Chances are, just about anyone you talk with will have an idea for a business that they think can make millions. Although business pitches may be easy to come by, turning those ideas into wins is a whole new ballgame. However, many entrepreneurs with simple ideas and humble beginnings have been able to effectively turn the ideas into winning businesses.
Names like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg usually come to mind when people think about those lucky few who have cashed in on their ideas, but you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley or Seattle to turn your idea into millions.
So what does it take to make $100 million? You may be surprised. Click ahead to see 10 people and the ideas that made $100 million or more!
By Michelle Fox
Updated 15 June 2012
Chris and Robin Sorensen were both firefighters in Florida when they came up with the idea to open a sandwich shop based on their family’s 200 year history of fighting fires. In 1994, the brothers borrowed on a credit card belonging to Robin’s in-laws and opened their first shop, decorated with fire equipment and a hand-painted mural that depicted the local fire department. They even gave their subs firefighter-inspired names like “Hook & Ladder” and “Engine Company.” Robin worked at the store while Chris continued to work part-time at the fire department.
These days both Sorensens have put their firefighting days behind them. Firehouse Subs is now a booming franchise business, with 514 corporate and franchise locations around the United States — and the numbers keep growing. The company plans to continue its expansion in the Northeast, Central and Southwest in 2012.
In 2011, Firehouse Subs raked in $284.9 million in total system sales.
Mary Ellen Sheets never imagined that hauling trash would turn into a multi-million dollar company. In the early 1980s, Sheets’s sons, Jon and Brig Sorber, started doing odd jobs for locals, using their pickup truck to haul trash and brush from people’s yards and moving furniture.
Once the boys went off to college, the phone kept ringing. So Mary Ellen hired two men and bought another truck for $350. At first it was a hobby, but by the late-1980’s, she quit her job to focus on the business full-time. She also made another life-changing decision: she decided to franchise.
Today, Two Men and a Truck has 224 locations in 34 states. Brig Sorber has replaced his mom as CEO, but Mary Ellen Sheets still serves on the board of directors and Jon Sorber is an executive with the company. In 2011, Two Men and a Truck conducted 353,761 moves and had a total of $220 million in sales.
Bert and John Jacobs designed their first t-shirts in 1989 and hawked them on the streets of Boston and at colleges along the East Coast. But for five years, success eluded them. Then, in 1994, they struck upon the idea to use a design of a cartoon figure called Jake and the motto “Life is good.” People seemed to embrace the simple message of optimism — the shirts were a hit at a local street fair and retailers soon became interested.
Now Jake’s face and motto are on more than just shirts. You can find him and other characters smiling on products from towels and totes to coffee mugs and dog leashes. And life sure is good now for Bert and John Jacobs. Business is booming, with 2011 sales coming in at about $100 million.
One night, Sara Blakely cut off the bottom of her pantyhose and the idea of Spanx was born. Armed with $5,000 in savings, Blakely researched and wrote her patent for footless pantyhose and drove around North Carolina begging mill owners to make her product. Most told her it would never sell, but one owner decided to take a chance and help her make her “crazy idea.”
In 2000, her prototype was perfected and she started hitting up high-end department store buyers. In the first three months, she sold over 50,000 pairs from the back of her apartment. Now her “crazy idea” has grown to include a full range of products that are sold around the world, and Blakely is soaring high. In March, she landed on the Forbes World’s Billionaires 2012list, which estimated the company’s revenue at just under $250 million.
Siblings Dave and Catherine Cook had just moved to a new high school in when they came up with the idea of an online yearbook to meet new friends. To get started, they turned to their brother, Geoff Cook, who had already started and sold a business while in college. In 2005, Geoff became the first investor and CEO of myYearbook. Within the first nine months, the site had 1 million users. As the company grew, it left the high school realm and started connecting people in general.
In November 2011, social networking site Quepasa bought myYearbook for $100 million in cash and stock, and in June of this year myYearbook was rebranded as MeetMe. All three siblings still work at the company, with Geoff Cook as the COO.
The next big milestone for MeetMe is its merger with Quepasa, which will bring the number of users from 40 million to 80 million, according to Geoff Cook.
The idea for Pillow Pets dawned on Jennifer Telfer after watching her young sons smash down their stuffed animals in order to sleep on them like a pillow. She set about creating stuffed animals that unfolded into plush pillows.
She and her husband decided to wholesale the products themselves in 2003 through their company, CJ Products, and began by hawking them at a mall kiosk during the holiday season. By the end of the year, after Jennifer introduced Pillow Pets at a home show, they were nearly sold out. The cuddly toy has since exploded, with $300 million in sales in 2010.
Tom and Kate Chappell moved to Maine in 1968 hoping to simplify their lives. When they found it difficult to find natural, unprocessed foods and products, they decided to create and sell what they were looking for themselves. They borrowed $5,000 to start Tom’s of Maine in 1970, and peddled all-natural shampoo and personal care products to natural food stores. Their breakthrough came five years later when they launched their leading product — Tom’s of Maine toothpaste.
By 1999, sales surpassed $40 million, and in 2006 Colgate Palmolive bought 84 percent of Tom’s of Maine for $100 million. Now the Chappells have a new venture — Rambler’s Way Farm, which creates wool garments.
You could say beer is in Jim Koch’s blood. His father was a fifth-generation brewer but Jim left the family business as a few big brewers took over the market. Koch returned to his roots when he saw people were starting to crave something different. He dug out his great-great grandfather’s recipe and started brewing in his kitchen. Once his sample brew was perfected, he left his job as a management consultant, and went door to door to Boston bars trying to sell Samuel Adams Boston Beer Lager.
Today the company is the largest craft beer brewer, with over 30 different beer styles. It still uses all-natural ingredients, which Koch travels around the world to hand-select, and employs traditional brewing methods.
The hard work has paid off. The company says it has won more awards in international beer-tasting competitions than any other brewery in the world. It’s also is a money maker – The Boston Beer Companypulled in $513 million in net revenue in 2011.
It happened at a wedding — Joel Glickman, then 50 years old and working in his family’s plastics business, was sitting at a table and starting cutting and connecting a bunch of straws together. His creation gave him an idea for a plastic construction toy. The idea soon became an obsession. After rejections from Hasbro and Mattel, Glickman decided to take a huge risk and shut down part of the family’s injection molded plastic business to make his toy himself.
In 1993, not long after K’NEX hit the market, Toys R Us’ founder said it was the best thing he’d seen in years. Four years later sales of the toy had grown to about $100 million. Glickman retired, but when the business suffered, he went back to work, and business is once again booming. The company anticipates it will have sales of approximately $100 million for 2012.
Jim McCann was a bartender and a social worker looking for a way to supplement his income when he bought a flower shop for $10,000 in 1976. That led to 13 more stores in the New York metropolitan area, but it wasn’t until he acquired the 1-800-FLOWERS phone number in 1986 that business really bloomed. McCann’s was the first company to put an 800-telephone number in its name, and the simple marketing idea paid off.
He also made sure technology didn’t leave him behind, seizing on the Internet as an opportunity as early as 1991. In 1999, 1-800-FLOWERS went public and add the .COM to its name. The company, which has also expanded by acquiring companies like The Popcorn Factory and Fannie May, reported $689.8 millionin total revenue in fiscal year 2011.