Turning it Around: 8 Success Stories that Once Seemed Doomed to Failure
Somewhat similar to our accidental inventions post, this article will take a look at products, brands, and services that are big now, but almost didn’t make it. These are eight encouraging tales from the world of business. Each focuses on a situation where adversity and challenges were plentiful, but intelligence, innovation, and perseverance proved enough to come out on top. Spanning the industries of tech, food, transportation, and entertainment, here are the stories of 8 successful items that met no shortage of challenges in making it to the top.
1. Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Any child of the 80s or early 90s will have many memories of the NES, or Nintendo Entertainment System. This is the product that brought the home video game industry back to life after the Video Game Crash of 1983 nearly slaughtered it for good. This is the story of how the NES managed to breathe new life into a dying industry.
The NES has an ancestor in the form of the Famicom, or Family Computer. This was a Japanese video game console that was released in 1983. In Japan, video games didn't suffer nearly as much as they did in North America in the wake of the Video Game Crash. Because of this, executives at Nintendo of Japan didn't want to throw in the towel when it came to developing their American market. This led to the creation of the Nintendo VS, or Video System. Games created for this system debuted in arcades with a fair amount of success, but hadn't really reached people's homes. The trick to making this happen was to market it as something other than a video game console.
This line of thinking is what gave birth to Nintendo's Advanced Video System, which was marketed more as a home computer. The setup included a keyboard, two controllers, a joystick, the Zapper™ light gun, and a cassette data recorder. This system was pretty impressive and had some quality games, but the public seemed to have trouble figuring out exactly what it was. It also had a pretty high price tag. By late 1985, this concept was reworked into the more affordable and relatively simple NES. This console was designed to not look like a console. It also heavily emphasized its peripheral devices, such as the Zapper and R.O.B. the Robot. Though R.O.B. was only capable of playing 2 games, he was a huge selling point and the main reason why kids were asking for an NES that Christmas.
Still, before Nintendo could sell their new console, they had to convince retailers to stock it. After the video game crash, most every big store in the USA wanted to get as far away from video games as possible. Taking a gamble and showing confidence in their product, Nintendo offered to build all marketing displays, extended merchandise credit, and fully refund retailers for all unsold units. Essentially, they made retailers an offer that protected them from any losses. Predictably, they ran with it and the NES was a success in the select cities where it was released. After this, more markets took them on and by Christmas of 1986, it was one of the hottest selling toys in the country.
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When one hears a McDonald's commercial that includes the phrase "back for a limited time", one can safely assume they're talking about the McRib. This iconic sandwich has gained a cult following over the years and is one of the most famous (usually) unavailable food items in the world.
The McRib got its start in 1981, when it was served in the test markets of Milwaukee and Chicago. The reason behind its creation was the fact that Chicken McNuggets, which were created just 2 years earlier, were constantly selling out of stock. McDonald's wanted to come up with another non-burger item to offer on its menu to lighten the load on the McNuggets. To do this, they turned to René Arend. Hailing from Luxembourg, Arend was the same chef who invented Chicken McNuggets in 1979.
Arend was inspired by methods used by the military to process and re-shape meats for longer life and easier shipping. Despite the fact that the McRib is mostly made from pork shoulder, he was struck with the idea to use this process to make the meat resemble a rack of ribs. Barbecue sauce was added to enhance the rib-like effect and pickles and onions were also added to the mix. Then, these ingredients were placed inside of a cornmeal dusted, vaguely Portuguese style roll to create the sandwich we've all come to know and love.
After performing fairly well in test markets, the McRib was soon added to menus nationwide and around the world. It was well received, but not quite well enough to live up to expectations and revenue needs. Thus, it was dropped from the menu in most countries in 1985. However, it did remain on the menu in Germany, as well as in Arend's native Luxembourg. It remains available in those countries to this day. Americans just didn't seem to have the consistent appetite for pork products that McDonald's had depended on. Still, the massive outcry from McRib fans when the sandwich was given the axe gave the corporation something to think about.
This passion among fans led to several 4 to 6 week returns of the McRib, the first of which took place in 1989. As expected, the public was elated and sales were excellent. This continued to happen over the years, sometimes as a promotional tie-in with movies. This was the case in 1994, when it came back as a promotion related to the live-action Flintstones movie.
The stakes were upped in subsequent returns, as in 2005 through 2008, the reintroduction was dubbed the "Farewell Tour", leading the public to believe it would never again see the McRib after. This gimmick was eventually abandoned, with the McRib now making a month-long appearance almost every year. The lesson learned was that even if a product isn't a smash hit with everyone, retooling it and offering it in just the right way to a niche market can be a recipe for success.
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Did you know that Airbnb has only been around for 15 years? It's true. This world-famous company had very humble roots, beginning in October 2007. At the time, two roommates by the names of Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia wanted to bring in some money by renting out a room in their San Francisco apartment in a bed and breakfast type of setup. The luxe accommodations even included an air mattress for guests to sleep on. This worked a bit better than expected, and the pair felt they may have had a big idea on their hands.
The following year, they brought their friend Nathan Blecharczyk on board to help run the company, which was now named "Air Bed & Breakfast". The idea was to offer a place to stay in a big city for people who found themselves unable to book a hotel room.
Things didn't exactly get off to a blazing start. In fact, in order to build revenue for operation, expansion, and promotion, the three business partners ended up creating breakfast cereals named after Barack Obama and John McCain. They sold these cereals at political convention events and made an impressive $30,000 doing so. While the money was a big help, the real benefit was all of the connections that they made with powerful people who were present at these conventions. Through this, they gained several key investors and the company was on its way.
By 2013, the company was quite well known and was seen as an excellent alternative to staying in hotels when on long vacations and business trips. It took until 2016 for the company to turn a profit, and growth from there was massive. Things were moving up in a big way until COVID-19 hit, reducing travel to big cities. Though bookings increased in rural areas during this time, there's no denying that Coronavirus put a hitch in Airbnb's plans.
Still, the company soldiered through and is now seeing a nice rebound. Persistence paid off at every step of the game. It's a great story of how most any great idea can become an empire as long as one never gives up, makes the right connections, and is willing to step out of the box when it comes to ways to build and grow their business.
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Reddit is a very popular website and online community. In fact, it's so popular that it's the 7th most frequently visited website among Americans as of 2022. A goldmine for memes and a great place to meet and talk with people who share both broad and niche interests, Reddit is a site that contains several forums or "Subreddits", for users to share news and hold discussions related to specific topics of interest.
The name Reddit was intended to sound like "read it". This makes sense, considering the fact that founders Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian wanted it to be like the front page of a newspaper, only online. In fact, the site still bills itself as "The front page of the internet".
When the site was launched in 2005, it would be generous to say that growth was slow. It was a great model and functioned well, but people just didn't know it existed. The founding partners also didn't have a ton of money with which to promote the site and spread word. This led to them deciding to create their own word of mouth.
Before long, Huffman and Ohanian started creating several accounts and using them to post threads about all kinds of topics and news stories. The conversations essentially consisted of two people talking to themselves via sock puppet accounts. However, this eventually created enough relevant content for them to be picked up by search engines, leading more and more users to find Reddit, sign up, and contribute to the conversations. The rest is pretty much history, as relying on word of mouth was enough to propel the site to massive success. It goes to show that sometimes you have to create your own buzz in order to start making the honey.
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5. Air Travel
It's hard to imagine what life was like before air travel. Before we had a way of being able to get to just about anywhere in the world in under a day, the globe was a far less connected entity. Traveling cross-country or internationally meant days, weeks, or even months on a train or boat. Of course, this method of travel certainly had its skeptics, as the idea of humans flying seemed preposterous to many, even decades after the Wright brothers had their first successful flight in 1903.
The first commercial flight took place in 1914 and had a whopping passenger total of 1. It involved a flight across Tampa Bay in Florida. It generated a fair amount of publicity, but it wouldn't be until a decade later that commercial flight would begin to take hold.
In the 1920s, more people were flying, but it was an expensive affair that was limited to the most wealthy of people. Even with money, not many people could fly, as most planes could only carry about 20 passengers. Many weren't too happy with their experience, as cabins weren't pressurized at the time. Conditions within the planes were frigid and travels weren't all that speedy. The planes of that era could only cruise at an altitude of about 3,000 feet, compared to the average of 33,000 to 42,000 today. The low altitude made for very bumpy flights as planes couldn't travel above the weather. This, along with having to compete for space with helicopters and small aircraft made for slow trips, often taking longer than a train to reach a given destination.
By the late 1930s and 1940s, several more airplanes were available for commercial fleets. Some former military planes from World War II were being repurposed for commercial flight. It was during this time that the luxury aspect of flying was at its height. Many planes offered passengers full beds to sleep on while in flight, even in basic travel classes. Complimentary gourmet meals and champagne were served on fine crystal to all passengers. Additionally, flight attendants were outfitted in the most fashionable of garb, often looking like starlets walking the red carpet.
By the 1970s, these aspects had been toned down quite a bit, but flying on an airline was still beyond the means the average person. This changed toward the end of the decade, when concerns over the effects of inflation and rising fuel prices threatened to kill the aviation industry. As a result, strict government controls over the industry were lifted, allowing airlines to set their own prices for the first time in history. This gave rise to more low-cost airlines, with frills being eliminated by the day.
Today, while legroom is nearly absent and coach passengers will be lucky to get a can of soda and small bag of pretzels, flying is now available to the majority of people. Low-cost airlines abound, making it possible for the average citizen to travel the world, or at least the country in much greater numbers than in decades past. From the story presented by the evolution of commercial air travel, we can identify that innovation, evolving with the times, and finding ways to take advantage of negative situations can be key to succeeding in business.
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6. The Wizard of Oz
Though it is considered one of the greatest films of all time and is beloved by just about everyone, The Wizard of Oz wasn't really that big of a deal in 1939, the year of its release. It wasn't entirely unsuccessful, as many critics praised the film for its innovative visual effects, cinematography, and lovable characters. Still, others panned it for a perceived lack of imagination. Fans of the book series upon which the movie was based were upset that at 16, Judy Garland was too old to play the more childlike Dorothy they'd grown to know from the books.
Overall, the movie wasn't quite a flop, but the reception was lukewarm. It did manage to win an Oscar for best song, with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" taking home the honors. At the time, movie tickets were nationally priced at 25 cents. Children's tickets were even lower, usually 10 to 15 cents. Since so much of the audience consisted of youthful theater goers, it was going to be tough to offset the high production and promotional costs. By the end of its initial run in theaters, the movie presented MGM with a loss of $1,145,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s equal to more than $24 million today.
Since home video and the internet weren't around in 1939 and television was in its very beginning, any movie that wasn't a huge success was forgotten about pretty quickly. The movie was re-released to theaters in 1949 and again in 1955. It was more warmly received, as in post-WWII America, its themes of love of home, family, and overall wholesome themes were readily embraced and identified with. Things really took off for the film in the later part of the 1950s when CBS began to run it once per year during the holiday season. In 1956 alone, it netted 45 million viewers.
From this point onward, The Wizard of Oz became a greatly beloved family classic. It's cited as being the most viewed movie in history, finding a place in nearly everyone's heart and video library. It's also been a merchandising juggernaut, generating more revenue than anyone could have ever imagined at the time of its creation. We get a clear lesson from this story about good things coming to those who wait, as well as realizing that things can work out better on the second time around. Below, we've included a video of 10 popular movies that were initially box office failures. The segment on The Wizard of Oz begins at the 6:58 mark.
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When going through the electronics department in Walmart or Target or when shopping for a new television online, one is bombarded with high tech sets that would've seemed out of reach just 20 years ago. Though high definition television has certainly boomed over the past decade, it's an area of technology that had a slow-as-molasses climb to success. The term HDTV has actually been in use since the late 1930s, though it had a bit of a different meaning back then.
In the early days, image resolution on a TV screen was measured in lines rather than in pixels. The earliest sets had as few as 12 lines across which images were transmitted, while the high definition dreams of the day were for around 800. By the 1950s, it was standard for analog color TV sets to have a resolution of about 525 lines. This increased slightly by the 1960s, though truly high definition broadcasting and viewing were still a long way off. Analog television bandwidth was just too limiting to transmit much more.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Japan saw an increasing amount of experimentation with different television display and broadcasting models. The USA was a bit less trusting of this technology and didn't really get cracking on it until the 1990s. In fact, the first ever high-definition broadcast in America was in 1998, featuring John Glenn's space flight. Still, many people were using CRT sets at the time that didn't have the capacity to display the rich digital imagery that was being put out.
As the 90s gave way to the 2000s, plasma and LCD sets began to dominate the market. This gave way to the OLED television sets of today, which can direct colored light directly to the screen without having to filter out white backlight as with LCD models. The 4K OLED sets that are seen in many homes now have a resolution of more than 8 megapixels per frame, doubling the resolution of the LCD sets from just a few years earlier.
Things really opened up for HDTV in 2009, when the FCC implemented a transition from analog to digital broadcasting among American television stations and networks. The result was a much larger amount of available bandwidth for broadcasting far more detailed, rich imagery. This gave companies incentive to produce HD television sets in much higher quantities and for consumers to purchase them. The result was a greater supply and lower cost, finally making high definition television a reality after close to a century of trying.
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8. The 3 Point Shot
The final item we'll talk about in this article isn't a product that people can buy, though it's certainly something that's driven up profit margins for professional basketball leagues. Basketball was a sport that saw a modest growth in popularity in the USA in the early 1900s through the 1960s. It was a game where big men dominated and the lion's share of the scoring happened right around the hoop.
As time went on, spectators expressed a desire for a speedier, flashier game with higher scoring. This ushered in the birth of the 3-point shot. While many people believe that this was an invention of the ABA (American Basketball Association), it was actually experimented with in college games in the 1950s and small semi-pro leagues in the early 1960s.
In the 1940s, there were several basketball leagues in the USA, all of which were competing for the top spot. The BAA, or Basketball Association of America, was the precursor to the NBA and was the league that beat out the others for talent and viewership. From the 1950s to present, the only competing league that ever gave the NBA a run for its money was the ABA.
Running from 1967 through 1976, the ABA was a high-scoring, high-flying league that was good for several highlight reel moments in every game. Famous for its red, white, and blue basketballs as well as for popularizing the slam dunk, the ABA was a bit of a thorn in the NBA's side. It even managed to snag some top talent, most notably when Julius Erving signed with the Virginia Squires in lieu of an NBA squad.
The thing that stood out most about the ABA was the 3-point shot. It gave guards and wings a much bigger role in the game and led to higher scoring contests. In this league, having the biggest center wasn't an automatic guarantee of success. Despite its entertainment value and talent, the ABA folded in 1976. It played in smaller markets and had fewer teams as compared to the NBA, and this ultimately led to it not being able to generate enough revenue.
In the 1979-80 NBA season, the league decided to take a note from the ABA and introduce the 3 pointer. This was also the rookie season of basketball legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. With the increasing talent level and wider national recognition of basketball, the NBA was rapidly growing in popularity. However, the 3-point shot wasn't all that quick to catch on. In the 1979-80 season, the average team was only making 0.8 threes per game on 2.8 attempts. Compare that to the 35.2 attempts that the average team took in the 2021-22 season and a pretty stark contrast is formed.
It wasn't until the 1986-87 season that teams started taking more threes. This was the first year in which more than 1 3-point shot was made and more than 5 were attempted in the average game. The introduction of the AT&T 3-Point Shootout over the All-Star break helped to generate interest in this new shot, as did budding sharpshooters such as Reggie Miller.
When analytics started to become a bigger part of the game, the increased value potential of a 3-point shot as compared to a 2-point shot saw more organizations encouraging players to shoot from distance. With the emergence of 3-point shooting superstar Stefan Curry and his supporting cast on the Golden State Warriors making a living beyond the arc, suddenly everyone wanted this shot to be part of their game.
A shot that was once only attempted by guards and a few forwards is now required at almost every position in the NBA. The 3-point shot has emerged from obscurity to become the star of the show. It's changed the way in which basketball is played, with rapid defensive switching and a nearly positionless style of play reigning supreme. To get an idea of just obscure the three point shot once was, take a look at the video below. In it, Dennis Johnson sinks a three at the buzzer to win a crucial playoff game, but the announcers think he's merely tied at as they'd forgotten that the 3-point shot even existed!
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We hope that you've had some fun and learned a few interesting facts through reading this article. Most importantly, we hope that it's given you a bit of extra encouragement to think outside the box, dare to dream, and triumph over adversity to reach your goals.