Famous brands and their bizarre first products
Everyone has got to start somewhere before becoming a multimillion-dollar corporation. Sometimes that might mean making a bizarre product or two before landing on the one that really sets you up for the big time. Do you remember any of these weird first products?
1. Sony — Rice cooker
A primitive product, Sony’s rice cooker fulfilled the company’s desire to create products for everyday life. According to the history section on Sony’s website, the rice cooker was made by interlocking aluminum electrodes and connected to the bottom of a wooden tub.
Unfortunately, the rice cooker produced only undercooked or overcooked rice — not something anyone wanted to eat. So, the product was a flop. But if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!
NEXT: This brand went from the farm life to the luxurious life.
2. Lamborghini — Tractor
Any fashionable farmer out there will be glad to know Lamborghini is still making tractors under their Lamborghini Trattori brand. Founded by Ferruccio Lamborghini post-World War II, the Italian creator went on to create the now-esteemed luxury car company, Automobili Lamborghini.
Lamborghini was inspired to start his own luxury car company after experiencing some issues with his Ferrari. Officially established in 1963 in Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy, Lamborghini debuted its first car soon after: the Lamborghini 350 GTV.
NEXT: This business ran root beer stands before running world-famous hotels.
3. Marriott International — Root beer stand
Now it has hotels all over the world, but the company started small with the Hot Shoppes restaurant chain. Hot Shoppes started as a franchised A&W Root Beer stand — something we definitely don’t have any longer. (It was good while it lasted, right?)
Hot Shoppes no longer exists, as the last restaurant closed 20 years ago, a representative from Marriott International told Finance 101. Not that Marriott needs Hot Shoppes any longer — they have tons of other tasty food options!
NEXT: This company sucks, but in a good way.
4. Hoover — Leather products & the electric suction sweeper
Interestingly, Hoover started out making leather products, but made its name later on in high-quality vacuum cleaners. In particular, their best-selling leather product was a leather horse collar. (Remember, it was all horses and buggies back in the day!)
But the mass production of cars in the early 1900s made the product less popular. William H. “Boss” Hoover and his sons bought the patent for the “Electric Suction Sweeper,” an early model of the vacuums we know and love today.
NEXT: Before their racy catalogs, this retailer sold purely outdoor gear.
5. Abercrombie & Fitch — Outdoor gear
Like Madonna, retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has made itself over many times. It was known as a slinger of outdoor gear in the early 1900s, before becoming known for its racy catalogs of people wearing surprisingly very little of the clothing they’re supposed to be modeling.
The first store was founded in 1892, says Business Insider, and officially adopted its current name in 1904. By 1939, it was one of the most popular sporting goods stores, with customers like Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt.
NEXT: This video game company actually started with a playing card game.
6. Nintendo — Playing cards
The popular gaming company Nintendo was founded on September 23, 1889, says Business Insider. The company then was much different than the Nintendo we know and love today. Its founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi, started with selling hand-painted playing cards. This became the most popular brand in Japan at the time.
Like its products, its name was a bit different, too. Nintendo was known as Nintendo Koppai. Nowadays, Nintendo isn’t known for its playing cards, but for its electronics, video games, and gaming systems.
NEXT: Did you know this company’s name in Danish means “play well”?
7. LEGO — Wooden toys
LEGO’s name is derived from two words, actually — “leg godt.” An abbreviation of this Danish word, LEGO means “play well.” Makes sense for a toy company, no? Founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, LEGO used to make wooden toys and was based in a small carpenter’s shop.
Its products have been developed and changed many times over, finally landing in its present brick form in 1958, says the history section on LEGO’s website. You couldn’t make the incredible structures that kids can today with a wooden duck toy, could ya?
NEXT: One of these fetched $375,000 at an auction recently.
8. Apple — Apple Computer I
This very primitive-looking computer (which looks more like a typewriter tbh) was developed by Steve “Woz” Wozniak. Wozniak’s business partner, the notorious Steve Jobs, convinced him to package and sell the computer. In 1976, Apple-I went on sale for $666.66. (Lucky number, no?)
Wozniak wrote to the BBC, telling them that Apple-I was underpowered compared to its next iteration, Apple-II. However, Apple-I did show the world that it was possible to make and sell an affordable computer to the public.
NEXT: This company’s founder wanted to make a product to help people.
9. Toyota — Automatic loom
Toyota’s founder, Sakichi Toyoda, started off his career as a carpenter, says Toyota’s history section on its website. Interested in creating something new to benefit society, Sakichi decided he’d find a way to improve the efficiency of the hand loom. He went to work on his loom in a barn.
He found himself creating and destroying looms, trying to figure out a way to make the best one. People thought he was strange, but that didn’t bother him. He finished the loom and patented it in 1890.
NEXT: This world-famous fast food restaurant didn’t start off making its signature dish.
10. McDonald’s — Hot dogs
McDonald’s founders, Richard and Maurice McDonald, started their iconic brand with, surprisingly, not a hamburger stand, but a hot dog stand. It began in the 1930s near a racetrack, and then shortly became a barbecue restaurant, and eventually made the switch to hamburgers, says a report in PEOPLE magazine.
Then Ray Kroc came in, successfully franchised the brothers’ McDonald’s stores, and turned it into a global force. Kroc didn’t exactly give Richard and Maurice a fair cut of the success, however. (See the movie The Founder for more on this sad, sad story.)
NEXT: The makers of Toy Story could have become a medical company.
11. Pixar — Image Computer
Pixar’s Image Computer was so advanced at the time that it changed medicine, says a 2016 piece in Vice. “It’s a reminder that Pixar could have been a very different company,” writes Ernie Smith in Vice. When it first developed its 3-D tech, it wasn’t in high demand in film.
Its Pixar Image Computer, developed in 1986, “ … could only be afforded in a few contexts, including in the medical space,” writes Smith. It initially sold for $135,000 but went down to $30,000. Turns out the imaging was well suited for CAT scans!
NEXT: It ran into some controversies over how it marketed this particular product.
12. Nestlé — Baby formula
Mostly known for its chocolate milk and candy, Nestlé started making baby formula about 150 years ago, according to the bio on its website. However, Nestlé got a lot of flack after an article in The New Internationalist came out in 1973, arguing it got mothers in developing nations hooked on baby formula.
It accused the company of 1) “Creating a need where none existed,” 2) “Convincing consumers the products were indispensable,” and 3) “Linking products with the most desirable and unattainable concepts — then giving a sample.”
NEXT: This e-commerce store has put a lot of bookstores out of business.
13. Amazon — Online bookstore
Remember when Amazon only sold books? Jeff Bezos launched Amazon in 1994 as an online book retailer, but gave himself a 30% chance of success, reads a 2017 report in the Los Angeles Times. At the time, there was a 1 in 10 chance of success for startups.
So, he was being a bit more generous with himself considering startups’ high fail rate. Amazon began selling more than books, ultimately disrupting more than the book industry. It even delved into streaming services and acquired Whole Foods.
NEXT: Everyone’s favorite children’s movie creator started out with a little-known series.
14. Disney — ‘Alice Comedies’
Before Walt Disney went to Hollywood with his iconic Mickey Mouse character, he created the “Alice Comedies.” A 2016 report in Variety says that Disney started making these animated shorts when he was a struggling cartoonist in Kansas City. The cartoons feature a girl named Alice interacting with animated characters.
Alice was originally played by an actress named Virginia Davis. The shorts were said to be restored and distributed by French company Malavida, according to the Variety report. Apparently, they’re the only Disney films not copyrighted.
NEXT: Childhood friends worked on this product together.
15. Harley Davidson — Loop-frame motorcycle
So, it looks more like a bicycle rather than a motorcycle, but Harley Davidson had to start somewhere! It was 1901 and William S. Harley drew up plans for a small engine to be placed in a pedal-bicycle frame. With childhood friend Arthur Davidson, Harley labored over their motorbike.
According to the San Diego Automotive Museum’s website, the loop-frame design they came up with was similar to the 1903 Milwaukee Merkel motorcycle. This bicycle-like motorcycle is a far cry from the big hogs that the brand is known for now.
NEXT: Search engines have been around since the beginning of the internet.
16. Google — Search engine
Google cofounders Larry Page and Sean Anderson were brainstorming when they accidentally came up with their company name. Since the search engine could index a lot of data, the mathematical term “Googolplex” was suggested. Page wanted to shorten the name to “Googol.”
Anderson wanted to check if the name “Googol” was available for company use, so he ran a search. He then typed the name in wrong — “Google.” Google started as a search engine, but now offers products like Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, and much more.
NEXT: The term “electronics” hadn’t been coined yet when this tech giant made one of its first products.
17. Hewlett-Packard — Audio oscillator
An “audio oscillator” is a piece of equipment that produces frequencies in the audio range. William R. Hewlett came up with the idea for the product during a graduate seminar at Stanford University. He decided to explore the potential of an audio oscillator for the rest of his semester.
The patent for the Variable Frequency Oscillation Generator was awarded to Hewlett in 1942. He was just 28 years old. Now Hewlett-Packard (HP) makes software, drivers, laptops, and more. That’s a far cry from the clunker pictured here.
NEXT: This car was sold for as little as $260.
18. Ford — Model T
A press release on Ford’s website says this $260 car “established a mass market for automobiles.” The car was introduced October 1, 1908, and wasn’t anything near what cars are nowadays. It had just a 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and its top speed was only 45 miles per hour.
Compare that with cars now with eight-cylinder engines that can easily do over 100 miles per hour. But remember our mantra — “We all gotta start somewhere.” After the Model T, there was the Model A, and so on and so forth.
NEXT: It’s because I’m worth it.
19. L’Oréal — Hair dye
The creator of L’Oréal was a man by the name of Eugène Schueller, a 1904 graduate from France’s national chemical engineering school, École Nationale Supérieure de Chimie de Paris. He took what he learned and created the company that would become L’Oréal — Société Française des Teintures Inoffensives pour Cheveux — in 1909.
He created his first hair dye under the name Oréal. The formula was a breakthrough at the time, says L’Oréal’s website. It used harmless chemicals and offered a range of colors unavailable on the market.
NEXT: This tech giant once lived a life as a grocery trading business.
20. Samsung — Grocery trading business
This South Korean company was founded by Lee Byung-Chull in March of 1938 in Taegu, Korea, reads an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. His business traded noodles and other Korean goods and exported them to China and its provinces. The business expanded post-Korean War.
Lee got into textiles and opened the largest woolen mill in Korea. His focus became on industrialization — there was plenty to do in that realm post-Korean War.
NEXT: The founder of this company included his signature product as an extra while he was out slinging baking powder.
21. Wrigley’s — Soap & baking powder
William Wrigley Jr. came to Chicago, Illinois, looking to make it big in the soap biz. He gave away baking powder as an incentive for customers to buy his soap. The soap maker noticed baking powder was popular, so he started selling that instead. He switched his business yet again.
The soap-maker-turned-baking-powder-slinger finally settled on chewing gum, which became Wrigley Company. He named it after himself — William Wrigley Jr. He initially included gum with each can of baking powder. Then came Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, the gum flavor that really stuck, so to speak.
NEXT: Before gaudy rings and necklaces, this jewelry maker made something else.
22. Tiffany & Co. — Stationery
Charles Lewis Tiffany and John B. Young started Tiffany & Co. with a $1,000 advance from Tiffany’s daddy in 1837 in New York City, New York. Its first iteration was a “stationery and fancy goods store,” says the biography of the company on Tiffany’s press website.
Tiffany & Co. got international recognition at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair for its silver craftsmanship. It was the first U.S. company to use the British silver standard — 92% pure silver. Tiffany now sells jewelry, watches, fragrances, and more.
NEXT: Revenue-wise, it was one of the largest corporations in the early 21st century.
23. Berkshire Hathaway — Textiles
Currently an investment vehicle for the überwealthy Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway started out in the textile industry. There are two companies involved in its history, reads an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica: Hathaway Manufacturing Company and Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company. Berkshire became Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates in 1929.
Then Berkshire and Hathaway merged to form Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. in 1955. Textile operations ceased in the ’80s and Berkshire Hathaway became a “holding company for Buffett’s other businesses and corporate acquisitions,” reads the Encyclopedia Britannica entry.
NEXT: Before there was farm equipment, there was a blacksmith in Vermont.
24. John Deere — Blacksmithing
John Deere had a humble upbringing. He was raised by a single mother in Middlebury, Vermont — his father left on a ship for work but was never heard from again. Deere’s education was limited but he apprenticed himself at age 17 and learned blacksmithing, says the history section on Deere.com.
He relocated to Grand Detour, Illinois, eventually, as blacksmiths were in high demand. His main customers? Farmers. They needed better plows to turn the heavy, sticky prairie soil and Deere knew exactly what they needed — an improved plow! Thus, his company began.
NEXT: From a simple coffee roaster to Pumpkin Spice Latte fame.
25. Starbucks — Whole roasted coffee beans
Arguably the most famous coffee store in the entire world, Starbucks was founded by Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zev Siegel. The three men bonded over their love of coffee and tea and their backgrounds in academia. The first store opened in 1971 in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market.
However, they didn’t serve cups of coffee, but rather roasted coffee beans. According to the Starbucks Company Timeline on its website, it started to sell coffee to fine restaurants and espresso bars in 1982. Howard Schultz joined the same year and convinced the company to test the whole coffeehouse thing. The rest is history!