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Small Businesses That Made it Big

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Key Takeaways

  • Small businesses total over 30 million in the U.S and must stay competitive to succeed.
  • A great way to grow your business is to learn from successful companies.
  • Use their strong examples to inspire new ideas and help you define your own success.

As a small business owner, you know that competition is fierce. With over 30 million small businesses in the U.S., staying competitive is critical for successful small businesses. It may seem difficult, but it can be done.

Americans love good underdog and success stories. Here are three companies that started from humble beginnings to become big-time businesses.

From Small Businesses to Iconic Brands

Apple Computers

Two college dropouts in Los Altos, California had little money, virtually no work experience – and a dream. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs shared a vision of making computers accessible to everyone. In 1976, they opened an office in Jobs’ parents’ garage and founded their company: Apple Computer. The business name was inspired by the fruit that is said to have fallen on Sir Isaac Newton’s head inspiring him to define the law of gravity and revolutionizing the scientific world. 

The pair focused on developing “personal” computers, taking technology that had previously filled a room and pairing it down into components that could fit on a desktop. Wozniak designed the Apple I and Apple II personal computers in the late 1970s for a skeptical market that questioned if computers would ever sell to everyday people. After introducing the Apple II, Wozniak was quoted as saying, “To me, a computer should be small, reliable, convenient to use and inexpensive.” 

Apple continued to release more advanced desktop models, culminating in the Macintosh computer which was featured in the “1984” Super Bowl TV commercial that gave a nod to the George Orwell novel and is called by many the greatest ad of all time. Wozniak and Jobs would leave Apple in 1985 but the innovation they built continued to grow and gain ground in the consumer market. In the late 1990s, Apple sparred with competitor IBM for personal computer market leadership.

After Apple purchased Jobs’ upstart NeXT company, a re-energized Jobs returned to his roots and over the next decade would be instrumental in creating the iPod, iPhone, iPad and Apple Store. Today, Apple is recognized as the technology leader behind products that literally changed the world. Not bad for a fledgling company that was founded in a garage. 

What you can learn from Apple: Think differently, be bold and create new solutions.


Bill Bowerman had a fascination with running. When not coaching the University of Oregon track team, he experimented with running shoes to try to improve their performance. One morning while eating breakfast, he had an epiphany. He poured rubber onto a hot waffle iron in his kitchen, let it cool and an innovative “waffle sole” running shoe was born. 

Bowerman partnered with former Oregon track star Phil Knight to sell the new cushy and fast running shoe at area track meets and races. After marketing the shoes under various names, the small company finally settled on Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. A Portland freelance artist created the now legendary “swoosh” (the sound made by a runner when passing a competitor) logo for 35 dollars.

Besides running shoes, the company began to develop shoes for other sports and gained popularity with amateur and professional athletes. The business garnered attention and enhanced sales by signing “Nike athletes” like tennis star John McEnroe, basketball legend Michael Jordan and golf champion Tiger Woods. In 1988, the iconic “Just Do It” ad campaign was launched and Nike was named “Marketer of the Year” by Advertising Age in 1996.

Today, the company is worth 30 billion dollars and is recognized as the leading worldwide brand for athletic shoes and apparel. A company that initially stored its inventory in a single-car trunk is now recognized for athletic, marketing and customer service excellence. 

What you can learn from Nike: Know your market, keep hustling and just do it.

Mrs. Fields Cookies

As one of five children growing up in a modest home in Oakland, California, Debbi Fields gained a positive outlook on life that would serve her well in her future career. Her hard-working father offered her valuable advice. “My father believed that true wealth was found in family, friends and doing what you love,” she says. What Debbi loved at an early age was baking cookies.

After a childhood often spent baking in the kitchen, Fields married and after serving up her cookies and business plan to various lenders, secured a small business loan and opened Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery. On opening day, Fields stepped outside her small bakery to offer free samples and tallied 75 dollars in sales. She never forgot the hard work it took to create brand awareness and the excitement she felt as her business began to take off. 

In the early 1990s, Fields franchised her business and eventually sold her company to an investment firm that took the Mrs. Fields brand international. There are now over 300 Mrs. Fields stores in the U.S. and throughout the world. Fields has written numerous cookbooks and continues to enjoy baking at home. From a home kitchen to a 450 million dollar cookie empire, Mrs. Fields followed her passion and created a worldwide phenomenon. 

What you can learn from Mrs. Fields: Do what you love, be persistent and dream big.

How Can You Think Big Today?

With hard work and solid business and marketing plans, the small business founders of Apple, Nike and Mrs. Fields followed their passions to create successful small businesses, and, eventually, big businesses. 

Whether you want to build a website, create eCommerce opportunities, learn how to grow a small business or enhance your online marketing strategies, has the expertise to make it happen. While being successful doesn’t always mean creating a huge company, how will you think big today?

Products mentioned in this blog post include:

Custom Website Design Services for Small Business

Website Builder for Small Business 

Website Security for Small Business Safety

Images: Shutterstock