World's Top Brands Started

How World’s Top 25 Brands Got Started

by Nicholas Tart

Larry and Sergey tried to sell Google for $1 million. Two friends were banned from computers before they started Microsoft. At least three of these companies got started in a garage.

The world’s top 25 brands were started by normal people with extraordinary determination. But, as you’ll see, everything started as nothing.

Find out how your favorite brands rank against each other and discover the incredible stories about how they started.

The rankings and brand values were determined by Interbrand, the world’s premier brand ranking organization. If you want to find out more about how they ranked 2010’s biggest brands, you can do so here.

Founder: Dr. John Stith Pemberton

Founded: 1886, Atlanta, Georgia, United States

Brand Value: $70.5 Billion

How it started: As a pharmacist, John Pemberton concocted a syrup and carried a jug of it down the street to a local pharmacy. The clerk thought it was excellent and put it on sale for five cents a glass. John advertized in The Atlanta Journal and placed hand-painted, oilcloth signs reading “Coca-Cola” on store awnings. He proceeded to sell nine drinks per day his first year. Today they sell 1.6 billion servings every day.


Founder: Herman Hollerith

Founded: 1896 (as the Tabulating Machine Company), Endicott, New York, United States

Brand Value: $64.7 Billion

How it started: The US Government expected the 1890 census to take 13 years to complete due to an immigration boom in the 1880s. Inspired by train conductors punching holes in railway tickets, Herman Hollerith invented the tabulating machine which recorded data on a machine readable medium. The US Government used his invention and tabulated the 1890 census in one year.

He founded the company in 1896 which, after a few mergers, became International Business Machines (IBM) in 1917.


Founders: Bill Gates and Paul Allen

Founded: 1975, Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States

Brand Value: $60.9 Billion

How it started: In 1968 at the age of 13, a local company gave Bill Gates and buddy Paul Allen access to a computer. They were quickly banned after hacking the system and crashing the files. Soon thereafter, the company hired them to find bugs and fix weaknesses in the system. Bill and Paul were compensated with unlimited computer time.

Over the next five years they received sporadic programming gigs until Gates went to Harvard in 1973. One year in, Paul convinced Gates to drop out because the PC business was about to explode and PC’s needed software. “Micro Soft” went through some rough first years, but eventually they licensed the MS-DOS operating system to IBM. The IBM PC took the public by storm and so did Microsoft.


Founders: Sergey Brin and Larry Page

Founded: 1998, Menlo Park, California, United States

Brand Value: $43.6 Billion

How it started: In 1995, Sergey Brin and Larry Page met at Stanford when Sergey was assigned to show Larry around campus on Larry’s first visit. A year later, as computer science grad students, they started collaborating on a search engine they called BackRub. Eventually they changed the name to Google, originating from the term “googol” (one followed by one hundred zeros). It ran on Stanford servers for one year until it started taking too much bandwidth.

In 1998, Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim wrote them a $100K check to hire their first employee. They set up shop in a friend’s garage. Soon the project was interfering with their schoolwork and they tried to sell it to Excite for $1 million. Excite rejected the offer. A year later, they received $25 million in funding.


Founder: Thomas Edison

Founded: 1892, Shenectady, New York, United States

Brand Value: $42.8 Billion

How it started: In 1876, Thomas Edison opened up a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey (now Edison, NJ) where he earned the nickname, “The Wizard of Menlo Park”. There he proceeded to invent the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, a stock ticker, the motion picture camera, a mechanical vote counter, an alkaline storage battery, and over 1,000 other inventions. To sell his inventions he established a company in 1890 and called it the Edison General Electric company.


Founders: Richard and Maurice McDonald (restaurant), Ray Kroc (corporation)

Founded: 1940, San Bernardino, California, United States

Brand Value: $33.6 Billion

How it started: Brothers, Richard “Dick” and Maurice “Mac” McDonald opened McDonald’s Bar-B-Que as a typical drive-in with a large menu in 1940. Eight years later, they shut it down to simplify the menu to nine items (hamburger, cheeseburger, soft drinks, milk, coffee, potato chips, and pie) so they could implement their “Speedee Service System”.

In 1954, a salesman named Ray Kroc visited the restaurant to sell them his Multimixer. A year later, Ray opened his own McDonald’s franchise. He later purchased the entire company and aggressively expanded to over 500 stores in eight years. Now there are more than 32,000 McDonald’s restaurants.

Ray Kroc and Walt Disney became friends in the 1920s while training to become ambulance drivers for WWI. Soon after Ray became owner of McDonald’s, he sent Walt a letter asking to open a McDonald’s in Disneyland. Walt agreed on the stipulation that fries would be raised from 10 cents to 15 cents allowing Disney to take the additional profit. Kroc refused to gouge his customers leaving Disneyland McDonald’s-less. (Disney is #9 in this list.)


Founders: Gordon E. Moore and Robert Noyce

Founded: 1968, Santa Clara, California, United States

Brand Value: $32.0 Billion

How it started: In 1968, Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce left their electrical engineering jobs to start a company that made memory chips and microprocessors. Their first attempt to name their company involved putting their names together, Moore Noyce. The name, however, was a homophone for “More Noise” which was ill-suited for an electronics company. They switched to Integrated Electronics or Intel for short.

They took a risk from the start. Bob invented an integrated circuit that enabled the miniaturization of electronic circuitry onto a single silicon chip. No one else was using silicon at the time because it was 100 times more expensive than the alternative. They created a product ten years before there was demand for it. Much like Microsoft, they hit it big when IBM chose to use Intel’s revolutionary chip for the IBM PC in 1981.


Founder: Fredrik Idestam

Founded: 1865, Tampere, Finland

Brand Value: $29.5 Billion

How it started: In 1865, Nokia started by making paper – one of the original communications technologies. Fredrik Idestam built a wood pulp mill on the banks of the Tammerkoski River. An engineer by trade, Fredrik developed a new, cheaper paper manufacturing process that revolutionized the paper industry. His big break was winning a bronze medal for this invention at the Paris World Exposition in 1867.

After a century of mergers and acquisitions, Nokia got into mobile communication in the early 1980s.


Founders: Walt and Roy Disney

Founded: 1923, Los Angeles, California, United States

Brand Value: $28.7 Billion

How it started: At age 22 in 1923, Walt Disney moved to California to try to sell a short film about a little girl in cartoon land, Alice’s Wonderland. Within a few months he found a distributor that contracted to release the series of Alice Comedies.

After modest success with the Alice series, Walt decided to move to an all cartoon series with a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Within a year, the distributor hired all of Walt’s designers to create the cartoon without Walt since the distributor owned the rights to Oswald.

In 1928, Walt was forced to come up with a new character with the help of Ub Iwerks. Mortimer Mouse was born but Walt’s wife preferred “Mickey.” Steamboat Willie, featuring Mickey Mouse, was the first fully synchronized sound cartoon (voiced by Walt Disney). It was an immediate sensation around the world and Mickey Mouse is now the mascot for the world’s premier entertainment company.


Founders: Bill Hewlett and David Packard

Founded: 1939, Palo Alto, California, United States

Brand Value: $26.9 Billion

How it started: Bill and Dave met as students at Stanford. After graduating in 1934, Dave moved to New York to work for General Electric while Bill finished up graduate work at Stanford. In 1937, Dave visited Bill in Palo Alto. Their first official business meeting convinced Dave to take a leave of absence from GE.

In 1939, they moved into the HP Garage and built their first product, an audio oscillator. One of HP’s first customers was Walt Disney, who purchased eight oscillators to develop and test an innovative sound system for the movie Fantasia.


Founder: Kiichiro Toyoda

Founded: 1937, Japan

Brand Value: $26.2 Billion

How it started: In 1924, Sakichi Toyoda invented the Toyoda Model G Automatic Loom to efficiently manufacture textiles. The Japanese government encouraged Toyoda Automatic Loom Works (Sakichi’s company) to develop automobiles a few years later. So Kiichiro, Sakichi’s son, travelled to Europe and the US to investigate automobile production.

After returning, Kiichiro established an Automobile Department within Toyoda Automatic Loom Works and produced its first Type A Engine in 1934. A year later, they were selling their first Model A1 passenger car and G1 truck.

Toyota Motor Company split off from Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in 1937 but the Toyota Group still makes textiles and sewing machines that are sold worldwide.


Founders: Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler

Founded: 1871, Germany

Brand Value: $25.2 Billion

How it started: In January of 1886, Karl Benz unveiled the world’s first automobile, a motorized tricycle dubbed the Benz Patent Motor Car. A few months later, Gottlieb Daimler rolled out a four-wheeled vehicle powered by his Daimler engine. Although they were only 60 miles apart, the two were unaware of each other’s early work.

40 years after the first two vehicles were invented, the companies merged to form Daimler-Benz AG. The Mercedes-Benz brand was born.


Founder: King Camp Gillette

Founded: 1901, United States

Brand Value: $23.3 Billion

How it started: In 1895, while working as a traveling salesman for a cork company, King noticed that bottle caps were used once and thrown away. Then the bottling companies had to buy more bottle caps. This made him recognize the value in using this business model to create recurring revenue.

He also noticed that every man on the planet had to sharpen their razors daily. King envisioned an inexpensive, double-edged blade that could be clamped over a handle, used until it was dull, and then discarded.

Over the next six years, King perfected his safety razor despite pessimistic scientists and toolmakers telling him that it was impossible. In 1901, he created the American Safety Razor Company (renamed Gillette Safety Razor Company in 1902) to raise $5,000 (equivalent to about $150,000 today) so he could begin manufacturing his invention.

The company began selling the safety razor in 1903 and sold 51 razor sets (at $5) and 168 blades (at 20 for $1) for a first-year revenue of $263. The following year, they received their patent and sold 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades.


Founders: Leonard Bosack and Sandra Lerner

Founded: 1984, San Francisco, California, United States

Brand Value: $23.2 Billion

How it started: At Stanford, Leonard was the manager of the computer science laboratory and his wife, Sandy, oversaw the computers at the graduate school of business. Wanting to communicate with his wife, Leonard devised a way to connect the two local area networks over 500 yards across campus.

In 1984, they mortgaged their house, ran up credit cards, deferred their salaries, and had their friends working for them so they could start a company to sell this internetworking technology. They came up with the name “Cisco” (shortened from San Francisco) while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (which became the inspiration for their logo).

In 1986, Cisco was the first company to commercially provide a multi-protocol router. A year later, Cisco was selling $250,000 worth of routers per month.


Founder: Franz Josef Popp

Founded: 1916, Germany

Brand Value: $22.3 Billion

How it started: After a slew of acquisitions, mergers, hirings, and firings, Franz Josef Popp founded and headed Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) in 1916. They started producing the world’s leading aircraft engines for planes in World War I. The company’s logo was designed to replicate a rotating propeller.

After World War I, BMW was forced to cease aircraft engine production by the Versailles Armistice Treaty. They consequently shifted to motorcycle production in 1923 and automobiles in 1928.


Founder: Louis Vuitton

Founded: 1854, Paris, France

Brand Value: $21.9 Billion

How it started: At the age of 14, little Louis decided to move to Paris from his hometown, Jura. He made the 249-mile journey by foot, picking up odd jobs along the way.

Once he got to Paris, he became an apprentice Layetier (trunk-maker) for prominent households. Because of his well established reputation, Napoleon III appointed Louis as the Layetier to his wife, Empress Eugénie de Montijo. Through this experience, he gained advanced knowledge of what people wanted in quality luggage.

In 1854 (age 43), Louis opened his first luggage store in Paris. He aimed to serve wealthy, travelling Parisians and created one of the most luxurious brands in the world in the process.


Founders: Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne

Founded: 1976, Cupertino, California, United States

Brand Value: $21.1 Billion

How it started: At age 21, Jobs managed to interest an old friend, Wozniak (age 26), in selling a machine that Wozniak had built, the Apple I Computer. In 1976, Jobs approached a local computer store. The owner said he would order 50 of the machines and pay $500 each on delivery.

Jobs took the purchase order to a national electronic parts distributor and ordered the parts he needed. He told the manager that they were going to build 50 computers in 30 days. Then the computer store was going to pay him $500 apiece, at which point he could pay for the parts. Impressed by Jobs’ tenacity, the manager agreed.

Over the next month, “The Steves” and their small crew spent day and night hand-building the computers. They delivered them on time and paid for the parts with a decent profit left for their next order. By working in a garage, selling prized possessions (calculators and a VW van), and scrounging, they were able to build and deliver another 150 Apple I’s over the next year. Jobs managed to fund Apple Computers without giving away a cent of ownership.

The third founder, Ron Wayne, joined them after the first 50 were sold but eventually sold his ownership back to “The Steves” for $800.


Founder: Philip Morris

Founded: 1902, New York, New York, United States

Brand Value: $20.0 Billion

How it started: In 1902, a British cigarette manufacturer, Philip Morris, moved to New York to sell his cigarettes. In 1924, he started what would become one of the world’s foremost case studies in marketing.

At this time, all cigarettes were pretty much the same. Philip introduced the Marlboro as a woman’s cigarette with the tagline “Mild as May” and a printed red band around the filter to hide unsigthtly lipstick stains.

A study released in the 1950s linked smoking to lung cancer, so the brand did a 180 to position it as the man’s cigarette. Safer, filtered cigarettes were viewed as womanly and men didn’t want to be seen smoking them until Marlboro changed the smoking culture with this marketing campaign.

Disclaimer: I will never smoke a cigarette and I officially recommend that you do the same. Marlboro is included here because it’s a monstrous brand and you can learn from their story.


Founder: Lee Byung-chul

Founded: 1938, South Korea

Brand Value: $19.5 Billion

How it started: Samsung started as a grocery store when Lee Byung-chul opened Samsung Sanghoe in 1938. The business prospered and he moved the headquarters to Seoul in 1947. However, when the Korean War broke out, he was forced to leave. So he started a sugar refinery and a woolen mill under the parent company, Samsung.

In the 1960s, the South Korean President Park Chung-hee implemented policies to protect conglomerates (Samsung included) from competition. Park banned foreign companies from selling electronics in South Korea until 1979, when he was assassinated. This gave Samsung 18 years to fine-tune their products and become one of the biggest electronics providers in the world.


Founder: Soichiro Honda

Founded: 1948, Japan

Brand Value: $18.5 Billion

How it started: From a young age, Soichiro was fascinated by automobiles. Growing up, he had worked in a mechanic’s shop where he tuned cars and entered them into races. Shortly, he began working on a new piston design that he hoped to sell to Toyota. His first design was rejected.

In the 1930s, Soichiro sold his wife’s jewelry and went back to school. Eventually he won-over Toyota and opened a factory to construct the pistons, but it was quickly destroyed by an earthquake.

Because of World War II there was a gasoline shortage and he couldn’t drive his car. So Soichiro came up with a novel idea to attach a two-stroke to his bicycle. He got funding from bicycle shop owners across Japan and built the Honda Cub motorcycle. Honda was the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles by 1964.


Founder: Erling Perrson

Founded: 1947, Västerås, Sweden

Brand Value: $16.1 Billion

How it started: Erling Perrson got the idea for Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) following a post-World War II trip to the United States. He had been impressed by the efficient, high-volume stores. In his home country of Sweden, he revolutionized women’s clothing retailers in Europe by starting Hennes (Swedish for “hers”).

21 years later Erling acquired Mauritz Widforss, a hunting store, and its inventory of men’s clothing. So he started selling men’s apparel as well and renamed his company to H&M. Today they have 2,000 stores spread across 37 countries.


Founders: Larry Ellison, Bob Miner, and Ed Oates

Founded: 1977, Santa Clara, California, United States

Brand Value: $14.9 Billion

How it started: Edward F. Codd’s paper, “A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks” sounds like an afternoon bedtime story to most of us, but not Larry Ellison. He read this report in 1970 and it opened his eyes to an incredible opportunity in relational database management systems that would change the business world forever. In other words, Larry was going to help businesses organize and keep track of their data (e.g. customer contact info, inventory, accounting, etc.).

Seven years later, in 1977, Larry co-founded Software Development Laboratories (SDL) with Bob Miner and Ed Oates. Three name changes later, Oracle Corporation is the world’s largest supplier of business enterprise software.


Founder: Caleb Bradham

Founded: 1898, Burdett, North Carolina, United States

Brand Value: $14.1 Billion

How it started: In 1898, a pharmacist and drugstore owner named Caleb Bradham invented the recipe for a new fountain drink that he called “Brad’s Drink”. Caleb sought to create a drink that was refreshing, aided in digestion, and boosted energy. It included a blend of kola nut extract, vanilla, and “rare oils”. He started by having his assistant taste it. Then he sold it in his store.

In 1903, Caleb renamed his drink to Pepsi-Cola and moved the bottling from his drugstore to a rented warehouse. Pepsi got its big break in 1909 when automobile race pioneer, Barney Oldfield, endorsed the drink as, “a bully drink…refreshing, invigorating, a fine bracer before a race.”

After 20 years of success, Caleb gambled on sugar prices believing they would continue to rise after WWI. They didn’t. He lost everything and Pepsi-Cola went bankrupt in 1923. Caleb sold Pepsi-Cola to Loft Candy Company in 1931 and it continued to struggle partly because Loft reformulated the recipe. Loft tried to sell Pepsi to Coca-Cola on three occasions but Coke refused each time.

In 1936, Pepsi hit it big again with the introduction of a 12-ounce bottle (previously six ounces). They sold it for five cents, the same price of a six-ounce bottle of Coke, and appealed to price-conscious consumers after the Great Depression.


Founders: Henry Wells, William Fargo, and John Warren Butterfield

Founded: 1850, Albany, New York, United States

Brand Value: $13.9 Billion

How it started: Henry Wells began working as an expressman for an east coast express company in 1839. Express companies transported money and valuables because they were more reliable than the United States Postal Service. Henry repeatedly proposed expanding business westward to his boss, but the company continually said no. So he set out on his own.

After years of slim margins and slow growth, Henry teamed up with his competitors, William Fargo and John Warren Butterfield, to form the American Express Company in 1850. They expanded rapidly by acquiring small companies in the Midwest and negotiating contracts with the first railways.

In 1851, they reached an agreement with their biggest rival, Adams and Company, to stay out of each others’ territory. American Express was to expand north and west while Adams and Co. was free to grow south and east.

Within a year, Henry and William feared Adams and Co. would gain a monopoly on the California gold fields. So they proposed an expansion plan into California and American Express’s Board of Directors said no. Unnerved, Henry and William launched another venture to provide banking and express services in California. They called it, “Wells Fargo & Company.”


Founders: Philip H. Knight and William “Bill” J. Bowerman

Founded: 1964 (as Blue Ribbon Sports), Eugene, Oregon, United States

Brand Value: $13.7 Billion

How it started: After wrapping up business school in 1962, Philip Knight decided to spend his time travelling across Japan. There, he got in touch with a Japanese athletic shoemaker, Onitsuka Tiger Co. As a former track athlete at the University of Oregon, Philip agreed to import their shoes to the United States on a small scale. To satisfy the Japanese company’s requests, he quickly filed a company, Blue Ribbon Sports.

At the end of 1963, he took an order of 200 shoes from Onitsuka Tiger. He stored the inventory in his father’s basement and peddled the shoes out of the back of his car at track meets.

In 1964, Philip partnered with his former track coach, Bill Bowerman. That year, BRS sold 1,300 shoes to gross $8,000. In 1965, sales reached $20,000. The following year, they rented retail space so their few employees didn’t have to keep selling the shoes out of their cars.

By 1971, the relationship between BRS and Onitsuka Tiger was nearing an end. Philip and Bill were preparing to launch their own line of footwear. By the end of the year, the relationship split, BRS started using a swoosh for a logo, and they called themselves “Nike” after the Greek goddess of victory.


Microsoft and Google were two of the 10 World-Class Companies Started by College Students.

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