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Young startups and small businesses are often desperate for bank loans or wealthy investors to help get their operations off the ground. However, people have been successfully bootstrapping companies for centuries.
In fact, many of today’s largest businesses began as little more than one person’s dream, with few allies and even less funding.
Let’s explore some inspirational backstories of small businesses that managed to get huge despite their humble beginnings.
Apple’s origin story is practically a modern-day legend. It’s the biggest company in the world today, but the corporate mega-giant was actually born in an unpresuming garage.
In 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were two college dropouts when they built the first version of the Apple computer in Jobs’ carport with a box of scraps. It had neither a monitor, keyboard, nor casing at first.
They took the risk because they thought they could make computers small enough for people to fit in their homes and offices for the first time. Obviously, it paid off, as the company now has a market cap of over $2 trillion.
2. Cards Against Humanity
If you’ve ever had a board-game night with your friends, you know there are few better ways to spend the evening than playing Cards Against Humanity. The fill-in-the-blank card game is an easy and fun way to get an entire group to engage with each other.
However, you might not know that a group of friends that’s probably pretty similar to your own founded the company behind the game. Eight high schoolers from a suburb of Chicago created the first version to play at their New Year’s Eve party.
Because of its popularity, they put it on Kickstarter in 2010, and it took off. In 2021, they began looking to sell the company, targeting a $500 million valuation.
In 1946, a man named Samuel Truett Cathy opened a diner called the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Georgia, just a few miles outside Atlanta. It was a family-owned business, and he ran the restaurant with his brother, Ben.
Two decades later, in 1967, Cathy brought the chicken sandwich recipe and passion for service he cultivated in the Dwarf Grill to a new location in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Shopping Center. He called the restaurant Chick-fil-A.
Eventually, the chicken joint spread across the country. It now has locations in 47 states and is the largest quick-service chicken restaurant chain in the United States.
Craig Newmark launched what was known simply as “Craig’s list” in 1995. As a software engineer, he designed it as a free email service that would describe upcoming events in the San Francisco Bay area of northern California.
It evolved slowly over the next few years, gaining popularity and adapting to facilitate various communal activities. However, it wasn’t until 1999 that it was incorporated and began taking fees for job and apartment listings.
Walt Disney’s career began with the Kansas City Film Ad Company in Missouri, where he worked for two years and met his friend, Ub Iwerks. Two years later, they founded the Laugh-O-Gram Films studio together to make cartoons based on fairy tales.
After producing the animated short, Alice in Cartoonland, in 1923, Disney filed for bankruptcy. With nothing in his small business bank account, he left the state to pursue his dreams and make a name for himself in Hollywood.
His brother, Roy, came with him, and the surprise success of Alice in Cartoonland convinced them to continue their previous venture. However, it wasn’t until 1928 that they created Mickey Mouse, which they then used to take over the animated market.
The Walt Disney Company has come a long way since then, and now it owns everything from popular live-action motion pictures to massive theme parks. Its market cap is roughly $181.5 billion.
Facebook is yet another business giant formed by a group of school friends. Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes founded the company in 2004 while they were students at Harvard.
The first version, Facemash, was an online service that allowed Harvard students to rate each other’s attractiveness. The university shut it down quickly, but its popularity inspired Zuckerberg to try again with TheFacebook.com.
The site let users post pictures and personal details, and its popularity quickly grew. Soon, students from other schools joined, and advertisers began paying for exposure on the site. By 2005, it became known simply as Facebook, and the rest is history.
You know Groupon. It’s the website that’s been tempting you with email offers for discount foot massages since you browsed its options that one time six months ago. However, it wasn’t always as famous as it is today.
In 2007, Andrew Mason created a website called The Point to organize local groups for various purposes in Chicago. It eventually spawned a spin-off page called Groupon, which advertised for local businesses by offering limited-time deals.
The first deal was for Motel Bar, a restaurant downstairs from the company office. It was so successful that other Chicago businesses soon hopped on the bandwagon, and the popularity spread organically.
By 2010, Groupon was in cities across the United States and had even reached international markets such as the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. In 2022, Groupon has more than 21 million active customers.
Harry Snyder opened the first In-N-Out Burger in 1948. It was a drive-through stand that was barely 10 square feet in Baldwin Park, California. Snyder would fetch the ingredients daily and prepare them by hand while his wife did the accounting.
The restaurant endeavor didn’t stay small for very long. Ten years in, five In-N-Out restaurants operated throughout the San Gabriel Valley. By the 25th anniversary, that number had gone up to 13, all still in Los Angeles county.
The company never stopped growing. As of 2022, there are 381 In-N-Out Burgers across the United States, with locations in California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Oregon.
If you’ve ever turned to the internet for help with homework and found the answers online, you probably have Andrew Sutherland to thank. In 2005, he created Quizlet as a memorization tool to help him study for his French vocabulary test.
The website worked amazingly well, and he shared it with his other high school friends, then continued to work on the project during his year at MIT. He studied computer science, speech recognition, and education, using those insights to improve the tool.
In 2011, Andrew moved to San Francisco to focus on Quizlet full-time. He spent the next fifteen years leading the company, growing the team to 200 people. Quizlet now has 60 million monthly users, including two-thirds of U.S. high school students.
RXBAR sells simple protein bars with whole-food ingredients. In 2017, Peter Rahal sold it to Kellogg for a whopping $600 million. However, the founder started the company in 2014 from his parent’s basement in Glen Ellyn, a suburb outside of Chicago.
Peter had the idea for the RXBAR after returning from his time abroad in Belgium. When he moved back to the U.S., he noticed that protein bars all seemingly used cheap filler, chocolate compounds, and poor ingredients.
As a result, he and his childhood friend, Jared Smith, bootstrapped a startup that would sell bars made with little more than egg whites, dates, and nuts.
Choosing to forego small business loans, they generated $2 million in revenue in the first year with just $10,000 of their own cash invested. By year four, they reached $161 million in annual revenue and closed their lucrative deal with Kellogg.
Shopify is a comprehensive e-commerce platform that provides everything you need to sell products online. The site is now one of the most popular solutions of its kind and serves many top brands, including Sephora, Netflix, and Tesla.
However, Shopify began as a way for its founders to launch an online snowboard shop called Snowdevil. They were having difficulties using existing e-commerce systems, so they created one more aligned with their expectations.
As they attempted to establish Snowdevil, they shared their site with other digital sellers, who were often interested in how they’d created their store.
The response to their platform convinced the founders that they’d have an easier time selling tools for e-commerce sites than snowboards, so they set Snowdevil aside and pivoted to Shopify. The company is now worth $40.9 billion.
If you’ve listened to any podcast ever, you’ve probably heard of this one. SimpliSafe is a home security company that provides self-managed alarm systems, including cameras, sensors, and keypads for consumers.
Chad and Eleanor Laurans founded the business in 2006 after their friend suffered a home break-in and a frustrating experience with their home security provider.
Chad and Eleanor decided to create an option that would be more user-friendly, and SimpliSafe was born. It’s one of the few DIY options to work with an emergency dispatch service and has more than three million paid subscribers in 2022.
13. Under Armour
In 1996, Kevin Plank, a University of Maryland football player, got sick of sweating through his clothes. As a result, he attempted to create sports apparel that would wick away moisture and make life more comfortable for athletes like himself.
He created a successful prototype, #37, and nicknamed the product “The Shorty.” It was a stretchy, skin-tight shirt that did what he’d hoped, keeping athletes cool, dry, and comfortable during exercise.
Plank maxed out his credit cards to start manufacturing the shirt, running his operation out of his grandmother’s basement. The business took off when he managed to close a deal with Georgia Tech University, and it’s now a public company worth $3.53 billion.
It’s hard to imagine a world without YouTube, but the site started small, just like all these others. Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim, former coworkers at PayPal, created it in 2005 to help regular people share home video content with each other.
However, the website gained enough popularity in just a few months to attract tens of thousands of visitors daily. The site then grew exponentially, quickly surpassing its founders’ expectations.
Not only did the traffic exceed the company’s broadband capacity, but YouTube was soon swimming in litigation issues as users uploaded copyrighted material. As a result, the owners began looking for an exit in mid-2006.That’s how, less than two years after launching their site, Chen, Hurley, and Karim managed to sell YouTube to Google for $1.65 billion in stock.
Nick Gallo is a Certified Public Accountant and content marketer for the financial industry. He has been an auditor of international companies and a tax strategist for real estate investors. He now writes articles on personal and corporate finance, accounting and tax matters, and entrepreneurship.