some companies, it’s fairly straightforward.
Have an idea, start a business, profit.
But those aren’t the companies we’re talking about today.
No, the companies we’re talking about today are WEIRD.
We’re about to go DEEP.
But before we get too terrifying…
We’ll start with some stories that will just make you go “huh. Well, that’s weird.”
First up, let’s talk about American Express.
You might think of them strictly as a credit card company, but originally they did shipping. Their name suddenly makes a lot more sense.
You may be surprised at how old some of these companies are.
For example in 1940, Standard Games starting making slot machines until they were outlawed in the US. They then started exporting to Japan as…wait for it…Services Games or Sega.
Some names just don’t make any sense.
Bank of America actually started out as Bank of Italy. That makes no dang sense except that it was a small bank for Italian immigrants.
Speaking of major changes to a company…
Do you know about Twitter, that internet giant? It started out as a podcasting company that almost died when iTunes launched. What a pivot!
If you want a business that took a wild swing into an unrelated field…
Look no further than The Marriott. You know them as a hotel, but did you know they started as a root beer stand? For 20 years before they became a hotel? Weird.
Ok, those stories are all well and good but let’s get truly dramatic, shall we?
In WWII a pair of brothers made boots for soldiers. Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough for Adolf “Adi” Dassler, who attempted to get his brother captured as a prisoner of war so that he could go solo with a company called Adidas.
That’s not all.
But the story doesn’t end there. Adolf’s brother Rudolf eventually got free and decided he couldn’t stay out of the shoe and clothing business so he started a little business called Puma.
Ok, that was a bit extreme.
Let’s go back to the zany. If you have a Samsung phone, just know that the company originally was a grocery store that specialized in seafood and noodles. It went through sugar refining, textiles, and mills before it finally moved into electronics.
Shell isn’t just a cute name.
The oil company Shell has an adorable shell logo, but there’s a good reason. They started as an antique shop (totally unrelated) before selling actual literal shells, and 50 years later getting into the oil business. What a saga.
Accidental business decisions can be great!
David McConnell started his career as a traveling book salesman, but he took to giving away perfume to his female customers to help improve his sales. It turned out they liked the perfume better, so he ended up founding Avon.
You can thank spilled milk for that sweet smell.
Little Trees car fresheners were created after the founder heard a milkman complaining about the smell of spoiled milk. Ewwww.
You’ll never guess what 3M stands for.
You probably know them for tape, but 3M actually means Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company, and they started out mining. Eventually, that grew into making sandpaper and the huge company we know today.
Tell me what you think of when you hear Abercrombie & Fitch.
I’ll bet you any amount of money that it is not high-end hunting, fishing, and camping gear, but that’s what they started out selling.
Family changes everything.
It started out with a man named William Proctor who made candles and an unrelated man named James Gamble who made soap. Then they married a pair of sisters and their father-in-law suggested they partner up since their products used the same materials. Now we have Proctor & Gamble.
You may never have heard of Raytheon.
But that’s probably a good thing since they’re the world’s largest manufacturer of guided missiles, and I personally would prefer it if none of you out there had guided missiles. What’s weird is that they started out in fridges and microwave ovens.
You’ll never guess how old cell phone manufacturer Nokia is.
1865. You better believe they were not making phones back then. Instead, it was a paper mill.
You know Flickr.
It’s one of the largest photo sharing websites in the world. But it started out as something COMPLETELY different.
Originally Flickr had literally no point.
It was called The Game Neverending, and it was exactly what it sounds like. But over the course of playing, people found a way to share pictures. It turned out that was way more fun than the game, so the creators nixed the game and stuck with the photo sharing.
You might think that that’s about as weird as it gets.
But trust us, it gets weirder. None of these have made us yell “What the f***” out loud in the office. But the next few? Oh they will.
The connection between non-stick pans and dynamite.
DuPont, which makes Teflon pans, was originally a manufacturer of explosives. How do you even make that leap?
It’s all about looooove.
Sure, TGI Fridays might be the only place to go if you want the best apps in town, but its creator, Alan Stillman, knew nothing about food. He just wanted a place to meet the models who lived in his neighborhood.
If you think Nascar is wild today…
Just imagine it when it started, a place for bootleggers to test out who was best at outrunning the cops.
Ah Kellogg’s, a part of any healthy American diet.
Except that it’s definitely supposed to be a cure for masturbation. Yeah, John Harvey Kellogg HATED masturbation and thought he could make a cereal so bland that it would destroy people’s sex drives. Yikes.
But here’s the true piece de la resistance.
Dr. John Pemberton was once addicted to morphine. He decided to create a drink that would help cure him of the addiction. What did he make? Coca-Cola. With real cocaine!
So there you have it folks.
Business creators are just as weird and confused as we are. Thank God businesses grow up, just like people.