>Leadership>16 Founder Stories Behind Famous Companies

Some of the largest companies in the world emerged from circumstances most people don’t know about or would even expect. Whether spurred by sweaty armpits, morphine addictions or just plain anger, these 16 founders built their empires through what turned out to be some rather lucrative motivations.


Fired up in Jeff Bezos’ garage in 1994, Amazon.com was driven by what Bezos describes as his “regret minimization framework,” designed to reduce the regret he might otherwise have felt for not participating in the lucrative Internet business boom. When trying to decide whether to quit his stable job to create his online bookstore, Bezos remembers, “If I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so . . . it was an incredibly easy decision.”In the first two months, Amazon sold to all 50 states and more than 45 countries, averaging $20,000 per week. Today, it is the largest online retailer in the world.


After William E. Boeing cracked the plane he had bought for fun, he was told replacement parts wouldn’t be ready for months. Angry, Boeing told a friend they could build a better machine. In 1916, the duo built a seaplane that performed extremely well, prompting Boeing to launch his own aircraft business.


Drew Houston, Founder and current CEO of Dropbox, was a student at MIT when the trouble of forgetting his USB too often led him to envision his successful cloud-based file sharing service. We’re glad Houston is forgetful.


Coca-Cola surfaced from the experiments of a wounded Civil War veteran, John Pemberton, who tried using coca leaves and kola nuts to counteract his addiction to morphine. Pemberton named his medicinal tonic, “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca,” advertising it as capable of reducing nervousness and irregular organ behavior.



As a student at Yale University, Frederick Smith turned in an economics paper outlining an overnight delivery service for the up-and-coming computer information age. After Smith went on to realize the company on his own, he told a reporter that he didn’t know what grade he’d gotten on his original paper—“probably made my usual C.” For years, sample packages in FedEx advertisements held a return address at Yale.

General Motors

The founder of a successful horse drawn carriage company, William C. Durant initially doubted the automobile—it was stinky, loud and dangerous, and he certainly wouldn’t let his daughter ride in one. But in 1900, he heard the worried cries of the public concerning the dangers of cars, and Durant saw a niche opportunity to focus on improved safety. He went on to become one of the leading pioneers in the American automobile industry by founding General Motors in Detroit, where headquarters remain today.


Larry Page was a computer science Ph.D. student at Stanford when he wrote his dissertation on the structure of the World Wide Web. His interest sufficiently piqued, Page focused on defining how web pages linked to each other. He thought there must be something valuable about the number and nature of the links, and as it turns out, the rest of the world seemed to think so too.

John Deere

Tales abound as to how John Deere invented his famous steel plow. Before becoming a blacksmith in 1825, Deere worked at his father’s tailor shop, where he polished and sharpened needles by running them through sand. As one version of the story goes, Deere used this experience to predict that a correctly shaped plow made of highly polished steel would be much more efficient than iron.In another account, Deere is said to have modeled his plow after the way a steel pitchfork moves through soil and hay.

Marriott International

Having experienced the sweaty summers of Washington, D.C. as a Mormon missionary, J. Willard Marriott figured he could turn a profit by offering downtown pedestrians a cooling refreshment. In 1927, Marriott and his wife started a nine-stool root beer stand. Wintertime brought chili and sandwiches to the menu, and then after 30 years in the food business, Marriott’s stand had grown to 56 restaurants.When air travel was on the rise in 1953, Marriott embarked on a $7 million venture to build a motor hotel near the Washington National Airport. It turned out to be a good idea. Today, Marriott’s lodging and restaurant business is worth $3.5 billion.


Barbie and Hot Wheels came to life because Mattel founders Ruth and Elliot Handler began selling picture frames shortly after World War II. With the leftover scraps, Handler built dollhouse furniture to make a little extra cash.Realizing the miniature toys were more lucrative, the Handlers switched their business model and skyrocketed Mattel to become one of the top toy makers in the country.


The post-war baby boom of 1948 inspired Charles Lazarus to start a baby furniture retail store called Children’s Supermarket. After adding baby toys, customers asked for toys geared toward older children as well, prompting Lazarus to evolve his company into today’s Toys“R”Us brand, which also operates FAO Schwarz and Babies“R”Us.

Trader Joe’s

Joe Coulombe’s small group of convenience stores was dangerously close to the same model as the already popular 7-Eleven chain in his California area. To differentiate his brand, Coulombe went with a South Seas motif after traveling around the Caribbean, noticing touristy Americans would go home with newfound tastes for foods they couldn’t get in regular grocery stores. Offering just that, the first Trader Joe’s market opened in 1967.

Under Armour

Kevin Plank, a former fullback at the University of Maryland, got tired of swapping out the sweaty shirts underneath his jersey. He noticed, however, that his compression shorts stayed dry. So in 1996, from his grandmother’s basement, Plank created a shirt using similar moisture-wicking synthetic fabric. His resulting line of Under Armour clothing went on to revolutionize the sportswear industry.

Walt Disney Company

Growing up on a Missouri farm, Walt Disney developed a love for drawing from the requests of his neighbor, a retired doctor named “Doc” Sherwood, who paid Disney to draw pictures of his horse. Disney later became a newspaper cartoonist and commercial artist, where he learned how to make commercials based with cutout animations. His fascination with animation inspired him to establish his own cartoon studio and eventually become the face of the golden age of animation.


After moving to Chicago in 1891 with just $32 in his pocket, William Wrigley, Jr. began a soap business. As an incentive to buy the soap, Wrigley threw in a free can of baking powder. Soon finding baking powder was more popular than soap, he switched businesses. A year later, Wrigley started throwing in chewing gum for buying baking powder. When chewing gum made a bigger profit than baking powder, Wrigley shifted businesses once again. His success with gum, however, stuck considerably well. Juicy Fruit, anyone?

Yankee Candle Company

In 1969, sixteen-year-old Michael Kittredge had no money to buy his mom a Christmas gift, so he made a scented candle from melted crayons. A neighbor saw the candle and offered to buy it. With the profit, Kittredge made two candles—one to give his mom and another to sell. Thus came to light the premier scented candle brand in the country—yet another win for the American Dream.