Written by: Keith Tully
Published: 16th January 2015
If you think you know everything there is to know about well known companies like Nokia, Apple and Shell, then you might want to hold onto your hat. A large number of businesses that are now huge household names came from extremely humble beginnings. Many others started out selling something that you wouldn’t believe. Though you might feel that times are tough for your business, this post proves there is nothing you can’t achieve if you are willing to change, adapt and grow.
Today, we know oil giant Shell as one of the world’s richest energy companies, but its origins might surprise you. Shell was founded in the 1830s by Marcus Samuel, an antiques and collectibles shop owner based in London’s East End. His store specialised in decorative shells imported from the Far East. The business proved very successful, so Marcus was able to expand into a broader import/export business. Shell ships sailed the world selling machinery and tools to Japan and China, returning with rare goods such as silk, rice and tea. When Marcus passed the business to his sons, they were savvy enough to see the potential offered by the invention of the internal combustion engine and built the world’s first oil tanker, which navigated the Suez Canal in 1892. In 1897, they renamed their shipping business the Shell Transport and Trading Company, merged with Royal Dutch Petroleum and never looked back.
Most people think of cell phones when they hear the word Nokia, but the origins of the company are less well known – and much older- than you might think. It was founded in 1871 by Finnish mining engineer Fredrik Idestam, who built a paper mill on the banks of the Nokianvirta River near the town of Nokia in southwest Finland. In 1898, he founded a second company called the Finnish Rubber Works that made rubber tires and galoshes. In 1912, Idestam added a third company: the Finnish Cable Works and renamed his businesses The Nokia Corporation. In 1963, Nokia's electronics division began making radio phones for the military and emergency services. By the late 1970s and early 80s, Nokia was making the world's first radio phones and car phones. The rest is history.
Nintendo first erupted into popular consciousness in the 1980s with the release of the extraordinarily popular Nintendo Entertainment System console (NES). However, what most people don’t know is that Nintendo was founded way back in 1889 as a playing card company by Fusajiro Yamauchi. In 1949, Fusajiro retired and his grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi took over. Over the next 63 years, Hirosi transformed Nintendo into the world’s most successful gaming company. Like Shell, Nintendo were perfectly placed to take advantage of a new invention: the home computer. After exploring various expansion options such as a taxi company, instant rice and toys, Hiroshi noted the growing interest in computer games and obtained the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey in Japan: the world’s first home video game console. They never looked back.
4. American Express.
When you use your American Express card, you probably don’t feel like a pioneer or explorer, but that’s exactly what American Express were. They were founded during the 1848 gold rush that drove thousands of settlers West to California to seek their fortunes. The pioneers relied on express riders – American Express being one of them- to send and receive packages and pass on messages, often facing huge dangers in uncharted territory to do so. In its early days, AE’s best customers were banks who used the company to transport stock certificates, notes and currency between remote branches. In 1882, American Express introduced its own financial product: the money order, and followed that up by inventing traveller’s cheques in 1891. They also entered the luxury travel business, offering the first ‘round the world’ cruise in 1922. The first American Express card was issued in 1958.
Apple might not be as old as most of the companies on this list, but they’re certainly the best at reinventing themselves. The Apple I (pictured) was launched in 1976 and was Apple's first product. It lacked basic features such as a keyboard, monitor- even a case. Despite the fact it was effectively just a motherboard, the Apple I sold for the equivalent of $2,763. The revenue allowed Apple to build the Apple II: a traditional looking computer with a monitor, keyboard and disk drives. Its user centred design and intuitive screen icons made it a huge success almost overnight. However, their greatest reinvention to date came when they turned their attention away from computers and toward hand held devices. Again, like Nintendo and Shell they were on the brink of a revolution, spotted the signs and got in there first. Now, almost everyone owns either an iPod or an iPhone.
Running a company certainly isn’t easy, but if you’re willing to look for new opportunities, research the market, adapt and even change the main focus of your business, you might find yourself on a list like this in thirty years’ time.