We constantly hear about the Microsofts and Apples of the world. The garage band companies from humble places. But those companies were a semblance of what they would eventually become. What about the companies that took a chance on something new? What about the jokes people expected to go nowhere? These are the surprising stories that continually surprise us.
We’ll start with a company you may not have heard of. And don’t worry, it’s not actually a joke.
1. Potato Parcel
When was the last time you received a letter in the mail? Letter writing is a lost art. So, there has to be a better way than Amazon to buoy the failing U.S. Postal Service, right?
How about potatos? No, not bulk shipments from Idaho, but messages sent via potato.
What began a satirical joke turned into a successful business called Potato Parcel. Of course, sending a potato as a gift is a joke, but people actually pay $14 to send a custom potato through the mail.
2. Taco Bell Hot Dogs?
In 1946, faux-Mexican food didn’t exist. In fact, not many people in the United States even ate the stuff. This is probably why Glen Bell opened a hot dog stand in San Bernadino, California instead.
After four years of hawking dogs on the street, Glen opened his first restaurant, Bell’s Hamburgers and Hot Dogs. This was in a primarily Latino neighborhood.
Glen noticed that the little Mexican cafe across the street had a line outside the door. When he went over, he realized people were buying hard-shelled tacos.
Glen Bell is the founder of Taco Bell. No joke. A hot dog salesman started your guilty pleasure fast food joint.
3. Ship Your Enemies Glitter
While the days of anthrax scares are over, we’re now worried about glitter bombs.
Yep. That’s right. You should be utterly terrified that someone might send you glitter through the mail.
No, really, this is a legitimate business that recently sold for $85,000. They now ship other jokes like an online novelty shop. But they did begin as a joke.
The founder, Matthew Carpenter, never intended on making glitter bombing into a business. He’s essentially an accidental entrepreneur. It was supposed to be a side project and it became stressful to maintain. He decided to sell it then hoping for an easier life.
4. Game Neverending
Imagine a game where you travel the world, interact with others, buy, sell, trade, and craft items. This could be any video game today, right? What if I told you that’s what the photo site Flickr used to be.
It was a multiplayer online game called Game Neverending. And it devolved into a single chat system where you could share and talk about photos.
This was much easier to scale from an I.T. perspective than an online game. And the concept involved a much wider audience.
Eventually, Steward Butterfield and Caterina Fake figured out that users just wanted to share photos with each other. This was just before Facebook took off. And then Yahoo! bought them out for 35 million dollars.
5. Snow in Florida?
I remember the first time I’d met someone who’d never seen snow. I was 10 and she was a cute 11-year-old from Florida. We met on a ski shuttle in Colorado. It blew my mind that this pretty lady had never seen snow in her short life.
Now, our kids can share the joy of snow with their pen pals (are those still a thing?) with the entry of their parent’s credit card. It’s a company that actually ships a box of snow for anyone wanting to share winter with the people in the less fortunate states.
Ship Snow, Yo, and Ship Foliage do similar things. One ships snow and the other ships “hand-collected New England foliage.”
Ship Foliage made $5k in sales within the first week.
6. Berkshire Hathaway Men’s Suit Linings
You might know Berkshire Hathaway as the real estate company Warren Buffet built. But it wasn’t always Warren Buffet’s venture and it wasn’t always a real estate business.
What if I told you they were once a cotton mill that specialized in suit coat pockets for men? In the 60’s, I’m not sure Buffet even knew what would come of the textile business. But he bought it for a “measly” $14 million.
Now it’s grossing a lot more than that, trust me.
7. The Best Pet You’ll Ever Own
I’m not actually surprised when someone tells me their multimillion dollar business began as a bar conversation. Alcohol often fuels ambition and erases fears.
But, in 1975, Gary Dahl actually took his bar conversation to the moon. It was about selling mere rocks to children.
It was a simple idea. Past two googly-eyes on a smooth rock, box it up, and give it to your kid as a pet.
This actually made Dahl an unexpected amount of money and the man is going to be well off for a while.
8. The Marriot Root Beer Stand
J. Willard Marriot started an A&W Root Beer Stand not long after getting married to Alice Sheets Marriot. But it wasn’t just one stand, it was a whole franchise for D.C., Baltimore, and Richmond.
Of course, they couldn’t expand the franchise without starting somewhere. They opened a 9-stool operation at 3128 14th Street, NW in D.C.
Later they opened a hotel and the rest is history as they say.
9. Cat Memes as a Business?
In the age of the internet it’s totally possible to make money off of your cat. Remember Grumpy Cat? My friend met him at VidCon one year. His owner is now well off.
Same goes for the creator of the “I Can Has Cheezburger?” meme. It was a 2008 phenomenon that exploded. Picture of cats with misspelled captions because, duh, cats can’t spell, right?
The site I Can Has Cheezburger launched as a joke and soon shut down due to traffic overload.
10. NASCAR Liquor Bootlegging Service
Thankfully beer is now legal in the United States or I don’t think NASCAR would have much of an audience. But their participation in the alcohol market wasn’t always in providing fast-paced entertainment.
During the prohibition, they were a fast whiskey delivery service capable of blazing past the police. Now they’re a (rather boring) legal operation.