7 Foolish Ideas that Made Their Creators Rich

Throughout history, entrepreneurs have had a dream: To start that ONE business that makes them a FORTUNE.

Personally, I don’t recommend shooting for the stars straight from your first launching pad. Rather, I’d like to see new marketers and business owners learn the basics, get good at what they’re doing and gradually ramp up from there.

But I understand the appeal of getting rich from your very first business. Heck, if I’m honest, I had the same dream. Granted, I wound up falling on my face a few times before I got things right. But there are folks out there who start that ONE business and do indeed strike it rich.

And to that end, I thought it might be fun to talk about some of those folks and what they did.

No, I’m not going to list out a dozen or so websites like a little search engine called “Google” or another little site that sold books called “Amazon.”

Rather, I’ve dug deep and found plenty of examples of people building million-dollar businesses in a wide array of niches – some of them downright surprising.

This isn’t meant as tutorial, as in “Do what they did.” Rather, I hope you’ll take it as inspiration to find your own unique niche in the business arena and fill a need or want that desperately needs filling – maybe even one nobody’s figured out yet.

Here then are 7 examples of ordinary people earning extraordinary money in their small businesses, along with questions you can use to find and launch your next great business idea. 

1: A Silly Concept for a Television Show

Four years ago, David Briggs, wrote down an idea for a TV show on a scrap of paper. He wanted to have audiences on the edge of their seats as they watched contestants make decisions which could affect their lives. 

The final idea had even more audience participation. Studio audiences could directly affect a contestant’s level of winnings by answering a question for a contestant who doesn’t know the answer.

“Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” created by Steve Knight, David Briggs and Mike Whitehill was watched in 40 countries by millions of people. The show exceeded all expectations and left even the trio amazed at the worldwide success.

The creators believe that a secret of the show’s success is that each contestant in the hot seat is there because they answered questions correctly and not because they are beautiful or friends with someone in television. Anyone watching at home also knows they could be a contestant, and the people on the show are just like them. Contestants have the real chance to win one million dollars or pounds by answering general knowledge questions.

It’s a TV game with high audience participation and a game which has made the trio who created it, millionaires.

Questions for you to ponder: 

What seemingly simple question (such as, “Who wants to be a millionaire?”) can you turn into a business?

How can you keep your audience on the edge of their seat?

If your idea is a BIG one, are you holding back from getting started because you’re afraid you can’t make it happen?

2: Massive Money in Thrift Store Rejects

Vahan Chamlian knew that in some countries, American clothes are considered a status symbol. Vahan realized if he purchased unwanted garments at rock bottom prices from Charity shops, he could afford to sell them in other countries.

Arriving in America with $20 in his pocket, he visited charity shop dealers like the Salvation Army and Goodwill to purchase unwanted garments, which he then sold to any country where American clothes are desired as a status symbol. 

Not all the garments donated to charities are sold, because even people who visit charity shops are discerning shoppers, and don’t want some of the donated clothes on offer.

From this small start, he built and owns more than a dozen business enterprises, employing over 800 people and earning $78 million.

If it wasn’t for people like Vahan, a lot of the clothes from charity shops would end up in landfills. Vahan turns garbage into gold and gives extra funds to charities by buying unwanted garments. 

His donations to charity have funded many worthy causes, and he paid for a private elementary school to be built, donating it to Glendale, California. 

All this – and a $78 million-a-year business empire – just from selling unwanted clothes. 

Questions:

What items, that are currently being thrown out, can you find a new use for?

What products can you either repurpose, or find an entirely new market for?

What do you take for granted in your country, that people in other countries would love to have?

3: School Kids Hit It Big

Sisters Anna and Sarah began their business while still at school. They both loved wearing unusual colors of nail polish, and invariably ended up mixing their own shades because the shops simply didn’t stock what they wanted. 

Friends, classmates and even shopkeepers asked the girls where they bought their nail polish. So, they decided to start-up their own company, producing bottles of nail polish in the colors they were always mixing up for themselves. Their grandmother gave them a loan and RIPE was officially born.

Today, Macy’s and other top stores stock their product. The girls have created over 60 shades of polish, retailing at $7 a bottle. The polishes carry exotic names – emerald forest, raisin, buttercup, shark and meteor, are just a handful. Their customers range from young trendsetting girls to funky grandmas. Celebrities also like to use RIPE. Tori Spelling wears cumulus and Demi Moore’s favorite shade is kelp. Now a line of lipsticks have also been introduced. Anna and Sarah have turned painting their nails into a million-dollar business.

Questions: 

What products do you use every day that could be improved?

What do you wish was available to buy, that isn’t?

Have you noticed your friends complaining that they can’t find what they want? If so, what is it they’re looking for?

4: Profits Between the Sheets

Housewife Giselle Jubinville can hardly sew a stitch, but she was so fed-up with fitted sheets that kept popping off mattress corners that she decided to design a better fitted sheet – one that really did stay put.

For two months, day and night, she tried hundreds of designs, using just her old sewing machine. Everyone told her she was crazy and even experts said she was wasting her time because you can’t patent a sheet. But Giselle was determined and wouldn’t give up, even sewing in the corner of her bedroom all night while her husband, Leonard, slept.

The breakthrough came when one night she saw the perfect design in a dream. By stitching the corners at just the right angle and using slightly more fabric, she was able to make a deeper pocket, and the sheet remained in place because the pocket stayed on any mattress.

Despite designing the perfect fitted sheet, it took Giselle of St. Albert, Alberta, Canada, another 4 years to sell her design. The patent office in Washington, D.C. turned her down three times because there were already more than 100 patented ways of sewing sheet corners, so they didn’t agree that Giselle’s idea was new. Furious, she travelled to Washington, taking with her a miniature mattress and the new sheet corner. Once the patent examiner had been shown the design he agreed it was new and awarded a patent.

Next stops were the two largest Canadian sheet manufacturers. However, Giselle suffered a devastating setback when both companies were not in the least bit interested in purchasing her design. But when she tried Springs Industries in the U.S., they purchased her patent for a $1 million plus. Now Giselle and her family are enjoying the results of her ‘foolish’ idea – a four-bedroom dream house newly built, they are on easy street and having a ball.

Questions: 

What irritates you no end, making you wonder why SOMEONE hasn’t fixed it?

What little thing is driving your friends / coworkers / neighbors crazy, and how can you remedy it?

What idea so possesses and obsesses you, that you can work on it night and day until you find the answer?

5: Merging Two Existing Products into One 

Mary Rodas started in the toy business, at the tender age of just 4 yrs. Her dad worked as a janitor at a New Jersey apartment building where the toy executive, Donald Spector, lived. Over the years Donald gave Mary new products to test. She proved to be an amazing judge of what kids like and her opinions were always right on target. 

At 14, Mary was helping Donald Spector to pick out so many winners that he hired her as vice president of marketing on a salary of $200,000 a year.

Mary scored an instant success with the ‘Balzac’, a ball made by blowing up a balloon inside a sturdy cloth sack. When Mary suggested wild colors and patterns should go on the sack, sales shot through the roof – topping $100 million. Mary Rodas, at the tender age of 14, was earning $200,000 a year.

Questions: 

Remember back to when you were a kid. Get in to the “childlike” frame of mind, and then ask yourself these questions: 

If you could invent anything, what would it be?

What annoys you? (for example, popping balloons)

How can you improve the appearance of something? (for example, make it more colorful with vivid patterns)

And what two products – for example, a balloon and a cloth sack – can you combine into a new product?

6: Wrong Order Creates Business Empire

The turning point in Ann Beiler’s meteoric rise in business was the result of a mistake, which eventually led to an empire of over 400 stores. The 48 year old mother of two, took a low-paid job managing a pizza and pretzel booth at a farmer’s market to financially help her husband’s new counselling service. 

Another farmer’s market booth came up for sale at $6,000 and Ann decided to buy it. She borrowed the money from a family member.

At first, her sales were just steady, but that all changed when a supplier delivered the wrong ingredients. Ann had to make up her pretzels with different ingredients and sales quadrupled to $1,500 a weekend. Her ingredient mixtures are still a trade secret, known only to the franchisees.

Auntie Anne’s was ranked as the top franchise in the pretzel industry by the Entrepreneur magazine. Today, Auntie Annie’s produces freshly baked pretzels in cinnamon sugar, sour cream and onion, whole wheat, garlic, sesame, caramel almond and raisin flavors. The pretzels sell for less than $2, and Auntie Anne guarantees her pretzels will never be out of the oven more than 30 minutes. 

Ann Beiler believes her secret to success is making a difference in business by giving of yourself. Today, Ann donates $100,000 a year to the counselling service her husband started. And she built an $80million-a-year empire – all from a mistake which led her to the simple idea of cooking her pretzels with different ingredients. 

Questions:

What fundamental things can you change in your business to create something brand new?

How can you take a product that hasn’t changed much in decades, and turn it into something new and exciting?

How can you take a problem and turn it into an opportunity?

7: Doing What They Say Can’t Be Done 

James Dyson is a former art student who didn’t know a ball-bearing from a ballpoint pen, but still set out to invent a vacuum that would revolutionise cleaning our homes. 

Not a qualified engineer, James didn’t even have an O level in physics. Yet, he invented the first vacuum cleaner which discarded the bag and replaced it with a little typhoon that spun at the speed of sound in a chamber that couldn’t clog.

James is a keen enthusiast on the importance of a good looking product with an intangible style, which sets that product apart. The Dual Cyclone is uniquely on permanent display at both the Science Museum and the Design Museum, and in the Twentieth Century Gallery at the V & A.

James’s personal success steps:

Observe objects in daily use which are assumed cannot be improved. 

Using lateral thinking, it is possible to find an improvement that can be made. 

There’s no need to worry about not being an expert – after the idea there’s plenty of time to learn the technology. The first cyclonic vacuum cleaner James built, was out of cereal packets and masking tape, long before he understood how it worked.

Retaining the patent, he tried to raise money for research and then production by selling licences to America and Japan. The Japanese market was a success, with the machine being sold as the ‘G Force’ and produced in pastel pink, it became a luxury status symbol selling at £1,200 per machine.

America was not a success, because after a licence agreement was terminated, a gargantuan manufacturer began production and marketing a cyclonic vacuum cleaner under its own name. James took out a lawsuit and fought against the company for five years.

James Dyson took his idea from a cereal box and masking tape to the instantly recognisable, stylish Dyson Dual Cyclone cleaner. Now James heads his company, Dyson, which is turning over £100 million.

Questions: 

Thinking out of the box, what industry or product can you turn on its head?

Are you letting your lack of knowledge stop you from getting started?

Can you partner with an expert and work together to make your idea a reality? Or can you learn as you go, as Dyson did?

You’ll notice that all 7 of these examples are ‘blasts from the past.’ But the simple fact is, coming up with just one great idea can be all it takes to build your fortune.