The phrase “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” was first uttered by labor union advocate and attorney Nicholas Klein in 1918. Since then, it has become one of the most widely cited (and misattributed) motivational phrases around.
Klein’s statement is particularly relevant to the theme of this post, which looks at five of the most out-there business ideas in recent memory. Contrary to the informed opinions of the time, they went on to make their originators millions. And in some cases, billions.
All of the entries, from the Pet Rock to the Sharknado Film Franchise, stand as testament to the fact that the only way to determine whether or not an idea has commercial legs with 100% certainty is to take it to the market and see if people are willing to spend their hard-earned money.
1. The Pet Rock
Gary Dahl was a copywriter and ad executive specializing in electronic advertising. In 1975, after listening to friends complaining about their pets, he decided to develop the product that would make him famous. He named it the “Pet Rock”. And within just six months, he had sold over five million of the inanimate creatures.
While many pass off the Pet Rock as a fad, which it undoubtedly was – arguably it was the greatest fad in marketing history – Gary Dahl’s approach was also a masterclass in packaging and viral marketing. The original Pet Rock came with a whimsical 32-page instruction manual and a “pet carrier” complete with air holes, which also acted as the product’s packaging. They sold for $3.95, with a profit of $3. Needless to say, Gary Dahl became a millionaire.
2. The Million Dollar Homepage
The Million Dollar Homepage was launched on 26 August 2005. It quickly became an internet sensation, attracting media attention from many outlets including the BBC, Sky News and The Daily Telegraph.
The idea was a simple one and heralded the birth of “pixel advertising”. Advertisers could buy pixels for $1 each on the site’s homepage (in batches of one hundred blocks) with an optional link to their site and a slogan that appeared when a user’s cursor hovered over the pixel.
Alex Tew, the site’s founder, sold all the pixels on 11th January 2016, bringing his total earnings to $1,037,100. He attributed the project’s success to the novelty of the idea and its intrinsic potential for going viral.
3. The Automatic Bread-Slicing Machine
The phrase “The best thing since sliced bread” is ubiquitous nowadays. But when Otto Frederick Rohwedder launched the automatic bread-slicing machine in 1928, it wasn’t an instant hit.
Corporate customers were unsure whether there would be any demand for pre-sliced loaves, which would go stale faster. And the first machines seemed to wear out quickly.
After a lackluster initial response, however, sliced bread took off and became a household staple. The success of sliced bread coincided with the increasing demand for commercially made bread across America. Before this period, most loaves were made at home using raw ingredients.
The Continental Baking Company, through the brand Wonder Bread, was the first major company to sell pre-sliced bread. Later in life, Otto Frederick Rohwedder sold his patents and, unsurprisingly, died a wealthy man.
4. Big Mouth Billy Bass
The popularity of Big Mouth Billy Bass, a singing, moving latex rubber fish attached to a wooden plinth, peaked in the early 2000s, during which time they were virtually inescapable. It is reported that George Bush had one in the Oval Office and Queen Elizabeth hung one at Balmoral.
Vice President of product development at Gemmy Industries Joe Pellettieri came up with the idea. In an interview for The Hustle, he said, “I always come from a place of what makes me laugh. The idea of a fish on a plaque singing ‘Take Me To The River’ was hilarious.”
Even though Big Mouth Billy Bass reportedly brought in nearly $100 million for Gemmy Industries, executives apparently disliked the idea when it was first pitched.
Big Mouth Billy Bass is an excellent example of what Seth Godin calls a purple cow – an idea that is so remarkable it easily stands out from the masses of other products on the market. Big Mouth Billy Bass wasn’t unique just because it was unusual. The electric mechanism that enabled the fish’s head to move away from the plinth and mouth the lyrics was an industry first.
5. Sharknado Film Franchise
On paper, it sounds like a recipe for an instant flop: a film about a tornado full of sharks, mixed in with time travel, Arthurian legend and the occasional dinosaur. Most producers would politely show whoever was pitching the idea to the door.
Yet the Sharknado series of films, which concluded with its sixth production in 2018, forms the foundation of one of the most successful film franchises of all time. Since the first film launch by Syfy Films and The Asylum, the franchise has generated more than $4 billion, spawning video games, books, documentaries and comic books in the process.
The mix of satire, absurdity and general awfulness (in the best possible way) has made Sharknado releases consistently popular with a wide-ranging audience.
Do You Have an Unusual Business Idea That Could Be Worth Millions?
Are you excited by the prospect of a business career? Perhaps you envision yourself running your own company? Or working for an innovative enterprise that pushes the traditional boundaries of product design?
If the answer to either of those questions is “yes”, then EU Business School can provide you with all the skills, experience and practical know-how that you need to thrive in your chosen field.
We offer a range of bachelor’s, master’s and MBA programs, including the Bachelor of Arts in Digital Business, Design & Innovation and the Master in Innovation & Entrepreneurship.