Rome wasn’t built in a day – much like the world-famous companies that we all recognize today. Even they had to start from something – and you might be surprised when you find out that quite a few of them started out by doing things completely different than they are doing now.
When thinking about Lego, it’s probably not wooden ducks that come to mind. Neither do grocery stores when thinking about a tech giant like Samsung. It may sound kind of funny now, but these are the products these companies actually started with. Check out more examples of the very first products by world-famous companies in the gallery below!
Rice Cooker (1946)
Founders – Masaru Ibuka, Akio Morita
First location – Tokyo, Japan
After World War II, Sony founder Masaru Ibuka invented a product to try and serve the millions of homes who had electricity but lacked the appliances to use it. The result was this electric rice cooker.
Released under the business name Tokyo Telecommunications Research Institute, before Sony itself became an incorporated company, the rice cooker was little more than some aluminium electrodes on the bottom of a wooden bucket. Depending on the unregulated electric current at the time, the kind of rice or how much water was used, the rice generally ended up served as overcooked mush or undercooked grain.
Because of this, the product was never actually released onto the market. Instead, a prototype now sits ensconced in glass at the Sony Archives in Shinagawa, a relic from a distant age before electronic gadgets were the norm.
Online Bookstore (1994)
Image source: Amazon
Founders – Jeff Bezos
First location – Bellevue, WA
Amazon began as an online bookstore in way back in 1994. Founder Jeff Bezos decided at first to call the bookstore “Cadabra,” He later changed the name to Amazon.com, Inc. a few months later, after a lawyer misheard its original name as “cadaver.”
Bezos selected the name Amazon by looking through the dictionary; he settled on “Amazon” because it was a place that was “exotic and different”, just as he had envisioned for his Internet enterprise. The Amazon River, he noted, was the biggest river in the world, and he planned to make his store the biggest bookstore in the world. Additionally, a name that began with “A” was preferred because it would probably be at the top of an alphabetized list.
Stationary Delivery (1943)
Image source: Ikea
Founders – Ingvar Kamprad
First location – Älmhult, Sweden
IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad showed entrepreneurial promise from a young age. At age 5, he began buying matches in bulk from Stockholm and selling them to neighbors for a profit. He later moved on to selling flower seeds, greeting cards, Christmas tree decorations, and more.
In 1943, when he was 17, Kamprad founded IKEA from his uncle’s kitchen table. It began as a mail-order business, selling a variety of items like stockings, jewelry, watches, pens, and picture frames. Kamprad added the first piece of furniture to the company’s offerings a few years later. Furniture sales got even bigger with the introduction of the famous IKEA catalog in 1951 and the first showroom in 1953.
IKEA’s furniture soon became the focal point of the company as it began phasing out all other products over the next few years.
Card Game (1889)
Founders – Fusajiro Yamauchi
First location – Kyoto, Japan
Nintendo, the video game brand that launched such 1980s and ’90s-era franchises as Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Pokemon, is actually one of the older companies on this list. It was founded in 1889 as a playing card company based in Kyoto, Japan.
The cards (named hanafuda, or “flower cards” for their ornate floral imagery) were popular among the organized crime gangs that inhabited Japan’s gambling halls. The company’s origins are even reflected in its name: When separated into three characters, “Nin-ten-do” roughly translates to “Leave luck to heaven,” or “Work hard, but in the end it is in heaven’s hands.”
Search Engine (1998)
Founders – Larry Page, Sergey Brin
First location – Menlo Park, CA
Google has its origins in “BackRub”, a research project that was begun in 1996 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they were both PhD students at Stanford University in Stanford, California. The project initially also involved an unofficial “third founder”, Scott Hassan, the lead programmer who wrote much of the code for the original Google Search engine, but left before Google was officially founded as a company.
Page’s ‘web crawler’ began exploring the web in March 1996, with Page’s own Stanford home page serving as the only starting point.
The first version of Google was released in August 1996 on the Stanford website. It used nearly half of Stanford’s entire network bandwidth.
Wooden Toys (1923)
Founders – Ole Kirk Christiansen
First location – Billund, Denmark
The toy brand that’s best known for its plastic, interlocking bricks was founded by a carpenter.
Struggling to find enough wood to build furniture during Denmark’s recession of the 1930s, Ole Kirk Kristiansen began turning wood scraps into children’s toys. Some of LEGO’s first products included toy trains, automobiles, and a wooden duck on wheels that quacked when pulled.
When he started experimenting with plastic toys in 1947, most department stores weren’t interested. Fortunately for future generations of LEGO builders, that didn’t discourage him, and plastic bricks eventually became the focus of the company.
Computer Apple I (1976)
Founders – S.Jobs, S.Wozniak, R.Wayne
First location – Cupertino, CA
Steve Wozniak originally assembled the microcomputer Apple I in 1975 for a Homebrew Computer Club meeting in Silicon Valley. Wozniak said, that the basic machine was “the first time in history anyone had typed a character on a keyboard and seen it show up on their own computer’s screen right in front of them.”
Another club member, Steve Jobs, helped to sell 50 orders of the machine for $500 each to a local computer store. The success of the sales made the pair over $50,000 for and encouraged them to get to work on the Apple II.
The rest is history.
Grocery Trading Store (1938)
Founders – Lee Byung-chul
First location – Seoul, South Korea
Samsung was founded as a grocery trading store on March 1, 1938, by Lee Byung-Chull. He started his business in Taegu, Korea, trading noodles and other goods produced in and around the city and exporting them to China and its provinces.
After the Korean war and during the country’s push to industrialization, the company successfully expanded into textile-manufacturing.
New subsidiaries such as Samsung Heavy Industries, Samsung Shipbuilding, and Samsung Precision Company soon followed.
Samsung first entered the electronics industry in 1969 with several electronics-focused divisions—their first products were black-and-white televisions. During the 1970s the company began to export home electronics products overseas.
Automatic Loom (1926)
Founders – Kiichiro Toyoda
First location – Nagoya, Japan
Toyota was founded in 1926 as Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, Ltd. by Sakichi Toyoda, the inventor of a series of manual and machine-powered looms. The most impressive of these was the Toyoda Automatic Loom, Type G, a completely automatic high-speed loom featuring the ability to change shuttles without stopping and dozens of other innovations. At the time it was the world’s most advanced loom, delivering a dramatic improvement in quality and a twenty-fold increase in productivity.
In 2007, this machine was registered as item No. 16 in the Mechanical Engineering Heritage of Japan as “a landmark achievement that advanced the global textile industry and laid the foundation for the development of the Toyota Group.”
Memory Chip (1969)
Founders – Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce
First location – Mountain View, CA
Intel was founded in Mountain View, California, in 1968 by Gordon E. Moore (known for “Moore’s law”), a chemist, and Robert Noyce, a physicist and co-inventor of the integrated circuit.
When Intel began they did not make processors, as they are famous for now, they made memory. Specifically SRAM, DRAM, and EPROMs. The very first product Intel released, in April of 1969, was the 3101 64-bit SRAM. It was made on the new, and fast Schottky Bipolar process. This made it very fast (access times of 60ns) but very power hungry. It dissipated 525mW, over half a watt, for 64-bits of memory.
Image Computer (1986)
Founders – Edwin Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, Steve Jobs
First location – Richmond, CA
Pixar was founded as The Graphics Group, which is one third of the Computer Division of Lucasfilm that was launched in 1979 with the hiring of Dr. Ed Catmull from the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), where he was in charge of the Computer Graphics Lab (CGL). At NYIT, the researchers pioneered many of the CG foundation techniques—in particular the invention of the “alpha channel.”
Initially, Pixar was a high-end computer hardware company whose core product was the Pixar Image Computer, a system primarily sold to government agencies and the medical community. One of the buyers of Pixar Image Computers was Disney Studios, whose corporate parent would ultimately become its most important partner.
Online Payments Service (1998)
Founders – Ken Howery, Luke Nosek, Max Levchin, Peter Thiel, Yu Pan Russel Simmons, Elon Musk
First location – Palo Alto, CA
PayPal was first established in December 1998 as Confinity, a company that developed security software for handheld devices.Confinity was founded by Max Levchin, Peter Thiel, Luke Nosek, Ken Howery, Yu Pan and Russel Simmons.
PayPal was developed and launched as a money transfer service at Confinity in 1999.
In March 2000, Confinity merged with X.com, an online banking company founded by Elon Musk. Musk was optimistic about the future success of the money transfer business Confinity was developing.
In October of that year, Musk made the decision that X.com would terminate its other Internet banking operations and focus on the PayPal money service. The X.com company was then renamed PayPal in 2001, and expanded rapidly throughout the year until company executives decided to take PayPal public in 2002.
Microblogging Service (2006)
Founders – Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, Evan Williams
First location – San Francisco, CA
Twitter started in 2006 when the podcasting company Odeo realized they needed to reinvent themselves and began brainstorming new creative ideas. Jack Dorsey introduced the idea of creating an SMS that would allow a user to communicate with a small group of people.
Twitter was first called “status” until the group looked in the dictionary for names and found twitter which fit it perfectly. The original product name was twttr.
The project work began on March 21, 2006, when Dorsey published the first Twitter message: “just setting up my twttr”. The prototype for twitter was tested as an internal service for Odeo employees but later launched publicly in July 2006.
In October 2006, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams formed Obvious Corporation with other members from Odeo. They then bought out Odeo from the investors and other shareholders. In April of 2007, Twitter became its own company.
Fast-Food Restaurant (1955)
Founders – Richard McDonald, Maurice McDonald
First location – San Bernardino, CA
In 1937 Patrick McDonald opened “The Airdrome”, a food stand, on Huntington Drive (Route 66) near the Monrovia Airport in the Los Angeles County city of Monrovia, California with hot dogs being one of the first items sold. Hamburgers were later added to the menu at a cost of ten cents with all-you-can-drink orange juice at five cents. In 1940, sons Maurice and Richard moved the entire building to San Bernardino, California. The restaurant was renamed “McDonald’s Bar-B-Que” and had 25 menu items, mostly barbecue.
In 1954, Ray Kroc, a seller of Prince Castle brand Multimixer milkshake machines, learned that the McDonald brothers were using eight of his machines in their San Bernardino restaurant. His curiosity was piqued, and he went to take a look at the restaurant. He was joined by good friend Charles Lewis who had suggested to Kroc several improvements to the McDonald’s burger recipe.
Kroc was so impressed by the brothers’ restaurant that he offered to set up a national franchise, starting with the ‘original’ Mcdonalds (as we know it today) in Des Plaines, Illinois, near Chicago. It began with a simple menu of nine items including burgers, fries, milkshake, juice and milk.
Distribution Of Japanese Shoes (1964)
Founders – Bill Bowerman, Phil Knight
First location – Eugene, OR
The origins of Nike can be traced back to a school paper for a small-business class. Phil Knight was enrolled at the Stanford Graduate School of Business when he got the idea for a Japanese shoe company that manufactured quality products at lower costs than the German brands that dominated the market at the time. The theme of his essay titled “Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Have Done to German Cameras?” inspired him to found a real-life business in 1964. Nike—then Blue Ribbon Sports—began as a distributor for Onitsuka Tiger Running Shoes made in Japan. Knight initially sold the shoes himself from the back of his station wagon at Oregon University track meets.
Animation “Alice Comedies” (1923)
Founders – Walt Disney, Roy O. Disney
First location – Los Angeles, CA
The Alice Comedies are a series of animated cartoons created by Walt Disney in the 1920s, in which a live action little girl named Alice (originally played by Virginia Davis) and an animated cat named Julius have adventures in an animated landscape.
Disney, Ub Iwerks, and their staff made the first Alice Comedy, a one-reel (ten-minute) short subject titled Alice’s Wonderland, while still heading the failing Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City, Missouri. After completing the film, the studio went bankrupt and was forced to shut down. After raising money by working as a freelance photographer, Disney bought a one-way train ticket to Los Angeles, California to live with his uncle Robert and his brother Roy. In California, Disney continued to send out proposals for the Alice series, in hopes of a distribution deal, which was finally arranged through Winkler Pictures, run by Margaret J. Winkler and her fianceé, Charles Mintz.
Although seen as cute and funny in their time, the Alice Comedies contain content which might be considered surprising and somewhat harsh today. Although Alice is a little girl, she spends much of her time avoiding danger, and even getting kidnapped by the cartoon villains, threatened with such perils as being tied to a log in a sawmill. Although all of Alice’s threats are cartoon drawings, some might find the imagery a bit disturbing due to the character’s young age, and the fact that she is a real person, or they might find it simply light-hearted and fun, due to the portrayal.
Coffee Shop (1971)
Founders – Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, Gordon Bowker
First location – Seattle, WA
The first Starbucks was opened in Seattle, Washington, on March 31, 1971, by three partners who met while they were students at the University of San Francisco: English teacher Jerry Baldwin, history teacher Zev Siegl, and writer Gordon Bowker were inspired to sell high-quality coffee beans and equipment by coffee roasting entrepreneur Alfred Peet after he taught them his style of roasting beans. Bowker recalls that Terry Heckler, with whom Bowker owned an advertising agency, thought words beginning with “st” were powerful. The founders brainstormed a list of words beginning with “st”, and eventually landed on “Starbo”, a mining town in the Cascade Range. From there, the group remembered “Starbuck,” the name of the chief mate in the book Moby-Dick. Bowker said, “Moby-Dick didn’t have anything to do with Starbucks directly; it was only coincidental that the sound seemed to make sense.”
The first Starbucks store was located in Seattle at 2000 Western Avenue from 1971–1976. This cafe was later moved to 1912 Pike Place. During this time, the company only sold roasted whole coffee beans and did not yet brew coffee to sell. During their first year of operation, they purchased green coffee beans from Peet’s, then began buying directly from growers.
Game “Zombi” (1986)
Founders – Christian Guillemot, Claude Guillemot, Gérard Guillemot, Michel Guillemot, Yves Guillemot
First location – Carentoir, France
Ubisoft Entertainment is a French video game company headquartered in Montreuil with several development studios across the world.
The Guillemot family had established themselves as a farming support business for farmers in the Brittany province in northwest France and nearby regions, including into the United Kingdom. The five sons of the family – Christian, Claude, Gérard, Michel and Yves – helped with the sales, distribution, accounting and management of the company with their parents prior to university. All five gained business experience while at university, which they brought back to the family business to help improve it, at a time where farming businesses were starting to wane. The brothers came up with the idea of diversification to sell other products of use to farmers; Claude began with selling CD audio media, and later the brothers expanded to computers and additional software which included video games.
In the early 1980s, they saw that the costs of buying computers and software from a French supplier was more expensive than buying the same materials in the United Kingdom and shipping to France, and came upon the idea of a mail-order business around computers and software. Their mother said they could start their own business this way as long as they managed it themselves and equally split its shares between the five of them. Their first business was Guillemot Informatique, founded in 1984.
They originally only sold through mail order, but soon were getting orders from French retailers, since they were able to undercut other suppliers by up to 50% of the cost of new titles. By 1986, this company was earning about 40 million French francs (roughly US$5.8 million at that time). In 1985, the brothers established Guillemot Corporation for similar distribution of computer hardware. As demand continued, the brothers recognised that video game software was becoming a lucrative property, and decided that they needed to get into the development side of the industry, already having insight on the publication and distribution side.Ubi Soft was founded by the brothers on 28 March 1986 The name “Ubi Soft” was selected to represent “ubiquitous” software.
Zombi, an icon-driven action adventure video game, was Ubi Soft’s first publication, released in 1986.
College Social Network (2004)
Founders – M.Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes
First location – Cambridge, MA
Facebook was first known as FaceMash,and was started in 2003 by Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg wrote the software for the Facemash website when he was in his second year of college. The website was set up as a type of “hot or not” game for Harvard students. The website allowed visitors to compare two female student pictures side-by-side and let them decide who was hot or not.
After no shortage of popularity and controversy, the site was expanded by Zuckerberg, along with Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes, and the name changed to TheFacebook in 2004. Membership was initially limited by the founders to Harvard students, but was expanded to other colleges in the Boston area, the Ivy League, and gradually most universities in the United States and Canada, corporations, and by September 2006, to everyone with a valid email address along with an age requirement of being 13 and older.
Game “Hard Hat Mack” (1982)
Founders – Trip Hawkins
First location – San Mateo, CA
Hard Hat Mack is a platform game developed by Michael Abbot and Matthew Alexander for the Apple II which was published by Electronic Arts in 1983. Ports for the Atari 8-bit family and Commodore 64 were released simultaneously. It is one of the first batch of five games from Electronic Arts, and EA calls it out as “truly EA’s first game.
So what else was in the initial EA lineup? Aside from Hard Hat Mack, the company also released Archon: The Light and the Dark, M.U.L.E, Worms?, and Axis Assassin.