The humble beginnings of the world's biggest businesses

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From starting in a garage to having only a few bucks to spare, some of the biggest companies in the world had some very humble beginnings.

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The Walt Disney Company

In 1919, Walt Disney moved from Illinois to Kansas City to pursue a career as a newspaper artist. While there, he created a cartoon called "Alice's Wonderland." He later took his vision to California to sell the cartoon as his "pilot" film to a distributor. After four years of making Alice cartoons, Disney created a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Universal Pictures, and learned an important business lesson when he found out that he didn't own the rights to his work - Universal did. From that point forward, Disney was adamant about owning everything he created. Working in the back half of a real estate office in Hollywood, Disney and his chief animator, Ub Iwerks, came up with a new character - Mickey Mouse. As Disney's cartoons gained popularity, a New York businessman offered Disney $300 for the license to put Mickey Mouse on some pencil tablets. That was the start of Disney merchandising. Fifty years after Walt Disney's death, Disney reacquired Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 2006.

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Amazon is now worth $810 billion, but the company started in a garage as an online bookstore. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched his company out of his Seattle home after quitting his job as the youngest senior VP at a New York investment bank. With a handful of employees, Bezos began developing the software for the site, and Amazon sold its first book in July 1995. In June 1998, Amazon began selling CDs and added videos a few months later. By 2005, Amazon offered a vast variety of products, including consumer electronics, apparel and hardware. Bezos is now the richest person in the world with an estimated net worth of $110 billion.

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Microsoft Corporation

Childhood friends Bill Gates and Paul G. Allen adapted BASIC, a programming language used for large computers, for microcomputers. They both dropped out of college and in 1975, in an Albuquerque garage, Gates and Allen formed Micro-Soft, a combination of the words microprocessors and software. The company's first product was BASIC software that ran on the Altair 8800 personal computer. After purchasing and altering another company's software, Microsoft renamed it MC-DOS, and licensed it to IBM for the first IBM personal computer, the IBM PC in 1981. Gates is now on the list of the world's richest people with an estimated net worth of $107 billion.

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A University of Oregon track athlete turned coach wanted to make his athletes' shoes lighter to reduce their times. Bill Bowerman first began tinkering with running shoes in the 1950s and wrote to several footwear companies with ideas on how they could improve. No one accepted his recommendations, so he teamed up with a local cobbler to test his theories. One of his track athletes, Phil Knight, was the first to test out a pair of Bowerman's custom shoes, but it was Knight's teammate, Otis Davis, who first found fame in the shoes, winning a gold medal in the 400 meters at the 1960 Olympic Games with Bowerman's product on his feet. As his prototypes developed, Bowerman started to seek alliances with footwear companies but didn't have much luck until Knight became acquainted with Japanese shoe company Onitsuka. In 1964, Bowerman and Knight founded Blue Ribbon Shoes - the precursor to Nike - to distribute shoes made by Onitsuka in a 50-50 business of importing and selling running shoes. At first, they sold shoes out of Knight's truck. The iconic swoosh logo debuted in 1971, the same year Blue Ribbon Shoes split with Onitsuka and officially became Nike Inc., named after the Greek goddess of victory. Nike is now the world's leading athletic apparel maker, with a brand value of $15.9 billion.

Courtesy of Nike


College dropouts Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak wanted to make computers small enough for people to have in their homes or offices. Wozniak and Jobs went to work in the Jobs family garage in Cupertino, California, which is now known as Silicon Valley. Jobs sold his car and Wozniak sold his programmable calculator to fund their venture. Their first model was simply a working circuit board, but Job's 1977 version was a stand-alone machine. Their personal computer - encased in plastic, not steel - and with a color display, appealed to the average person in a way that other machines at the time did not. Apple Computers were largely successful, particularly after Wozniak invented a disk controller that allowed the addition of a low-cost floppy disk drive that made information storage and retrieval fast and reliable. Today, Apple's value is $205.5 billion.

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Google was born out of a Stanford University dorm room in 1995. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin built a search engine called Backrub that used links to determine the importance of individual pages on the internet. Their mission was "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." The name was later changed to Google, after a math expression for the number 1 followed by 100 zeros. After an investment, the Google Inc. team moved to its first official office in August 1998, which was a garage in California. Page and Brin are currently two of the world's richest people.


Harley Davidson

At 15 years old, William S. Harley began working at the Meiselbach bicycle factory in Milwaukee. Soon after, at another manufacturing job in the same city, Harley met Arthur Davidson. Both were just over 20 years old when they experimented with single-cylinder engines for bikes. In 1903, Harley and Davidson teamed up to build their first motorcycle model, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, in a 10-by-15-foot shed with Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Co. written on the wooden door.

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Louis Vuitton

When Louis Vuitton was 13 years old, he fled to Paris from an upsetting homelife in eastern France. He traveled on foot for more than two years, taking odd jobs along the way and finding shelter wherever he could. He arrived in Paris when he was 16 and was taken in as an apprentice at the workshop of Monsieur Maréchal. Over the next 17 years at the workshop, he learned how to build custom boxes and trunks. Vuitton opened his own workshop in Asnières in 1859 with a team of 20. By 1914, that grew to 225. Today, 170 craftsmen still work out of the original Asnières workshop. Louis Vuitton currently ranks 12th on Forbes' list of the World's Most Valuable Brands at $39.3 billion.

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Hewlett Packard (HP)

Two electrical engineering graduates from Stanford - Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard - bonded during a two-week camping trip in 1934. They began a formal partnership in 1938 in a rented garage and debuted their first product, a resistance-capacitance audio oscillator, that same year. Hewlett would later win a coin flip that determined whose name would be first in the company's name.

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With only $1,000, University of Texas freshman Michael Dell founded PC Limited in 1984. He began developing and selling customized upgrades for personal computers out of his dorm room. He dropped out of college at age 19 to work full time on what would become Dell Inc.

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Whole Foods Market

In 1978, a college dropout and his girlfriend borrowed $45,000 from family and friends to open a small natural foods store in Austin, Texas, called SaferWay. Soon, the couple - John Mackey and Renee Lawson - got booted out of their apartment and decided to move into their store. There was no shower stall so they bathed using the commercial dishwasher, which had an attached water hose. Two years later, they came together with two other local natural grocery store owners in hopes of opening up a supermarket. The original Whole Foods Market opened in 1980 with a staff of only 19 people. A year later, a massive flood wiped out all of their inventory and equipment with losses estimated at $400,000. After 28 days, the shop reopened with the help of loyal customers and volunteers.

Courtesy of Whole Foods Market®


The makers of Barbie - Ruth and Elliot Handler - were the children of immigrants from Poland and Ukraine who met at a high school nickel-a-dance in Denver in 1932. A few years later, when Ruth went to Los Angeles for summer vacation, Elliot followed her and enrolled in a prestigious art and design school in California. They eventually got married and Elliot used his craftsmanship and vision to build things like lamps and picture frames out of their half of a shared two-car apartment garage. They named their growing business Elliot Handler Plastics. In 1944, the couple joined forces with craftsman Harold "Matt" Matson to form Mattel (Matt + El). Mattel's first products were picture frames, but Elliot later began building dollhouse furniture from the picture frame scraps. In 1959, Ruth invented Barbie, named after their daughter Barbara.

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Starbucks Corporation

What's now become the world's most recognizable coffee shop was the idea of three friends - Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegel - two of whom were former teachers and one a writer. Aside from their similar interests in academia, they all loved coffee and tea. They invested their own money and borrowed the rest to open the first store in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1971 and named it "Starbucks" after a character in "Moby Dick." By 1980, they owned and operated four coffee shops across Seattle. Then, Siegel left the company and Howard Schultz joined the team. He bought Starbucks from Baldwin and Bowker in 1987 and expedited the global impact of the company. The original store - where baristas toss cups across the bar, as they have since the shop opened - is a popular tourist attraction. Starbucks' market value is now $94.6 billion.

Courtesy of Starbucks Corporation

William Wrigley, Jr. Company

In 1892 with $32 in his pocket, William Wrigley arrived in Chicago and began selling baking powder,offering customers complementary gum with each purchase. Wrigley quickly realized how popular chewing gum was becoming so he ditched the cans of baking soda. In 1893, he launched Juicy Fruit, which is now the No. 1 fruit gum brand in the country. In 2008, Mars Inc., the company behind candies like Three Musketeers, Snickers and Skittles acquired the William Wrigley, Jr. Company.

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Kentucky Fried Chicken

Colonel Harland Sanders dropped out of school when he was in seventh grade to help his family - his father had died when he was 6 and his mother had to resort to sewing for other families and peeling tomatoes at a canning factory. According to a piece in the New Yorker, between the ages of 15 and 40, Sanders worked on the farm, as a streetcar conductor in Indiana, served in the Army, worked as a fireman for railroads and ran service stations in Kentucky. There he began cooking meals in the back for his family and soon began selling them to travelers stopping off the highway. Sanders eventually turned the service station into a fully operational restaurant, Sanders' Cafe. In 1939, he perfected his fried chicken recipe using 11 spices. Sanders eventually sold the cafe out of fear changes to the highway would rob him of all his clientele. He then turned his attention to franchising his Kentucky fried chicken.

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In the Chicago Fire of 1871, the founding Gilette family lost all of its hardware for its supply business in the flames. The Gilettes moved to New York, where King C. Gillette became a traveling salesman. With experience in the consumer market, he learned that disposable items were more popular than non-disposable ones, and came up with the idea of disposable blades that could be thrown away and replaced after becoming dull. In 1895, Gillette visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where metallurgists called his vision of strong yet thin blades impossible to create. Then in 1901, Gillette and an inventor from MIT formed the American Safety Razor Company (later the Gillette Safety Razor Company). They proved the MIT metallurgists wrong and sold disposable razors with razor handles that only needed to be purchased once.

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The Coca-Cola Company

What's now referred to as Coke was invented in 1886 by pharmacist John S. Pemberton in Atlanta and started as a syrup made in his backyard. In an attempt to make a distinctive-tasting drink that could be sold at soda fountains, Pemberton brewed his concoction in a brass kettle with three ingredients: cocaine, kola nuts and sugar. He took the syrup to a pharmacy where it was mixed with carbonated water, making it into a fizzy soda. (The narcotic was removed before the 21st century.) Pemberton's bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, coined the name Coca-Cola and designed the trademarked script still used today. Pemberton died in 1888, just two years after creating the soda. According to the company site, Coca??Cola was first sold for 5 cents a glass. Today, daily servings of Coca??Cola drinks are estimated at 1.9 billion globally.

Courtesy of The Coca-Cola Company

Yankee Candle Company

Yankee Candle started as a small gesture and soon turned into the largest U.S. manufacturer of scented candles. In 1969, 16-year-old Mike Kittredge used canned wax, red crayons, a milk carton and some kitchen string to make a candle to give to his mother for Christmas. He had extra wax, so he made another one and sold it. The town of South Hadley in Massachusetts got wind of his candles and Kittredge began making more. With his father's help, he opened a small retail shop. Four years later, the company's 12 employees moved into an old paper mill to start Yankee Candle Company.



At age 16, the Charles R. Walgreen took a job at a drugstore in Dixon, Illinois, only because he could no longer take part in sports after damaging his middle finger. He made $4 a week. In 1893, Walgreen moved to Chicago in hopes of opening his own drugstore but was faced with a flooded drugstore market. It's said that Walgreen was so determined to make his own name without his family's resources that he tossed his few remaining coins into the Chicago River, pushing himself to commit to a lifetime of hard work. After years of working with other pharmacists, Walgreen opened his first drugstore in 1901.

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Spanx was invented when Sara Blakely was getting ready for a party in 1998. Blakely wanted a garment to smooth her figure under a pair of white pants - so she cut the feet off her control top pantyhose. While working on her invention, Blakely sold fax machines for two years. Her first major order came in 2000 from Neiman Marcus.

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Burt's Bees

The popular personal care brand started when artist Roxanne Quimby was hitchhiking in Maine in 1984. A local beekeeper named Burt Shavitz pulled over and offered her a ride. She recognized him from his roadside honey stand and long beard. The two hit it off and Quimby, a single mom at the time, began making candles out of the unused wax from Shavitz's beehives. Together they started selling candles at craft fairs and made $200 at their first stall. A New York City boutique discovered the candles and Quimby and Shavitz soon started shipping them by the hundreds. In 1991, Burt's Bees added its iconic lip balm - Quimby's take on a recipe she found in a 19th-century farmer's journal - to its line, and in 1999, the company went global.



In 1995, Pierre Omidyar spent an entire Labor Day weekend coding at home on his personal computer after he came up with an idea for a platform that would bring "together buyers and sellers in an honest and open marketplace." Omidyar soon launched AuctionWeb and the first item that sold was a broken laser pointer. In 1997, the same year AuctionWeb officially became eBay, $500 million worth of Beanie Babies were sold on the site.

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In 1887, 16-year-old John W. Nordstrom came to New York from Sweden with just $5 and no English language skills. For a decade, he traveled across the country and eventually reached Alaska, where he searched for gold. In 1899 he moved to Seattle - this time with $13,000. During his time in Alaska, Nordstrom had met a shoemaker named Carl F. Wallin. When Nordstrom settled down in Seattle in 1901, Wallin offered him a partnership in a shoe store, which became known as Wallin & Nordstrom. In 1928, Nordstorm retired and sold his share of the company to his sons Everett and Elmer, and Wallin retired a year later. In 1963, Nordstorm's sons ventured into the women's clothing market with the purchase of Seattle-based Best's Apparel and added men's and children's wear in 1966.

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Tiffany & Co.

1837 was a time of dynamic growth in New York City, and the founders of Tiffany & Co. took note. During that era, 25-year-old Charles Lewis Tiffany and John B. Young opened a "stationery and fancy goods store" using $1,000 they received as an advance from Tiffany's father. Their first-day sales totaled $4.98. Tiffany & Co. became known for diamonds in 1848 after Tiffany brought back gemstones he purchased overseas from European aristocrats.



The e-commerce website that focuses on handmade and vintage items was founded in 2005 in a Brooklyn apartment by entrepreneur Rob Kalin and business partners Chris Maguire and Haim Schoppik. Kalin was a furniture maker looking to sell his furniture online. Their online artisanal marketplace started to make a profit in 2009, and by late 2011, Etsy had more than 10 million users with nearly 800,000 active personal shops on the site. A lot of the items are one of a kind creations and many sellers provide buyers the option of creating custom pieces.



Facebook was created in Mark Zukerberg's dorm room in 2003. A site he created called "Facemash" provided the framework for what would be the social networking site. Zuckerberg hacked the Harvard University student database to populate the site with pictures of students and a "hot or not" game. It was sent around to students on campus and ultimately taken down within days. Online "face books" - directories that featured photos of students and information about them - had already existed at Harvard. But there wasn't a single "face book" for the whole student body, so Zuckerberg created one. Zuckerberg and Facebook co-founders Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes and Eduardo Saverin launched the site for Harvard students only, opening it to students of Yale, Columbia and Stanford a month later. 

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The popular clothing store was the brainchild of Swedish businessman Erling Persson. In 1946, Persson was 30 years old when he visited New York and was inspired to transform the way women's clothes were marketed and sold in his home country. He went back to Sweden and opened a store in 1947 called "Hennes," which is Swedish for "hers." In 1969, Hennes acquired a hunting apparel and fishing store called Mauritz Widforss. Persson scraped the hunting and fishing, keeping just the men's wear portion. Five years later the store was rebranded from Hennes & Mauritz to just H&M.

Photo courtesy of H&M


In the late 1920s, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald - known as Dick and Mac - moved to California from New Hampshire, where they had been born into rural poverty. A decade and many odd jobs later, they opened up a hot dog stand that later became McDonald's Barbeque. In 1948, they shut the restaurant down and took three months to plan their next move. They came back with a new and improved fast food model with their "Speedee Service System" and 15-cent hamburgers. Today, McDonald's is valued at $148.8 billion.

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Taco Bell

Before he was serving up tacos, Glen Bell was selling hamburgers and hotdogs. Taco Bell's founder, who spent time in the Marines as a food server, opened Bell's Drive-In in San Bernardino, California, in 1948. The burger market was already crowded with McDonald's and other local burger stops, so he introduced tacos to his menu. In 1954, Bell opened Taco Tia, later selling his shares to focus on opening the first Taco Bell in 1962. In five years, one Taco Bell turned into 100.

Courtesy of Taco Bell Corp.


The founder of Walmart, Sam Walton, opened a small variety store in Newport, Arkansas after serving in the military from 1942 to 1945. Years later, he and his wife Helen Robson moved to Bentonville, Arkansas, where he opened Walton's 5&10 in the downtown square. With his dime store's popularity and his entrepreneurial spirit, Walton opened the first Walmart in Rogers, Arkansas in 1962 at the age of 44. Within five years, the Walton family owned 24 stores and had made $12.7 million in sales.

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