10 Small and Unlikely Businesses Created by Big Tech Execs Before They Got Famous

Provided by Business Insider
Provided by Business Insider

Entrepreneurship comes with both high ambitions and risks. After all, 9 out of 10 of them fail.

Before these big name self-starters created a household name for their companies, many of them faced failure with their first startups.

Some were young and wanted to make some extra money on the side. Some knew when it was time to say goodbye and move on to their next dream project.

And, in many ways, these early bumps should be viewed in a positive light. After all, if Google co-founder Larry Page had continued to pursue his saxophone music career, your current home page might not exist.

These are the strange successes and bittersweet failures of some of the biggest names in tech.

1. Elon Musk attempted to convert a frat house into an underground nightclub.

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When the magnate of Tesla Motors and SpaceX wasn’t studying up for his business or physics degrees, he threw ragers at a multi-bedroom apartment that he managed to turn into a nightclub.

Musk, along with his friend Adeo Ressi, did this to earn extra cash and become more acquainted with the University of Pennsylvania scene as they were transfer students. They even hired bouncers and people to be in charge of clean-up.

On Sundays, Musk would wind down and watch The Simpsons on his run-down TV.

2. College-aged Larry Page of Google created business plans for a company that made software music synthesizers.

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While growing up, Page loved music and would play the saxophone and study music composition. When the Google founder was still attending the University of Michigan, he created a business plan for a company that would use electronic music synthesizers built from software. The difficulties he encountered with the software while trying to get it to operate in real-time irked him, however.

Page told Fortune , “It’s amazing to the extent I think that modern operating systems are terrible at being real-time. If you think about it from a music point of view, if you’re a percussionist, you hit something, it’s got to happen in milliseconds, fractions of a second.”

Page’s obsession for speed was a key element of the Google platform, as he pushed for his engineers to cut down every millisecond of lag in search results.

3. Before Travis Kalanick created Uber, his search engine was sued by the Motion Picture Association of America.

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Kalanick, along with five other students from UCLA’s computer science department, founded a multimedia search engine called Scour in 1997. It was successful at first, even attracting the investment of former Disney president Michael Ovitz.

To compete with Napster, a former peer to peer music service, Kalanick and his friends jump started a company called Scour Exchange. The file exchange service allowed users to trade videos and video files, rustling the MPAA’s feathers, which then alleged copyright infringement.

Scour died soon after because it failed to raise enough funds to continue its operations. The whopping $250 billion lawsuit charge forced Kalanick and his buddies to file for bankruptcy .

4. Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, sold C++ packages to Chinese universities.

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Homes was concerned with how Chinese universities often lacked information technology, as she lived in China at the time due to her father’s frequent business trips.

So before the youngest self-made female billionaire even flew over to California to start her Stanford education, Holmes sold C++ compilers to Chinese universities . At this point, Holmes had already been dipping her toes with a variety of programming languages, and wanted to amp up the tech used by Chinese education.

Thanks to her fluency in Mandarin, Holmes worked in a lab at the Genome Institute in Singapore. From there, she was inspired to draft up a patent that would eventually lead to Theranos, a health tech company that develops solutions for laboratory diagnostic tests that are mainly blood-related.

5. Walt Disney and his brother created an animation series that was forced to shut down.

© Bettmann/CORBIS

In 1923, the Disney brothers created the “Alice Comedies,” which were spin-offs of the Alice in Wonderland story, in their uncle’s garage.

Disney and his brother, Roy, made their first films for four years, and then created a new character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. After making 26 episodes, the Disney brothers found out that their distributor had gone behind their backs and asked animators to make the Oswald cartoon without consulting Disney.

Upon reviewing his contract, Disney realized that the distributor owned the rights to the cartoon — a painful lesson for the entrepreneur. But he had the last laugh— Disney World is currently valued at $35 billion.

6. Mark Zuckerberg created the notorious Facemash, the pre-Tinder app of today

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The Facebook founder ran the site by putting photos of two people of the same gender side by side. The user would then vote on the “hotter” person and then Facemash would present a final ranking . In just one day, 450 people had already visited the site and voted on people’s faces over 22,000 times.

Immediately, criticism ensued. The Harvard student newspaper deemed his site improper, and Zuckerberg was accused of breaching security, violating copyrights, and violating individual privacy by Harvard’s administrative board.

Zuckerberg took the website down, admitting that “issues about violating people’s privacy don’t seem to be surmountable. I’m not willing to risk insulting anyone.”

On a less controversial note, high-school Zuckerberg built the Synapse Media Player, a machine that adapted to a music-lover’s listening habits, which was ranked 3 stars out of 5 in PC Magazine. It generated songs in a playlist according to someone’s taste, much like the discovery function of Spotify.

7. LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman founded an ‘overeager’ dating site

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Before LinkedIn, Hoffman tried his hand at building another type of networking site in 1997: the “overeager” dating site called SocialNet. The ambitious concept included professional networking along with finding you a date, someone to room with, or even tennis partners.

In a previous interview with Business Insider, Hoffman talked about the learning experience of it all, saying, “if you’re not embarrassed by your version one release, you released it too late”.

Even though Hoffman creates products which connect people, he was a self-described “loner” in high school with three to five friends in his circle.

He left SocialNet after tensions in the strategy board and then joined the PayPal Mafia, the alumni of the online payment service who started their own tech companies. This was when Hoffman’s passion project became LinkedIn. SocialNet no longer exists.

8. Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman of Reddit made a geeky company called “bread pig.”

Alexis Ohanian.

© Andy Kropa/Invision/AP Alexis Ohanian

Right after he graduated from the University of Virginia, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman co-founded the online news forum Reddit.

Their other lesser-known project was “born at an unknown point in 2005” before reddit exploded online. While Huffman and Ohanian searched for a domain for Reddit, they came across breadpig.com and impulsively purchased it. Huffman envisioned the flying animal with two loaves of bread for wings, and the mythical beast became the beloved symbol of their business.

Ohanian and Huffman waited for breadpig.com to stop being treated as a spam page for pig supplies and bread makers for a year.

Breadpig “sidekick-for-hire” continues to sell an assortment of eccentric objects, and is still up and running, with Ohanian as the Founder and Chief Swine Defender.

9. Richard Branson quit school when he was 16 to start a magazine that was doomed for failure.

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Before Branson founded the multinational VC conglomerate that is the Virgin Group, he tried to start a magazine simply called “Student”. Branson hoped that the pages would be filled with opinions of activists and inspire young people everywhere.

He snagged some interviews with big names like French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and poet Robert Graves, but the magazine wasn’t profitable.

Branson went along with a passing idea to mail records to people at discounted prices. He used Student to advertise for his new business, and then renovated a shoe shop to a discount record store. Everyone Branson hired to work at his store was inexperienced — a “virgin at business” — hence the title which eventually spawned a $5 billion enterprise.

10. Investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet used to place pinball machines in barber shops.

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While other children were frolicking at a playground, Buffett was already a young entrepreneur — he sold golf balls, stamps, and delivered newspapers. He put $1,200 from this business towards 40 acres of farmland.

Buffett then shopped around for pinball machines with his friend Donald Danly during his high school years, buying one for $25 and placing it in a nearby barber’s shop. The profit-minded teen invested in more machines and eventually owned them in three different locations. The young duo made $50 a week.

He eventually sold his business, called Wilson Coin Operated Machines, to a war veteran for $1200.

Written by Celena Chong of Business Insider

(Source: Business Insider)

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