10 Great Companies that Started Out Selling Something Else

by Nicholas Tart

Good companies start by selling what people want. Great companies adapt to what people want and start selling what they’re going to want.

As you’ll find in this post, sometimes that means completely changing your product or service. Here are 10 great companies that started as something completely different than what they’re known for today.

Companies Started by Selling Something Else

Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company#1 3M

Formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3 M’s, get it?), 3M started in 1902 as a mining company that sold a popular mineral to grinding wheel manufacturers.

From a mineral, they began selling sandpaper, then masking tape, then “Scotch Tape”, and today they sell over 55,000 different products including everything from car care products to touch screens.

#2 Abercrombie & Fitch

Founded in 1892 by David Abercrombie and Ezra H. Fitch, Abercrombie & Fitch started as a sporting goods shop and outfitter.

They didn’t become a clothing store until The Limited acquired them in 1988. Now they have over 300 stores in the U.S. and they’re expanding internationally.

#3 Avon

David H. McConnell started Avon in 1886 as door-to-door book salesman. Sales were tough at first but he realized that he could gain women’s attention by offering perfume samples.

Soon those perfume samples became more popular than the books, so he founded the California Perfume Company in New York, NY and it eventually became Avon.

Colgate Jar Toothpaste#4 Colgate

Colgate was originally founded in 1806 by a soap and candle maker named William Colgate. They started by selling soap, candles, and starch.

Colgate didn’t start selling toothpaste until 1873 and they sold it by the jar.

#5 Flickr

In 2004, Flickr started as a chat room with real-time photo sharing for the web-based multiplayer game, Game Neverending. Soon thereafter, they shelved Game Neverending, expanded the uploading and filing of photos, and buried the chat room.

In March 2005, Yahoo! acquired Flickr for $35 million.

#6 Microsoft

Bill Gates and Paul Allen started what eventually became Microsoft in 1968 when a local computer company gave the 13-year-olds access to a computer. They were quickly banned after they learned how to hack the system and crash the files. But the company ultimately re-hired them to find bugs and fix weaknesses in their systems.

Over the next five years they received sporadic programming gigs until Gates enrolled at Harvard. One year in, Allen showed Gates the latest issue of Popular Electronics featuring the Altair 8800 and Allen convinced Gates to drop out so they could develop software for personal computers.

Nintendo Playing Cards#7 Nintendo

Fusajiro Yamauchi founded Nintendo in 1889 as a playing card company. The game, Hanafuda, became very popular in Japan but they knew the market wasn’t that big. So they began to experiment in other industries. Between 1963 and 1968, Nintendo set up a taxi company, a hotel chain, a TV network, and a food company.

Finally, in 1974, Nintendo entered the video-gaming industry and today they’re third most valuable listed company in Japan.

#8 Nokia

Nokia got its start in 1865 as a paper mill – the original communications technology. In 1868, Frederick Idestam opened his second pulp mill near the town of Nokia, Finland.

After a century of mergers and acquisitions, Nokia entered the mobile communication in the 1980s with the Mobira Talkman.

#9 Twitter

Twitter originated from a “daylong brainstorming session” between Jack Dorsey and his podcasting company, Odeo, with the goal of creating an online SMS service to communicate within a small group. It was codenamed, Twttr, after being inspired by Flickr.

At first, it was used internally by Odeo employees and they launched Twitter to the public on July 15, 2006.

Wrigley History Chewing Gum#10 Wrigley

Like Colgate, the William Wrigley Jr. Company started by selling soap and baking powder in 1891. Like Avon, William Wrigley began by selling his products door-to-door and he enticed his customers by packaging each can of baking powder with chewing gum.

The chewing gum steadily became more popular than the baking powder. Today several brands of chewing gum are owned by Wrigley, including Juicy Fruit, Extra, Orbit, Hubba Bubba, and 5.

Bonus: Google

Mark my words, years from now our generation will be saying, “Remember when Google was just a search engine?” And we’ll be like, “Yeah, dude, I remember the first time I used it back in middle school.”

What’s the Point?

One of the biggest excuses young people give for not starting a business is, “I don’t have an idea yet.”

They’re just sitting back and waiting for that big idea. You know, that one-in-a-million idea. They think it’ll fall out of the sky and into their lap when they least expect it. And that’s when they’ll get started.

If you want to be successful, just start selling something, anything. Figure out what people are buying and sell it to them. Michael started his journey by selling Pokémon cards to his schoolmates as an 8-year-old.

What you’re selling will likely change over time, but the principles will stay the same.

Do you know of other companies that started out selling something completely different?

About Nicholas Tart

I’m a 23-year-old, full-time entrepreneur living in Colorado. My companies include 14 Clicks, JuniorBiz, and Monument Marketing. I'm the co-author of What it Takes to Make More Money than Your Parents. I graduated from Colorado State in 2010 and I'm dedicated to teaching and helping young entrepreneurs.

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26 comments so far… Leave a reply

  1. Sam Reid

    3M are a massive company now!! They bought the company i used to work for, Cogent Systems for around £800 Million! Madness lol.

  2. John Deen

    This is really some good information. Never this before.

    • Raj Mehta

      Yeh really nice info thanks for sharing this :)

  3. Wasim Ismail

    Nice Stuff.. haha yeah I can imagine Google, even now, how many products they have, they way they are changing search, its amazing, I guess that's all part of business, keeping up with customers demands, or else our products will look dated.

  4. Craig

    Number 11: Radio Shack started out as Tandy Corp selling leather products.

  5. Nate Marti

    Good post Nick. Yeah, to think that Virgin used to only sell records and that Berkshire Hathaway was a textile company ... wise advice to just start :-) TY. -Nate

    • Nicholas Tart

      Ah... There's two more! Maybe the question should've been, "Can you think of a company that still sells what they originally sold?"

  6. Irfan

    WOW! Some of the real fact you have revealed from your Article, don't you? There are some popular companies known worldwide, and it was really amazing to read on. I like your last paragraph, the inspiring one. It is true to if you are in business don't think what you going to start with people will turn to take interest into it. It's you who need to learn about the choices and the needs of people want, you should business in that. Same applies for blogging, don't blog the things you like, blog on the things people wanted to know/read about.

  7. DT News

    Hey Nicholas, nice list. I believe it was Darwin who said that evolution was not about the survival of the strongest, or the most intelligent, but the one that is the most adaptable to change. The path to success is never straight in my experience.

  8. Dave

    Great post! I especially love the last paragraph about not waiting for that one idea an actually just getting into action. If those companies had waited they have had the instructure to profit from those ideas, certainly not as well as they did.

  9. Jamie Hudson

    Liking the new blog layout, not a touch on the last one... in my opinion. Anyway, interesting article. I'm sure Google will branch out into 100 different industries. Maybe soon they'll be selling toothpaste, soap, candles and chewing gum? LOL

  10. LaughstoHeal.com

    Very well written post, Nicholas! I knew about some of these, but others were a complete surprise. Also, very nice closing statement motivation to get people "off of the fence" and onwards with action. Looking forward to reading more from you, Kass from Laughs to Heal

  11. Alexis

    Hey Nicholas, I like your post. That shows that the most important thing is to start.. Never wait to have a perfect business idea but start selling selling anything.

  12. Joanie Jeffrey

    Very inspiration blog post. thanks for sharing this.

  13. aditia

    great list, for me still hard to do something like this to deciding to sell other thing or stick with the basic plan

  14. matt banning

    thanks nick! i didn't know 3M was a mining company. I thought they only make stickies.

  15. Neil Killick

    Really nice article. Unfortunately 99.9% of businesses ignore this advice and think they know best!

  16. Faisal Reza

    Hi Nick, That was nice articles. What I learn from the article is don't afraid to experiment in business

  17. Babatunde

    Hi Nick, That was a really nice and inspiring article: I love the fresh angle and how you emphasize the point at the end. I agree with you 100% on your google theory: in a couple of years, kids won't even know it started off as a just a search (cause those guys are going into everything these days!). Thanks again for the lovely article. More of this please

  18. Music

    nintendo had a taxi company lol. never would of thought of that.

  19. Randy Bailin

    McDonald's started out making food. Now they serve various items in cardboard boxes presumably meant for human consumption.

  20. Hans Bulos

    Very informative and inspiring! To think that it came from a 23 year old - almost half my age! Will definitely check out your other blog posts. I hope more young adults in my country, the Philippines, will be as entrepreneurial as you.

  21. Lee

    Just proves it pays to be flexible. The first idea may not always be the best.

  22. Max

    BMW started as an aircraft engine manufacturer, they still have the same propeller in their logo.. I think there is really a lot of similar examples.

  23. Rushabh

    Lovely . Really nice article .

  24. F4MU5

    From the bottom to the top, I assume just being out in the field trying to make it happen is the right start. If you sitting around for something to come to you, your basically wasting time. Idle times lead to idle minds, staying motivated will always be the right thing to do. I try to do a little bit of everything. If my friends have a idea, I listen, even if it sounds stupid. You never know what the next thing will be. We all seen how well the reverse robe did, oh I mean the snuggie :)

The comments are closed.