The Profit

Big businesses founded by BFFs


Going into business with your bff

Ben Cohen, left, and Jerry Greenfield in 1980
Ted Dully | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

Life's burdens are lightened somewhat when a friend is there to bolster you. Having a good buddy to help move your sofa, paint your deck or clean up after a party significantly reduces the work involved and generally makes for a less unpleasant experience. It might even end up being a little fun.

This lesson has not been lost in business. Some of the most enduring and vital American companies were founded by a couple of friends with an idea. They may not always have had a lot of start-up money, but the principals compensated with the boundless enthusiasm that only young, excited pals can possess.

Serial entrepreneur and Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis of CNBC Prime's "The Profit" sees advantages in going into business with friends.

"In principle, you can trust that person," he said in an interview. "It's always better to know somebody than not to know somebody." But he has strong feelings about the potential downside, too.

"Money is a very difficult commodity," Lemonis said. "People get divorced over it, and you can lose your friendship over it. I mean, think about it—when relationships end, how often do they end well?"

What follows are 10 cases in which friends with nothing but ambition and a dream built successful companies—all of them household names today.

By Dan Bukszpan
Posted 07 Aug. 2013


Artifacts in the HP garage in Palo Alto, Calif.
Getty Images

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard both graduated from Stanford University with electrical engineering degrees. In 1939, with $538, they founded a business run out of a garage and manufactured their first product, a sound-equipment tester.

One of their first customers was Walt Disney Studios, which used the oscillator on speaker systems in theaters showing the movie "Fantasia," according to Reuters.

"We were here with electronic products when electronics became a big thing," Hewlett said in 1946. "We don't deserve one damn bit of credit for the success of Hewlett-Packard."

The company entered the Fortune 500 in 1962.


Paul Allen, left, and Bill Gates in 1987
Anne E. Yow-Dyson | Getty Images

Microsoft was founded in 1975 by childhood chums Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Originally, the name of the company was spelled Micro-Soft, but they dropped the hyphen and never looked back.

Both men eventually transitioned out of day-to-day roles in the company and took positions on the board of directors. But the company they founded continues to do just fine, thank you very much, reporting $77.3 billion in net revenue for the fiscal year that ended June 30.


Steve Jobs, left, and Steve Wozniak in 1977
Tom Munnecke | Getty Images

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs met through a mutual friend in 1970, and according to Wozniak's 2006 autobiography, "iWoz," they just clicked. Six years later, they founded Apple Computer (a third founder, Ronald Wayne, left the company 12 days after it launched, selling back his shares for $800).

Jobs and Wozniak stuck with it, however. And, oh boy, did it pay off. The company went on to make the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, products that revolutionized the technology marketplace.

Apple posted revenue of $157 billion last year, according to SEC filings.

Ben & Jerry's Homemade

Ben Cohen, left, and Jerry Greenfield in 1980
Ted Dully | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

Ben & Jerry's Homemade ice cream company had its genesis in a seventh-grade gym class in 1963 in Merrick, N.Y. It was there that Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield met and their sweet story began.

Over a decade later, the friends, now living in Vermont, decided to take a correspondence course in ice cream-making that set them back five dollars. What an investment. According to its website, the company—which launched in 1978, operating out of a renovated gas station—reported sales of more than $4 million in 1984.

In 2000, global consumer products giant Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's for $326 million.


Alex Tan | AFP | Getty Images

You know that off-the-record IM chat you're having with a co-worker? Well, four friends from Tel Aviv made it possible. Amnon Amir, Yair Goldfinger, Arik Vardi and Sefi Vigiser came up with the idea of real-time, peer-to-peer chat technology after completing their service in the Israeli armed forces.

The friends founded Mirabilis in 1996, launching the technology known as ICQ ("I seek you"). It spread like wildfire just by word of mouth, and just two years later, America Online bought the service for $287 million, according to The New York Times.

In 2001 the service hit the 100 million user mark.


Google founders Sergey Brin, left, and Larry Page, right, in 2004
John MacDougall | AFP | Getty Images

Google was founded by Stanford University Ph.D. students Sergey Brin and Larry Page. They had met in 1995 and a year later invented a search engine called BackRub. The name didn't stick, and it was changed to Google, a play on the word "googol," which signifies a one followed by 100 zeros.

Google became an official company in 1998 after Andy Bechtolsheim of Sun Microsystems made an investment of $100,000. It went public in 2004, offering over 19 million shares of Class A common stock at $85 a share.

Three years later, owning a piece of Google would cost $700 a share, and by the beginning of this month, the company's stock was trading at about $900 a share.

Whole Foods Market

JB Redd | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The year was 1978, and the CB radio craze was in full swing. "The Star Wars Holiday Special" aired on CBS. And 20-somethings John Mackey and Rene Lawson Hardy scrounged together $45,000 to open a natural foods store in Austin, Tex., called SaferWay.

At first, the going was so tough that they lived in the store, where they bathed using the water hose from the dishwasher. But by 1980 they had merged with Clarksville Natural Grocery to form Whole Foods Market. They began expanding, first into other major Texan cities and then into other states.

Today, Mackey is CEO, and in May the publicly traded company's share price broke the $100 barrier, according to The Philadelphia Business Journal.


Pike Place Market in Seattle is home to the first Starbucks
Dick Loek | Toronto Star | Getty Images

The Starbucks coffeehouse chain has become such an ingrained part of everyday activity that it's hard to remember what life was like before the franchises became ubiquitous.

But every global, public corporation has to start somewhere. Starbucks' beginnings date to 1971, when schoolteachers Jerry Baldwin and Zev Siegel, and writer Gordon Bowker opened a gourmet coffee shop in Seattle.

In 1982, Howard Schultz joined Starbucks, setting it on a course that would transform the business. The company's future chairman, president and CEO, Schultz bought Starbucks with local investors in 1987, turning into a behemoth with more than 18,000 stores in 62 countries, according to the company website.


From left: William Davidson, Walter Davidson, Arthur Davidson and Bill Harley
Apic | Hulton Archive | Getty Images

In 1901, a young man named William S. Harley drafted a blueprint for a radical invention: a small engine that could power a bicycle. He and a childhood friend, Arthur Davidson, spent the next two years working in a small shed, trying to bring the engine to life.

The motor-bicycle never happened, but in 1903 they—along with Arthur's brothers, William and Walter Davidson—founded their Milwaukee company, creating the iconic motorcycle brand instead.

Now, 110 years later, Harley-Davidson remains the first choice of motorcycle riders everywhere, from outlaw bikers to men in the deep throes of midlife crisis.


Mattel's Ken dolls, 1961
Hulton Archive | Getty Images

Founded by two friends, Harold "Matt" Matson and Elliot Handler, Mattel started as a picture-frame maker in 1945. Handler's wife, Ruth, was also involved in the business.

Handler developed a side line, making dollhouse furniture from leftover scraps, but the side line became such a revenue generator that the company shifted its focus to toys.

Mattel's greatest success was a doll designed by Ruth Handler—a teenage-girl doll with unrealistic physical proportions named Barbie. According to the Washington Post's obituary of Elliot Handler, many believe Barbie to be the product that put Mattel into the Fortune 500 in 1965.

The Profit

When Marcus Lemonis isn't running his multibillion-dollar company, Camping World, he goes on the hunt for struggling businesses that are desperate for cash and ripe for a deal. In the past 10 years, he's successfully turned around over 100 companies.

He's now bringing that expertise to CNBC and doing something no one has ever done on TV before—putting over $2 million of his own money on the line. In each episode, Lemonis makes an offer that's impossible to refuse: his cash for a piece of the business and a percentage of the profits.

Once inside these companies, he'll do almost anything to save the business and make a return on his investment, even if it means firing the president, promoting the secretary or doing the work himself.