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Sara Blakely attends the launch of Haute Contour by Spanx © Joe Kohen/WireImage/Getty Images

Spanx

One night, Sara Blakely cut off the bottom off her pantyhose, and the idea for Spanx was born. Blakely researched and wrote a patent for footless pantyhose, then drove around North Carolina visiting textile mills in search of one that would turn her design into a product. Most told her it would never sell, but one mill owner decided to take a chance and help turn her “crazy idea” into reality. Within three months, Blakely sold more than 50,000 items from her apartment. She also started pitching her product to high-end department store buyers. Now that “crazy idea” has Blakely soaring. Spanx has grown to include a full range of body-slimming undergarments, bathing suits and activewear.

: 1-800-GOT JUNK? workers © 2011 1-800-GOT-JUNK? LLC & RBDS Rubbish Boys Disposal Service Inc.

1-800-Got-Junk?

Inspiration struck Brian Scudamore as he was waiting in line at a McDonald’s drive-through and the pickup truck of a local hauling company caught his eye. Scudamore went out and bought his own pickup for $700 and started the Rubbish Boys. He began by picking up junk between classes at the University of British Columbia, but what started as a way to pay for college soon turned into something bigger. In 1993, he dropped out of school to focus on the company. In 1998, he changed the name to 1-800-GOT-JUNK? A year later, the first franchise opened in Canada. Now there are locations all over North America and Australia.

Jennifer Telfer, creator of Pillow Pets © 2011 My Pillow Pets

Pillow Pets

The idea for Pillow Pets dawned on Jennifer Telfer as she watched her young sons smash down their stuffed animals in order to sleep on them. So she set about creating stuffed animals that unfolded into plush pillows. Telfer and her husband decided to wholesale the products themselves through their company, CJ Products. She began by hawking them at a mall kiosk during the holiday season, and then at a home show two weeks after Christmas. When the products nearly sold out, Telfer realized she was onto something. The cuddly toy has since exploded into the marketplace, bringing in $300 million in sales in 2010.

Bert Jacobs, left, and John Jacobs at the Life Is Good Backyard Festival © Michael Dwyer/AP

Life Is good

Bert Jacobs and John Jacobs designed their first T-shirts in 1989 and hawked them on the streets of Boston and at colleges along the East Coast. But for five years success eluded the brothers. Then, in 1994, they struck upon the idea to use a design of a cartoon figure called Jake and the motto “Life is good.” People seemed to embrace the simple message. Retailers soon became interested. Now, Jake’s face and motto are on more than just shirts — you can find Jake and other characters smiling from towels, totes, coffee mugs, dog leashes and other products. The business is booming, with 2010 sales coming in at about $100 million.

Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer © Kelvin Ma/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Boston Beer

The beer business is in Jim Koch’s blood. His father was a fifth-generation brewer, but he left the business as the big brewers embraced mass production. In 1984, Koch felt people were starting to crave something different. He left his job as a management consultant, dug out his great-great grandfather’s recipe and started brewing beer in his kitchen. Once his sample brew was perfected, Koch took it to Boston’s bars, trying to persuade the owners to carry Samuel Adams Boston Beer Lager. Today, Boston Beer (SAM) is the nation’s largest craft-beer brewer. It’s also a moneymaker, posting $102.2 million in net revenue in the first quarter of 2011.

Chipotle Mexican Grill © Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Steve Ells was working as a chef in San Francisco when he decided he wanted to open his own restaurant. He found his inspiration in the taco shops he used to frequent in the city. Ells decided he wanted a burrito restaurant that was different from a typical fast food experience. 

After borrowing money from his parents, he opened his first Chipotle in Denver, in 1993. It was so successful that he abandoned his “real dream” of opening a full-scale restaurant. Today, there are more than 1,000 restaurants in the Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) chain.

Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan, founders of Method © 2010 Method

Method

The idea for an environmentally friendly household cleaner came to Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan when they were roommates in a San Francisco apartment. They noticed that when it came time to clean up from their house parties, the products they used would make them cough. This made them wonder whether the products they were using were dirtier than the messes they were trying to clean. At the time, there weren’t many cleaning products that didn’t contain harsh chemicals. So Lowry and Ryan did some research and launched Method, a line of home-care products. Ten years later, the products are sold in stores across the country.

Burt's Bees products © Theo Wargo/WireImage/Getty Images

Burt’s Bees

Burt Shavitz was selling honey from the back of his pickup truck, and Roxanne Quimby was an out-of-work waitress trying to make a living at flea markets and yard sales when they met, in 1984. They collaborated to make candles from beeswax to sell at craft fairs and stores. The business took off when Quimby found a 19th-century book of homemade personal-care recipes. They started cooking up natural soaps and perfumes on gas stoves. Their best-selling idea came in the form of lip balm, which they added to the product line in 1991. Burt’s Bees now sells more than 100 skin- and hair-care items but no longer makes candles. The company’s sales topped $250 million in 2007, and Clorox (CLX) ponied up $925 million to buy the company at the end of that year.  

James McCann, chairman and founder of 1-800-Flowers.com © Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg/Getty Images

1-800-Flowers

Jim McCann was a bartender and social worker who was looking for a way to supplement his income when he bought a flower shop for $10,000 in 1976. He eventually opened 13 more stores in the New York area, but it wasn’t until he hit upon the idea to acquire the 1-800-FLOWERS phone number that business really bloomed, in 1986. The company was the first to put an 800 telephone number in its name. McCann made sure technology didn’t leave him behind, seizing an Internet opportunity as early as 1991. In 1999, 1-800-FLOWERS (FLWS) went public and added the dot-com to its name. The company, which has also expanded by acquiring companies such as the Popcorn Factory and Fannie May, reported almost $668 million in revenue in fiscal 2010.   

Curves founders Gary and Diane Heavin © Vivian Zink/ABC/Getty Images

Curves

Gary and Diane Heavin opened their first Curves in 1992 with the idea of targeting women who felt they were not being served by conventional gyms. The Heavins’ idea was to create a place that would give women a supportive and comfortable atmosphere. The couple also focused on busy women’s time constraints by introducing a 30-minute-fitness concept. The club caught on, and the business expanded. Now there are nearly 10,000 locations around the globe, which generated $1 billion in revenue last year.

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