Unusual Origins of 15 Innovative Companies

Last Updated Nov 11, 2009 3:39 PM EST

Unusual Origins of Innovative CompaniesEntrepreneurs worry too much about what they're going to develop, make, or market. What's more important is that they make, develop or market something. The odds that they end up making it big doing something different are apparently pretty high.

Here are 15 companies that became famous, not for what they started doing, but for something that came later. Sure, they may be related, but the point is still valid: better to get started on something; innovative people find a way.

  • Backed by French venture capital, DuPont began making gunpowder in 1802.
  • McDonald's. In 1927, brothers Dick and Mac McDonald opened a hot dog stand called "The Airdrome" at the Monrovia airport in California. 21 years later, the company began focusing on hamburgers.
  • Nokia was originally a paper mill in Finland.
  • Sony started as a radio repair shop named Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo in post-war Tokyo. Its first original product was a tape recorder, but its breakthrough was the first "commercially successful" transistor radio, the Sony TR-55.
  • 3M was originally formed in 1902 to mine corundum for making grinding wheels. The "corundum," however turned out to be anorthosite, which the company tried to use to make sandpaper. That didn't work either.
  • IBM, formed as Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR) when three companies merged in 1911, made weight scales, automatic meat slicers, coffee grinders, time-keeping systems, and computer punch card equipment.
  • Kraft Foods. James L. Kraft started a wholesale door-to-door cheese business in Chicago in 1903.
  • Founded by Konosuke Matsushita in 1918, the company now known as Panasonic began producing duplex lamp sockets and bicycle lamps. Matsushita's brother-in-law later founded Sanyo.
  • Toyota. In 1926, Sakichi Toyoda - the inventor of a line of highly efficient manual and machine-powered looms - founded Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, Ltd. Seven years later, the company ventured into automobiles.
  • In 1919, Cornelius Vander Starr opened AIG as an insurance agency in Shanghai, China.
  • Xerox was founded in 1906 as The Haloid Photographic Company making photographic paper and equipment.
  • Motorola began life as Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in 1928. Its first product - a "battery eliminator" for battery-powered radios to run on household electricity - was sold to Sears, Roebuck and Co.
  • American Express was the first "FedEx." It started in 1850 as an express mail company, formed by Henry Wells, William Fargo, and John Warren Butterfield. The same folks founded Wells Fargo two years later to handle California.
  • Texas Instruments began life as Geophysical Survey Inc. doing seismic exploration for the petroleum industry. GSI is now part of Halliburton.
  • In 1899, a limited partnership between Japanese investors and America's Western Electric Company created Nippon Electric Company, or NEC, to make telephones and switching systems for the Japanese market.
[Thanks to Wikipedia for some of the research data. Yes, I confirmed everything, but Wikipedia's a fabulous initial source. Image of Sony TR-55 www.sony.co.jp]