10 Crazy Business Ideas that Actually Worked
By Aaron Broverman
Everyone is tired of the saying, “So crazy it just might work,” but there are some ideas out there that are and do. They are companies that nearly everyone has heard of, but if you heard the initial idea behind them as an investor in a pitch meeting, we wouldn’t put it past you to throw them out of the boardroom without a second thought.
Those who did are probably kicking themselves right now, though, because these are some of the craziest ideas to ever make millions. Can you guess what these companies are before the end of each entry?
Crazy Idea #1. In an economics class at Yale University, Fred Smith wrote what his professor thought was a usual rudimentary “C” grade paper about an overnight air-freight shipping system for time-sensitive packages, such as computer components, medicine and electronics.
In 1973, despite the average grade, he took this idea and ran with it – shipping only seven packages on the start-up company’s initial run. Seed money was found wherever the young founder could scrounge it up. Legend has it that he once booked it to Las Vegas where he wired his $27,000 winnings at the blackjack tables to his company in order to make payroll.
Soon, Smith gained a solid reputation for reliability and quickness that was so impressive, Merrill Lynch started using his company to send packages between floors of its building instead of the embedded intra-office mail system.
The company is called FedEx.
Crazy Idea #2. A robot that does the housework was once only found in Rosie from The Jetsons. This was until 1990, when Rodney Brooks, Colin Angle and Helen Greiner, three engineering students from MIT, started a company out of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab with the goal of employing robots to do everyday tasks and protect the populace from harm. Now with over 8 million robots sold, including The Roomba, The Scooba, The Looj and The Verro, the future we all saw in The Jetsons is at least a partial reality.
The company is iRobot
Crazy Idea #3. In 2006, podcasting company Odeo had what has been called “a daylong brainstorming session” among its board of directors when Jack Dorsey, then an undergraduate at New York University, suggested the concept of an individual using an SMS system to communicate with a small group. Inspired by Flickr and the five-character length of American SMS short codes, the communication system soon expanded out of the Odeo offices and reached critical mass at the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) Conference when it went from 20,000 short messages to 60,000.
Eventually, the messaging system became less of a communication system between people and more of a real-time newswire.
The messages are 140 characters in length and we all know the company as Twitter
Crazy Idea #4. In 1994, selling stuff over the internet as an online store was an absolutely nutzoid idea. However, financial analyst Jeff Bezos was struck by a statistic he saw while working with New York investment company D.E. Shaw. It said that online sales were increasing at a rate of 2,300% per year.
He knew that books were easy to ship and they seemed always in demand, so it seemed like an extremely logical place to start an online store. At first, customers found his site boring and difficult to navigate, but now the company has 65 million users in the U.S. alone.
The company is the online behemoth Amazon.
Crazy Idea #5. This footwear is now worn obnoxiously in increasingly more inappropriate environments. But, in the beginning it was hatched by three friends from Boulder, Colorado on a sailing trip who innocently enough were intrigued by the marketable possibilities of a spa shoe made for comfort.
They found the right material in a squishy foam resin called Croslite and eventually grew big enough to acquire Foam Creations — the Quebec-based company that manufactured this new shoe. Now, the shoe is the awkward moment of footwear and the company is in on the joke, playing up the ugly factor in ad campaigns. They’re happy being mocked all the way to the bank with sales to the tune of $350 million in 2006, the same year the company hit the stock market.
We’ve all seen this shoe worn by people who have no business putting them on. They are Crocs.
Crazy Idea #6. The original crazy idea that actually worked has to be this one. It came from Gary Dahl, an advertising executive from Los Gatos, California, who was tired of hearing people complain about their pets, so he devised the ultimate in low maintenance companions years before the Tamagotchi came on the market.
Suddenly, this joke meant to stick it to his pet-owning friends and family actually became a growing concern and he started taking them seriously by writing a care manual for the little immovable critters and packaging them in kennels with air holes and little straw beds.
In 1975, they were picked up by Neiman Marcus for $3.95 and became a gag gift sold to 1.5 million people who just had to have one.
Of course, this is the legendary Pet Rock.
Crazy Idea #7. This company improves on the Amazon model by combining the online store with mom and pop shop customer service. It feels less cold than the typical online shopping experience and its CEO and original investor Tony Hsieh attributes that to his employees.
In his book Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose he writes that this change in company culture truly started when he stopped chasing profits and shifted his focus toward mentoring his staff and making them happy. It’s no secret that the formula has worked, as they are now a billion dollar company.
The company’s name is a play on Zapatos – the Spanish word for “shoe” – and it is Zappos.
Crazy Idea #8. This company, named after the former bulldog of its CEO Mark Pincus, makes its money by asking its users to do something that a few years ago would’ve sounded like a ludicrous new scam out of Nigeria.
For all its games (usually played through social media sites like Facebook) it asks players to buy virtual gold with real money, so that they can acquire virtual goods used to improve their standing within the game at a faster rate.
What’s even more perplexing is that these virtual goods, that are nothing more than visual representations of what you’re buying, have absolutely no use whatsoever outside of the game. Yet, addicted players still pay to get ahead. In fact, sales of virtual goods helped this company surpass $1 billion in 2011. Even with half its user base gone from a high of 83 million a month in 2010, its hit Farmville has still managed to set record revenues.
The company is the bizarrely-named Zynga.
Crazy Idea #9. Phil Black is a former Navy SEAL who knew the importance of getting in shape, but also loved to play cards. He decided to combine his two hobbies.
He simply developed a deck of cards with fitness routines on the back. With the delivery system being a deck of cards, users can completely randomize their workout just by shuffling them up.
Since each card has a new exercise, they can change the duration of their workout based on how many cards they flip and change the intensity by choosing either the beginner, intermediate or advance level of instruction on the back of each card.
The company reports that it has sold over 500,000 decks to customers and organizations in 130 countries for a total revenue of over $4.3 million. The company comes with the obvious name FitDeck.
Crazy Idea #10. For this company, courting controversy is its bread and butter. It has generated both success and infamy since it’s a dating site for people looking to date outside of their marriage. The company embraces its reputation as the bad boy of online dating with the slogan, “Life is Short, Have an Affair.”
Though many of its racy advertising campaigns have either been pulled from the airwaves or outright disallowed by companies and organizations that they initially asked to partner with, they still have 1,800,000 users per month, according to web traffic tracker Alexa.
This is the company that goes by two of the most popular baby names for girls – Ashley Madison.