Stories of the Most Successful Startups
As many entrepreneurs can tell you, the road to a successful startup isn’t always easy. These founders each have their own unique path to startup success that includes both failure and triumphs for you to learn and grow from. Keep reading to learn more about the innovative companies that disrupted their industries.
One of the most inspiring startup success stories is, without a doubt, Airbnb. Founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia first launched the site in 2007 when, after recently migrating from New York to San Francisco, the pair noticed an influx of visitors to the city during the Industrial Design conference and a shortage of available hotels. Needless to say, they saw this as an opportunity to make additional cash by renting their space out and the concept for Airbnb was born.
However, Airbnb was not an overnight success. It took years for the founders of Airbnb to receive funding and even longer to make a profit requiring resilience and a bit of side hustle to make ends meet. Today, Airbnb’s market cap is over $74 billion, and is a testament to the concept of sticking with a great idea. Airbnb shows us that great ideas often involve looking for a solution to a common problem.
Instagram, on the other hand, experienced rapid growth from the start. Founder Kevin Systrom began Instagram, the photo-sharing app, under the name Burbn and accrued 25,000 users in a single day. This is partially due to the fact that Systrom was able to secure venture capital funding early on to launch the app. Additionally, the photo-sharing feature was both unique and exciting at the time, as many apps focused more heavily on location-sharing.
True success came when the startup pivoted the business model, changing the name to Instagram and launching for iOS. Instagram then gained 100,000 users in the first week and 1 million less than two months later. What Instagram did right was recognizing a missing element to the social media applications of the time and pivoting the business model to access a bigger market.
Mailchimp’s goal, surprisingly, wasn’t necessarily to achieve the massive growth it has achieved — it was simply to help their customers by providing them with the services they need. The founders, Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius, were operating a web design business when several customers inquired about how they could incorporate email marketing into their website.
After utilizing old code one of the founders had developed for a previous project, they were able to create Mailchimp as a side project that would eventually parlay into an endeavor valued at roughly $4.2 billion. The choice to dedicate themselves to their side project, Mailchimp, was due to a lack of passion for their previous business and a drive to help small businesses succeed. Clearly, this thinking paid off.
Feeling inspired? Learn how to start your own company by visiting our comprehensive guide on how to start a startup.
The story of Uber’s success is littered with rapid growth, controversy, and inspiration for new and experienced entrepreneurs alike. The idea for Uber, the popular ride-sharing app, was developed by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, two previously successful startup founders, in 2008. When the pair was unable to find a cab one winter night in Paris, they developed the solution for their own problem: the ability to order a ride from your phone.
Uber Technologies was officially established in 2009 and quickly became the world’s most valuable startup. Now, the company has purchased several of its competitors in various industries such as Lime and Postmates. What started as a solution to a widespread problem became an absolute goldmine for the entrepreneurs that made it happen.
The next example on our list of successful startups is Pinterest. Unlike many startup companies, Pinterest wasn’t born to attract tech-savvy users. Pinterest was created to be used by anyone and everyone — no Silicon Valley residency required. But, founders Ben Silbermann, Evan Sharp, and Paul Sciarra didn’t stop there; Pinterest grew to be an $15 billion company due to their focus on building the experience for existing users and developing a completely unique social media experience.
In the beginning, Pinterest was an invite-only platform. The exclusivity allowed the company to hone in on creating the experience users were looking for; Ben Silbermann even went so far as to offer his personal phone number to users so that they could contact him day or night about the site. Clearly, this dedication paid off. Pinterest is still a unique (and lucrative) platform that focuses on sharing, saving, and organizing interests rather than life updates which continuously sets them apart from the competition.
ShoeDazzle was founded by Kim Kardashian, Brian Lee, Robert Shapiro, and M.L. Lee. Despite the startup's star-studded list of founders, the company was at one time considered a failed startup by many. Despite their initial success, with a reported million users to their shoe subscription service, the brand lost its way in an attempt to pivot the business by operating as an ecommerce site, forgoing its original subscription model.
Even after a failed attempt to reinstate a partial version of the subscription model, the company continued to lose customers, and an overstock of inventory posed yet another challenge. Eventually, the company was bought by competitor JustFab for an undisclosed amount. They transitioned the business back to its original subscription model and turned what seemed like a failed business into a successful company once again.
Discover more fashion startups to follow.
Pandora, the radio streaming service, was developed out of founder Tim Westergren’s Music Genome Project and a strong passion for music. Westergren’s experience as a traveling musician and feature film composer led to two realizations that would propel the Music Genome Project and Pandora radio into existence: that there were a plethora of undiscovered musical acts, and there was a need for the technology to establish musical profiles based on personal preferences.
However, it was not smooth sailing. Despite receiving substantial funding initially, the project hit several bumps in the road along the way that resulted in nearly two years of unpaid employees, 11 maxed-out credit cards, $500,000 in personal debt, and five employee lawsuits. However, this story has a happy ending. All disputes were eventually resolved, and employees were paid. Pandora’s launch was a success and was eventually bought by Sirius XM holdings for $3.5 billion.
Like many of the world’s successful startups, Square was developed to solve a small problem. One of the co-founders, Jim McKelvey, was unable to complete a $2,000 sale of his artisan, handblown glassware because he wasn’t able to accept a credit card. With the help of co-founder Jack Dorsey (also the founder of Twitter), the pair developed an easy-to-use micro-POS system that could go anywhere and be used by anyone.
While it has been a relatively bumpy road in terms of generating a profit, Square has come out on top by continuously innovating, providing useful tools to merchants, and accessing markets that are still untapped.
Discover more fintech startups to follow.
WhatsApp, the popular texting application for people to connect in different parts of the world, starting in an unexpected place — the gym. When Whatsapp founder Jan Koum was frustrated with missing calls while at the gym, he and his co-founder Brian Acton developed WhatsApp to allow users to indicate when they are available to receive calls by updating their “status.”
What makes Whatsapp’s story especially unique is that the founders didn’t set out to build a business and certainly never expected to start a business that would be as successful as it has become. They simply wanted to create a useful product for consumers, which parlayed into a $5.5 billion business.
Originally a rent-by-mail DVD service that required customers to pay for each rental, Netflix is now worth over $30 billion and is a shining example of how pivoting a business model can drastically change the trajectory of a company. Not only that, when Netflix started, they were one of the first of their kind to offer a DVD rental service that shipped the product right to the customer’s door.
The company has had its fair share of mishaps and controversies; however, its resilience is a testament to the business-savvy nature of its leaders. Pivoting from DVD by mail to creating award-winning content and maintaining a steady trajectory amidst a plethora of competitors allowed Netflix to further establish itself as the go-to media giant.
Lyft founders Logan Green and John Zimmer created the platform in 2012 just as a service of their already existing company, Zimride. Zimride was a carpooling company that helped with long-distance intercity traveling. Lyft was originally just going to be an on-demand carpooling service. However, they quickly realized that there was a much bigger opportunity in the ridesharing market.
While Uber was already established in many cities by the time Lyft launched, they were able to quickly gain market share by focusing on their customer experience. They offered things like free rides for new users and a more personal touch with their drivers. Lyft is a perfect example of a company with an already successful idea that pivoted slightly to become the success they are today.
Looking for more motivation to help you start a business? Check out our list of the top startups to watch!
Elon Musk is the richest person in the world and has always been intrigued by intergalactic space travel. In 2002, he founded SpaceX with the goal of making space travel more affordable for the purpose of colonizing Mars.
SpaceX has been incredibly successful, but it hasn't always been easy. In addition to multiple failed rocket launches, the company has received public criticism. The company was originally funded for three rocket flights, all funded by $100 million of Musk’s own money, and after they all crashed, Elon again funded the fourth rocket on his own. The success of SpaceX is a lesson in determination and ambition unmatched by many of the world's biggest entrepreneurs.
Discover more space startups to follow.
13. The Honest Company
Created in 2011 by Jessica Alba, The Honest Company is a consumer goods company that focuses on eco-friendly and safe products for the home.
Alba started the company after she had her first child and was struggling to find safe and natural baby products. She quickly realized that there was a void in the market for these types of products and decided to fill it. The Honest Company is now a billion-dollar business and has inspired other companies to enter the eco-friendly market.
Discover more clean beauty startups to follow.
Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in 2004 while he was a student at Harvard. He originally created the site as a way for students to connect with each other, but it quickly became much more than that. Facebook is now one of the most popular websites in the world and has changed the way we communicate and connect with each other.
While Facebook may not be the most successful startup in terms of financials, it is certainly one of the most influential. The company has had a hand in some of the biggest events in recent history and has connected people from all over the world.
A single, unexpected lightbulb moment is what catapulted DoorDash into being the successful food delivery service it is today. When the founders were working towards building technology that would help small businesses via an app, one small business owner helped them spark an idea that would become the foundation of their business: small businesses did not have the infrastructure to complete the deliveries they were receiving on a daily basis.
Initially called Palo Alto Delivery, DoorDash began with the founders delivering orders themselves to students on their campus. Today, DoorDash’s current market capitalization is $24.6 billion, and DoorDash offers delivery services in all 50 states.
16. Patrón Spirits & John Paul Mitchell Systems
John Paul DeJoria, founder of Patrón Spirits tequila brand and John Paul Mitchell Systems haircare brand, doesn’t have the background you would expect from a hugely successful businessman and industry titan. Formerly in a street gang and residing in his car, DeJoria sold encyclopedias door-to-door and returned glass bottles for deposit to get by.
When he co-founded John Paul Mitchell Systems while living in his car, it was with hair stylist Paul Mitchell and only a $700 loan. Today, the entrepreneur is worth $2.9 billion and serves as a representation of being self-made, resilient, and always believing in yourself.
It helps in business to already have an idea of what success looks like to create a company that can change how the world operates. That's exactly what happened when LinkedIn was created in 2002 by Reid Hoffman and the founding members of PayPal. The site was started as a way for business professionals to connect and has now grown to be one of the largest social networking sites with over 600 million users.
While LinkedIn may not be as attractive as some of the other startups on this list, it is a perfect example of a company that was created with a clear vision and has executed that vision perfectly.
Next on our list of successful startup company examples is Spanx. In 1998, Sara Blakely was selling fax machines door-to-door when she had had enough of annoying panty lines. A stroke of genius drove Blakely to cut off the feet of her pantyhose and that is when the idea to create Spanx was born. After being dubbed a favorite product by Oprah Winfrey, the company blew up after her endorsement, propelling Blakely into success as the youngest self-made female billionaire in the US. Proving that solving a personal problem with an innovative solution can result in a wildly successful business with enough hard work.
Matt Wullenweg launched Automattic, otherwise known as the platform that hosts WordPress when he was only 20 years old. From college dropout to wildly successful San Francisco tech startup founder, Wullenweg gained the experience necessary to make his goals a reality by working as a coder for an open-source blogging platform. When the lead developer left, Wullenweg stepped into the role, which would propel him into the right trajectory to support his career and ultimately, would lead to WordPress.
The greatest lesson from Wullenweg’s experience is that not all success stories start after college. Some are made possible by experience and perseverance, which even for a 20 year old, may lead to a billion dollar success story.
Recommended: Find more inspiration with our list of the top startups to watch!