If At First You Don’t Succeed…

January 29, 2010
Photo illustration by Minyanville

Photo illustration by Minyanville

MSN.com recently posted an article about “10 Companies That Almost Weren’t” that I found pretty interesting. Did you know Wrigley began by selling Wrigley’s Scouring Soap in 1891? At that time, William Wrigley Jr. decided to throw in a box of baking soda with every soap purchase. The baking soda was so successful that the company ditched the soap and decided to sell baking soda, this time with chewing gum as an incentive, and the rest is history. You can read Wrigley’s full story here (including a tidbit about how a Wrigley chewing gum product featured the first UPC barcode ever scanned).

The article also tells of how Glen Bell, Taco Bell founder who died earlier this month, had dreams of opening a miniature golf course but due to limited capital, ended up opening Bell’s Drive-In instead and selling hamburgers and hot dogs. But, when two brothers named McDonald and a milkshake machine salesmen (Ray Kroc) brought a little competition to town, Bell decided to specialize in tacos. Read the rest of Bell’s story here.

And, while I’ve heard pieces of Ben & Jerry’s story before, it was interesting to read the details of how the ice cream mavens first set out to start a bagel delivery business but when start-up costs proved prohibitive, they opted for a $5 correspondence course on how to make ice cream. Of course Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield did a lot of things right to strategically carve out a niche in the ice cream industry, but I didn’t know Ben’s lack of a sense of smell and near lack of taste was the main inspiration for adding crunchy candy and cookie dough to his ice cream.

It was interesting to read about the humble (and somewhat miguided) beginnings of some of the world’s biggest brands. I’m the kind of person who finds myself having many of those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments when I come across an innovative idea (for example, I’m not a fan of Crocs but I still wish I’d come up with the idea to sell rubber shoes with holes in them for $29.99, and then later developed the idea to fill the holes with “jibbitz” for another $2-$5 a pop). It was nice to see that “trial and error” played an integral role in some of the brands/products that later went on to be big successes. To read about some of the other companies with similar histories, check out MSN money.

Commenters at MSN have since added a few other case studies worth noting, such as how Procter & Gamble started by making candles (but a mixing mistake turned it into soap) and how Nintendo started by selling poker cards. What others can you add to the list?