6 Global Corporations Started by Their Founder's Shitty Luck
There are a million self-help books out there reminding us that success is all about bouncing back from our failures. We're kind of sick of hearing it, to be honest.
But what most people don't realize is how many successful businesses only happened because of a sudden disaster. These are the global empires that only struck gold because fate forced them to at gunpoint.
Prohibition Invents the Official Soft Drink of Planet Earth
In the Beginning:
Have you ever gotten bored and decided to try to come up with the perfect drink? And did you snap your fingers and say, "Aha! I'll take some booze and mix it with cocaine!"
If so, you're probably due for one hell of an intervention. But if it was 1885 and your name was John Pemberton, you were about to become the father of a freaking worldwide beverage empire. Pemberton was a pharmacist living in Columbus, Georgia and to be fair, alcohol laced with cocaine was already a thing (called coca wine).
If you're thinking to yourself that combining a stimulant and a depressant into one concoction isn't the greatest of ideas, you obviously didn't grow up in the 19th century.
And aren't familiar with Sparks, the energy beer.
Pemberton's product was a resounding success; the ads for Pemberton's French Wine Coca said it was for "scientists, scholars, poets, divines, lawyers, physicians, and others devoted to extreme mental exertion."
Apparently ads weren't charged by the letter back then, because we suspect it would've been cheaper to write, "BOOZE: Now With COCAINE." That shit kind of sells itself.
Prohibition happened. Alcohol was suddenly illegal. But, instead of responding in the hornswoggling fashion his neighbors did, Pemberton instead removed the alcohol from his coca wine and replaced it something people like almost as much: gigantic amounts of sugar. Coca-Cola was born.
"Come gents, let us imbibe sugar water and enjoy this so-called 'jazz' music."
Pemberton claimed his new drink cured "morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence."
"I say, either I'm piss proud right now or this tonic has made me one randy bull."
With alcohol quality and quantity slowly dwindling, Pemberton and his sweet ambrosia filled the gap ... mainly because his drink still contained cocaine. Pemberton wasn't an idiot, he was a pharmacist. Knowing people would come back for that high, he advertised his drink as a temperance beverage--a drink to ease people off of booze--and the rest is soft drink history.
As for Pemberton himself, well, maybe he should have gotten an intervention: A crippling addiction to morphine forced him to sell off all rights to the company a few years later.
Sex + Olympics = Video Game Giant
In the Beginning:
The year was 1889, and instead of playing video games, children worked in coal mines until they died. In those days, "Nintendo Koppai" was just a company that made playing cards, devoid of Italian plumbers and sword-wielding elves, yet very popular among the Japanese mafia. Over the years they branched out into other area such as toys, instant rice, taxi cabs and... love hotels.
Yes, that's a Hello Kitty-themed sex dungeon. Every Japanese home has one.
What's a love hotel? It's exactly what it sounds like: A place that rents out rooms by the hour, visited by couples looking to get their bone on--often with money changing hands afterward. Courtesy of Nintendo. These were also places that then-President of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi would frequent constantly. Nothing shows off a product's quality better than the company president personally endorsing it... over and over and over again.
But playing cards were where Nintendo made its real money. And people will always want to play cards, right?
The 1964 Olympics.
The Olympics themselves weren't a disaster. But they were held in Tokyo and they did change the culture of Japan. You see, fads are funny, unpredictable things. For instance, little mustaches as wide as your nose used to be really popular--a fashion that utterly died with nothing more than one brutal dictator.
What's the opposite of trendsetter? Hitler.
Well, in the 1960s, playing cards were the Hitler mustaches of Japan. When the Olympics came to Tokyo, the games drew a lot of international attention and Japan was trying to put its best face forward. Card games were kind of seen as low-brow and childish, and suddenly they weren't cool any more. Nintendo's sales plummeted.
You'd think this would drive all of the former card players into Love Hotels instead, but it was not to be--Nintendo's other enterprises went down along with the card business (their toy line, for instance, was getting crushed by companies like Bandai).
Then, one day Hiroshi Yamauchi visited the production floor and saw an employee playing with a toy mechanical arm he had made on his own. Yamauchi loved it, and ordered the company's resources thrown into selling it, and other electronic toys and gadgets. This, combined with their love of the skanky side of human sexuality, produced toys like the Love Tester:
Step 1: Grow non-Hitler mustache.
At this point, Nintendo pretty clearly faced a fork in the corporate road, each path leading the dominance of a cutting edge industry: "video games" or "high-end dildos." We know which one they chose, but we'll never know how long they agonized over the decision.
A Carpenter Reduced to Making Plastic Bricks Strikes Gold
In the Beginning:
Ole Kirk Christiansen was a carpenter working in Denmark in the 1890s. At the time he was building houses for local farmers, and did this up until his workshop was burned down by his sons in 1924.
Kids weren't fucking around back then.
Rather than throw his children into the Baltic Sea, as Scandinavians are known to do, Christiansen saw this as an opportunity to not only rebuild his workshop, but build it bigger and better. Additionally, he had plans to expand his business. He wouldn't let one stroke of bad luck keep him down!
The Great Depression took this as a challenge. And no, the depression wasn't just an American thing, in case you were wondering. Our carpenter was forced to downsize in every way possible, from staff to even the products he built. No longer was he making full-blown houses and furniture, but smaller versions. Much smaller.
Christiansen got into toys. Some say he came up with this idea on his own, others say he was told to do so by his social worker. Given that Vikings used to inhabit the region of Denmark, we're going with the former: No one tells a Viking what to do.
Soon after, plastic became available and in 1949, Christiansen's company ("Lego") started making little interlocking bricks. Which, in true Viking fashion, was an idea pillaged from the British.
He would be holding an axe right now but we can't find one. Even though we just saw one in the box five minutes ago.
That was more than 400 billion Lego bricks ago. Lego pieces now outnumber humans 62 to one.
An Earthquake Gives Birth to an Electronics Empire
In the Beginning:
In 1912, Tokuji Hayakawa had a metal workshop in Tokyo. At just 21-years of age, he invented a mechanical pencil he named the Ever-Ready Sharp. This is not to be confused with the Eversharp pencil, which was invented in America. Apparently, this mix-up is a big deal to people in the penciling world, while the rest of us have forgotten what pencils even are.
"No sorry, I don't have any of these 'pencils' that you speak of. Can I get back to my show now?" Source.
While sales of the pencil were low at first, things picked up for Kayakawa when he landed a large order for them from a trading company in Yokohama. He was on his way!
The order--and Kayakawa's impending fame as "the pencil guy"--was never fulfilled. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake slammed Tokyo. Among the devastation and rubble was Kayakawa's workshop and his pencils.
The carnage was indescribable.
With no orders, product or income, mounting debt forced the young inventor to sell his patent.
Kayakawa, realizing the gods were clearly angry at Tokyo and/or mechanical pencils, fled to Osaka. He considered restarting his effort to build Sharp pencils into a famous brand (what customer can walk away from the prospect of a really sharp pencil, after all) but then he heard that there was this new invention called the "radio" that some people were claiming to be the Next Big Thing.
Well, hell, if people wanted radios, then by gum he'd take what he knew about making sharp pencils and give Japan the sharpest damned radios they'd ever seen! This is how a clearly confused Kayakawa turned the Sharp Corporation into an electronics company. Today, probably at least one piece of electronics equipment in your home bears their logo. So, no it's not because it was owned by a guy named Sharp. It's still named after those freaking pencils.
Fascism and War Gives Us Kickass Sports Cars
In the Beginning:
Enzo Ferrari was enthusiastic about selling cars in the same way that steak-lovers are enthusiastic about raising cattle. That is to say, he could not have given two shits about selling cars.
"Enough with this car business. How can I get my pants even higher?"
No, in addition to being maybe the most unfortunate-looking Italian of his era, Ferrari was a racecar driver. It's all he ever wanted to do.
Did we mention that he was unfortunate looking?
In 1929, Ferrari became a big enough deal in the racing world that he ran his own stable of drivers, calling his team Scuderia Ferrari. They raced Alfa Romeos, and eventually that company hired Ferrari to head up their motor racing division.
The future looked bright. Cars and racing were both getting more popular by the day. What could possibly happen in Europe that would blow all of that to hell? Well, let's see... it was 1938...
World War II broke out. Fascism had already come to Italy, with Benito Mussolini having been in charge since the early 20s. When the war started, the Italian government took control of Alfa Romeo, because that's what Fascism does. Ferrari's team wound up making tools and airplane parts for the war effort.
Prohibited from racing and having absolutely nothing else to do, Ferrari's team built a car so he could race it. And the rest is history! Oh, wait, no. The allies bombed the shit out of the factory in 1944, utterly destroying everything.
Waiting for the bombs to stop dropping, Ferrari would open a business a few years later so he could get back to doing what he had wanted to do since he was a kid. He started building cars specifically so he could race them, but quickly found that you can't actually pay the rent that way (there's a reason NASCAR cars are covered with ads, after all) so, reluctantly, he started selling cars to the public purely as a way to pay for his racing career.
That's right: The most beautiful automobiles ever made were manufactured for the same reason a struggling actor takes a job at Starbucks. It was nothing more than a necessary evil to pay the bills, and rumors persist that he thought of his customers as a bunch of rich, privileged douchebags buying them as status symbols.
YOU OWE MAGNUM, P.I. AN APOLOGY, MR. FERRARI.
An Oil Crisis Creates A Titty Magazine
Larry Flynt Publications
In the Beginning:
Larry Flynt was newly discharged Naval radio operator, fresh off the USS Enterprise (the one that picked up John Glenn, not the one that picked up green space-babes). In 1965, taking what money he had saved up, Flynt purchased his mother's bar, renovated it and was soon making a sizable amount of cash. So sizable, in fact, that he was able to open two more bars.
Just as the Sharp guy saw a future in radio and Mr. Nintendo saw electronic gaming on the horizon, Larry Flynt had a revelation about the Next Big Thing:
He opened his first topless bar and named it the Hustler Club--which would soon become a chain. With the help of a newsletter to advertise them and the allure of boobies in the face, Flynt's clubs were making anywhere between $260,000 to $520,000 annually, back when that kind of money meant something.
As with Nintendo and the cultural shift away from playing cards, Flynt saw himself blindsided by an event far outside his control: the 1973 Oil Crisis.
You'll never win, Oil.
When people find themselves in hard financial times, it's the frivolous stuff that gets cut first. And it's harder to hide $40 spent at a strip club from the wife when the household is counting every penny. Even with his ingenious marketing via the newsletters, business dropped and bankruptcy loomed.
Wait a second... maybe the Hustler Newsletter itself was hurting his business. If money was tight, why would his customers spend an expensive night at a strip club when they could just masturbate to the ads in his newsletter?
Then again, it may have been the mascot.
Instead of running from the problem, Flynt embraced it. The newsletter expanded from four pages to 16 to 32--something that people would pay money for. Still, he could have been one more drop in the titty magazine ocean had some paparazzi photos of a naked Jackie Kennedy not surfaced.
Unfortunately, there is no actual titty magazine ocean.
Flynt bought the photos and published them in an issue that would sell one million copies.
Not only was a porn empire born, but the whole "catch the starlet's nipple slip with a telephoto lens and sell it for huge cash" trend was born along with it.
Be sure to check out Fitzgerald's friend Thad over at CallMeThad.
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