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These $1Billion+ Brands Began As Something Different

Some of the most successful products of all time began as something else — I love coaching entrepreneurs on this fact!

The morale of the story is: get started on building your products because the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll know what amazing product you can build!

Here are 10 of my favorites products that began as something else:

Bubble Wrap

Two engineers, Marc Chavannes and Aldred Fielding, sealed two shower curtains together to create a new type of wallpaper (with bubbles in it). It was later marketed as greenhouse insulation.

It wasn’t until years later that Bubble Wrap would be used to help protect IBM computers during shipping.

BubbleWrap is also ranked #22 in my list of The Top 100 Brands Synonomous With Their Product Category.

Coke

It was at first a patent medicine invented in the late 19th century by John Pemberton.

Coca-Cola was bought out by businessman Asa Griggs Candler, whose marketing tactics led Coke to its dominance of the world soft-drink market throughout the 20th century.

Craigslist

This now dominant classifieds Web service started out simply in 1995 as a “list” of local events in the San Francisco Bay Area that “Craig” Newmark.

It added non-events postings over the following few years and only added its second city (Boston) in 2000 (5 years after Craigslist was founded).

Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg first wrote Facemash (a “HotOrNot” for Harvard students) in 2003 — that had to be shut down for violating Harvard’s rules; that led to Zuckerberg creating TheFacebook.com as an interactive directory of just Harvard students.

Facebook expanded to other colleges but remained exclusive to college students until 2005 when it allowed any high school student to access it.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Facebook opened up access to non-students (initially employees of companies like Apple and Microsoft) and then to all people.

Google

Google began as more of a “middleware” company that provided optimization/page rank tools for other search engines, according to Jim Goetz of Sequoia Capital (about 2 minutes into this video).

Google is ranked #63 in The Top 100 Brands Synonomous With Their Product Category.

Groupon

A year before Groupon, there was ThePoint.com: “an online community that helps individuals organize efficient group action, leveraging the power of the Web to solve problems and be a catalyst for change.”

One side-project for ThePoint was Groupon, which let users run campaigns asking people to give money or do something as a group.

Groupon is ranked #80 in The Top 100 Brands Synonomous With Their Product Category.

Ikea

Ikea originally began as a mail-order business selling pencils, postcards, and other merchandise; they expanded into furniture (sold through a catalog) 5 years later and it was 15 years before they had their first real store.

Jacuzzi

The Jacuzzi hot tub was created by the Jacuzzi brothers (who immigrated to the U.S. (Berkeley, Californi!) from Italy in 1900.

They went through numerous other creations (aircraft propellers, actual aircraft, hydraulic aircraft pumps and finally a submersible bathtub pump for Candido Jacuzzi’s son Kenneth who had rheumatoid arthritis).

It wasn’t until 1955 that the Jacuzzi firm decided to market their bathtub pump as a therapeutic aid for others…that led to a fully-contained Jacuzzi hot tub in 1968!

Jacuzzi is ranked #68 in The Top 100 Brands Synonomous With Their Product Category.

Paypal

Paypal was working on beaming money between Palm Pilots until eBay sellers discovered it and made it their payment system of choice, according to Roelof Both of venture capital firm Sequoia (he mentioned this in a speech at an Evernote conference August, 18, 2011). Paypal is now a major choice of paying money through the Web.

Pixar

This animated movie giant began as a high-end computer hardware company, serving Lucas Films, Disney and other film companies.

As sales of Pixar’s computers sank, Pixar began making short commercials for major brands such as Tropicana and Listerine. That later evolved into a deal with Disney to produce animated films.

Twitter

Twitter started out as Odeo, a podcasting service. When Apple made podcasting free (iTunes), the Odeo team pivoted to go after Jack Dorsey’s pet project of broadcasting tweets of information in 140 characters or less.

Vaseline

Inventor Robert Chesebrough was in the oil fields of Titusville, Pennsylvania and noticed a road wax residue that had to be removed from oil pumps — the workers had been using the substance to heal cuts and burns.

Chesebrough reworked the residue into petroleum jelly and marketed it as a medicinal product he called “Vaseline.”

Vaseline is ranked #13 in The Top 100 Brands Synonomous With Their Product Category.

YouTube

“YouTube was about sharing videos from parties with one another,” according to Jim Goetz of Sequoia Capital (2:13 into this video)

Zamboni

They started in the ice business, then opened up an ice rink with their excess ice and finally found their niche in the ice resurfacing vehicle.

Honorable Mentions

  • SnapChat (which was valued at $800M in 2013) began as a game called “Picaboo” which consisted of friends sending each other disappearing pictures. Picaboo transitioned into SnapChat which focused exclusively on the disappearing pictures as its product.
  • ThredUp – They started as an online swapping site for grown-up clothes but then realized their bigger opportunity was allowing parents to trade their children’s clothes.

If you like this sort of thing, there’s a good posting here on products that were discovered by accident.

Fun stuff!

2 Comments

  • http://www.robdkelly.com Rob Kelly

    An example of a more recent, smaller brand that started off as something else is ThredUp: a recent article mentioned that they started as an online swapping site for grown-up clothes but then realized their bigger opportunity was allowing parents to trade their children’s clothes.

  • http://www.robdkelly.com Rob Kelly

    There’s a cool related video of Jim Goetz of Sequoia at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnmYSze9M2g that emphasizes how important it is to start small; and gives examples such as Google, YouTube, Yahoo and Apple. 

    Clearly, these large companies started as something much different from what they became.