Top 10 Successful Companies that Started Life As Something Totally Different


Most of us go through life not knowing who we are, or what we want to do, until at least a few decades in. Well go through many false starts, and travel through many dead-end paths, until we find the one that’s truly right for us. Many companies are the same way. Oftentimes, the most successful corporations on Earth started with one simple idea, and are now vastly successful in a very different area. Such as …

10. Iron Mountain


Origins: Herman Knaust, renowned mushroom farmer, needed more space for his mushrooms, so in 1936 he bought some land and an abandoned iron ore mine to expand his business. As the mushroom business changed, Knaust shifted his business plan and, in 1951, re-christened the abandoned (climate-controlled) mine the “Iron Mountain Atomic Storage Corporation.” As the Red Scare gripped the nation, businesses lined up to hide their documents in the Iron Mountain “vaults.”

Now: Over 3 billion dollars a year in revenue, there are above and below-ground storage vaults located across the world. Included is one in an abandoned limestone mine in a super secret location in Pennsylvania, that is one of the most secure settings in the United States.

9. Hasbro


Origins: In 1923, three brothers started a textile company that sold fabric remnants, and Hassenfeld Brothers was born. For the next two decades, the company expanded their catalog to pencils and other school supplies. In 1964, the company took a chance, and started to manufacture GI Joe action figures.

Now: The gamble paid off, as Hasbro became one of the largest toymakers in the United States. With over 4 billion dollars a year in revenues, their acquired subsidiaries have created toys that vary from Parker Brothers board games, to Tiger Electronics’ Furby.

8. Western Union


Origins: In 1855, the Western Union Telegraph Company was born. For those of you not enlightened on telegraph technology, the telegraph was a communication tool slightly less advanced than two cans connected by a string.  In 1884, Western Union was one of the first 11 American companies on the newly-created New York Stock Exchange. By 1900, Western Union operated over a million miles of telegraph line.

Now: The telegraph industry has long been dead and buried but, through aggressive acquisitions, Western Union is now one of the largest money transfer companies in the world, with revenues of over 5 billion dollars in 2010.

7. Texas Instruments


Origins: Founded in 1951, Texas Instruments was created from the ashes of Geophysical Service Inc. The primary customers at the birth of the company bought their equipment in the seismic industry. In 1967, the hand-held calculator was pioneered by the company, and a generation of schoolchildren depended on TI to pass their math tests.

Now: With revenues of over 12 billion dollars a year, Texas Instruments still makes calculators but, with a calculator on nearly every computer and cell phone, the real money now lies in its semiconductors, chips for cell phones, and digital signal processors.

6. 3M


Origins: Formed in 1902 in rural Minnesota, 3M quickly failed when their corundum mine turned out to be an anorthosite mine. (For those non-earth science majors, that was a very bad thing.)  The investors regrouped, moved to the larger city of Duluth, and then started to make sandpaper.

Now: Headquartered in Minnesota’s capital city of St. Paul, 3M manufactures products include, but are not limited to; bondo, scotch tape, post-it notes, scotch guard, hockey grip tape, skin tape, thinsulate, and stethoscopes. 3M’s revenues were nearly 30 billion dollars in 2012.

5. American Express


Origins: Founded as an express mail business in Buffalo, New York in 1850, American Express was born from the mergers of multiple companies. Buying its first assets in New York City four short years after its founding, the headquarters was to follow in 1874. The company’s signature contribution to the world of finance was conceived in 1890, the Travelers Cheque.

Now: A titan on Wall Street, American Express’ revenues were about 33 billion dollars in 2012, between their banking, credit card, and travelers cheque services.  Yes, amazingly enough, people still use travelers cheques.

4. DuPont


Origins: Founded in 1802 as a gunpowder manufacturer, Dupont grew quickly in the United States, supplying half the gunpowder to Union troops during the Civil War.

Now: Despite being a major weapons supplier during both World Wars, DuPont’s focus has clearly shifted into the chemical industry, producing such cutting-edge polymers as Teflon & Kevlar. Dupont is also known for paint technologies, and genetically altered seeds. All divisions combined have netted Dupont nearly $40 billion a year in overall revenue.

3. Wells Fargo


Origins: Basically the same investment group that formed American Express, they turned around a year later and formed a second express mail company in California. Within a few years, though, with California flush with gold money, Wells Fargo opened its first bank vault.

Now: One of the four largest banks in America, Wells Fargo has grown exponentially in the past 20 years through multiple acquisitions. Wells Fargo services, besides banking, offer almost any possible financial solution available, with $86 billion in revenue in the year 2012 alone.

2. Cardinal Health


Origins: In 1971, Cardinal Foods was a regional food wholesaler in the state of Ohio. Within 10 years, the company began aggressively acquiring drug and pharmaceutical companies.

Now: In just over a generation, Cardinal Health has grown exponentially in the pharmaceutical market, with over $100 billion in revenue in 2010. Besides pharmaceutical and medical supplies, Cardinal operates the largest network of radiopharmacies in the United States.

1. IBM


Origins: In 1911, the Computing Tabulating Recording Company was formed from the mergers of four companies: the Tabulating Machine Company, Computing Scale Company, Bundy Manufacturing Company, & the International Time Recording Company. CTR made products as varied as clocks, scales, meat-cutting equipment, and punch card equipment. In 1924, CTR was renamed International Business Machines, or IBM for short.

Now: With revenues of over $105 billion in 2011, IBM is a giant in the computer world. Hardware, software, IT services, UPC codes, you name it. Despite some of the punch card equipment and tabulating systems being distant ancestors to the computer, no one in 1924 could have foreseen IBM being on the cutting edge of supercomputer technology, employing over 100,000 people in the United States alone, 80 years later.

Other Articles you Might Like
Liked it? Take a second to support on Patreon!


  1. Not From USA on

    Misleading title, more appropriate=Top 10 Successful US Companies that Started Life As Something Totally Different
    Why? No Nokia, No Nintendo

  2. A good list, but I am baffled by the sneering reference to telegraphy. The electric telegraph changed EVERYTHING. The trans-Atlantic submarine cable (and later the Pacific Cable, and the Australian Cable) connected the world. Later, telegraphy evolved into Telex, which was the major communication mode until the development of the modem made e-mail the standard. The final ship-to-shore telegraph message was sent in 1999. Not too shabby for something less useful than two tin cans.

  3. You missed one for IBM: weapons manufacturer!

    Yep, believe it or not, during WWII IBM produced over 345,000 M1 carbines and nearly 230,000 M1918 Browning Automatic Rifles. Of course, at the time everyone was building weapons for the war effort (oddly enough however, the M1 Garand battle rifle and the Thompson submachine gun were only built by four companies each), carbines were also manufactured by companies as odd as Underwood (as in the typewriters) and Rock-Ola, famed producer of jukeboxes and pinball machines.

  4. ParusMajor on

    Nokia started by making car tyres and rubber boots. They may have to go back to that if their phones don’t start selling like they used to.

    • Dr.Awkward on

      There’s a basic flaw with Nokia phones, though (if Nokia wants to sell more phones), they are unbreakable and they last forever. I’ve got a Nokia 3110 from the 90s that still works perfectly, although I have dropped it a million times (twice in the toilet, no less). You can basically wipe your ass with that thing and it still works.

      • ParusMajor on

        Oh,right. And you also save money if you wipe your a*ss with your Nokia phone. You don’t have to buy toilet paper.

        • Dr.Awkward on

          That is exactly what I meant. *slow, appreciative clap* 😀 You twat! 😀

  5. smashead86 on

    Texas Instruments surprisingly makes a lot of chips in transponder keys. I’d say about 70% of the stock I use ison TI hardware.