Underdogs disrupt industries, make us rethink our strategies and provide hope for entrepreneurs and oddballs in business. These companies demonstrate the power of innovation, optimism, perseverance and the role of pure chance.
1. Ben & Jerry’s
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, childhood best friends, began their journey by enrolling in a $5 ice cream making course. In 1978, the entrepreneurs scraped up $12,000 in order to open their first store in a renovated gas station.
Come 1980, the hippie team distributed to local grocery and Mom & Pop stores out of Cohen’s Volkswagen Squareback. Häagen-Dazs (Pillsbury Company) attempted to halt distribution of the newcomers in Boston, prompting a “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” customer campaign. In 1999, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. sold to Unilever for $326 million, while maintaining the company’s brand management and social mission through an independent Board of Directors.
2. Clif Bar
At a TEDx Talk, Gary Erickson explained that just eight years before turning down a $120 million buyout by Quaker Oats in 2000, he had worked at a garage and owned a small, money-losing bakery in Berkeley. Erickson’s epiphany moment for Clif Bar occurred on a day long 175-mile bicycle ride. Gary started selling the bars out of his mother’s kitchen, achieving double-digit compound growth for twelve years straight, pushing past the finish line against PowerBar in 2012. The company’s five bottom lines, or “five aspirations,” focus on upholding multiple sustainability standards.
“I didn’t start the journey to end the journey, I started the journey to stay on the journey.” – Gary Erickson
3. Apple Inc.
In 1976, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) was incorporated by young college dropouts Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, along with their third partner, Ronald Wayne, who sold his share of the company for a mere $800 three months later.
Dell Inc. (Nasdaq: DELL) CEO Michael Dell once stated that if he possessed Apple he would liquidate the company and give shareholders their money back. Jobs did well proving him wrong, once stating, “Pretty much, Apple and Dell are the only ones in this industry making money. They make it by being Wal-Mart. We make it by innovation.”
4. Home Depot
Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank were fired from the Handy Dan, the number one home improvement retailer chain at the time. According to “Built from SCRATCH,” when investor Kenneth Langone told founders “you’ve just been hit in the ass by a golden horseshoe,” they were skeptical. They started Home Depot, Inc. (NYSE: HD) in 1978, carrying out a “vision of one-stop shopping for the do-it-yourselfer” and upholding exceptional customer service through a “bill of rights.” Home Depot went public in 1981 and in 1989 celebrated its 100th store opening.
Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ: NFLX) reaches 50 million subscribers internationally and boasts seven creative Emmy Awards from 2014. Most millennials understand “Netflix binges,” as cable TV ownership steadily declines. (See also: 5 Reason The Cable TV Industry Is Dying)
The battle against Blockbuster LLC wasn’t the average race for market share. Netflix sought to enhance the model by changing the way people accessed entertainment. Blockbuster famously refused to buy Netflix in the early 2000s for $50 million, finally filing for bankruptcy and closing up shop—all 9,000 of them.
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE: CMG) started as a means to save money for Steve Ells’ dream of owning a fine-dining restaurant. In an interview with Fundable, Ells says his friends thought he was crazy to leave his job at Stars Restaurant in San Francisco to start a burrito shop in Colorado in 1993. In 1998, McDonald’s investment of $360 million propelled Chipotle into even greater growth, eventually leading to an IPO in 2006 that doubled stock price within 24 hours.
7. Life Is Good
Bert and John Jacobs started selling T-shirts door-to-door around college campuses in 1989. The brothers drove up the East Coast, slept in their van and ate a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. According to Inc., a $200 initial investment materialized into over $100 million in 2014 revenues.
The brand avoided traditional in-your-face marketing. Instead, they threw Pumpkin Patch Festivals and gave proceeds to charity, spreading awareness through word of mouth. The Life Is Good Company has two key initiatives, to spread the power of optimism and to help children in need by donating 10% of net profits.
8. Samuel Adams
Craft Beer states that after the Prohibition Era, between 1933 and 1982, 50 out of 700 breweries remained. Up against giants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD), Jim Koch reinvigorated the six-generation-long family business and began offering tastings and selling door-to-door. Samuel Adams Boston Lager thrived off the American Craft Beer Revolution, offering quality, diverse beers in all 50 states and in more than 20 countries globally. According to The Boston Beer Company (NYSE: SAM), in 2014 they sold upwards of 4.1 million barrels of craft brews.
9. Tesla Motors
When the brilliant Nikola Tesla predicted global warming 100 years ago, most considered him a "mad scientist." He inspired other engineers to innovate for the future, as expressed in the fascinating story "Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy," and the name for car company Tesla Motors, Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA), founded in 2013. According to Business Insider, Tesla was the "brainchild of a tiny band of obsessive Silicon Valley engineers," and brought to fruition with the help of billionaire Elon Musk. With a market capitalization of $31.36 billion, Tesla proves that all industries have space for startups.
Tesla’s website describes the company as more than an automaker, but “also a technology and design company with a focus on energy innovation."
10. The Body Shop
Launched in 1976 out of Brighton England, The Body Shop International PLC went up against key players such as Revlon and Olay. The Body Shop revolutionized the cosmetic industry by sticking to only natural ingredients and non-animal tested products. The Body Shop champions socially responsible corporate missions, such as Greenpeace International. After going public in 1985, L’Oreal Group bought The Body Shop for £652.3 million in 2006. (See related: 6 Female Entrepreneurs Who Built Their Fortunes From Scratch)
“You’ve got to be hungry – for ideas, to make things happen and to see your vision made into reality.” - Dame Anita Roddick, Human Rights Activist and The Body Shop Founder
The Bottom Line
Circumstances surrounding the massive success of these 10 incredible companies differ widely. Uniting themes among all these newcomer, innovative, forward-thinking and underdog brands are the force of innovation and ability to take risks. From the fast food to the electronics industries, these stories give hope to leaders who perhaps lacking funds or a clear track record or way forward possess passion for their underdog brands. (See reated: The Most Innovative Entrepreneurs of 2015.)