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What most people don’t realize is how many successful businesses only happened because of a sudden disaster or crisis in an individuals life. Here  are five global empires that only struck gold because they had no other choice.


#5 The Company:  Coca Cola

In the Beginning:

John Pemberton started his company when he said, “Aha! I’ll take some booze and mix it with cocaine!”

But if it was 1885 and your name was John Pemberton, you were about to become the father of a worldwide beverage empire. Pemberton was a pharmacist living in Columbus, Georgia and to be fair, alcohol laced with cocaine was already a thing (called coca wine).

If you’re thinking to yourself that combining a stimulant and a depressant into one concoction isn’t the greatest of ideas, you obviously didn’t grow up in the 19th century.

Pemberton’s product was a resounding success; the ads for Pemberton’s French Wine Coca said it was for “scientists, scholars, poets, divines, lawyers, physicians, and others devoted to extreme mental exertion.”

What happened to change his business plan:

Prohibition happened.  Alcohol was suddenly illegal. But, instead of responding in the hornswoggling fashion his neighbors did, Pemberton instead removed the alcohol from his coca wine and replaced it with sugar water. Coca-Cola was born.

Pemberton claimed his new drink cured “morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence.”

With alcohol quality and quantity slowly dwindling, Pemberton and his sweet ambrosia filled the gap mainly because his drink still contained cocaine. Pemberton wasn’t an idiot, he was a pharmacist. Knowing people would come back for that high, he advertised his drink as a temperance beverage – a drink to ease people off of booze–and the rest is soft drink history.

As for Pemberton himself, well, maybe he should have gotten an intervention: A crippling addiction to morphine forced him to sell off all rights to the Coca Cola company a few years later.

#4 The Company: Nintendo

In the Beginning:

The year was 1889, and instead of playing video games, children worked in coal mines until they died. In those days, “Nintendo Koppai” was just a company that made playing cards, and was run by the Japanese mafia. Over the years they branched out into other area such as toys, instant rice, and taxi cabs.

But playing cards were where Nintendo made its real money. And people will always want to play cards, right?

What happened to change his business plan:

The 1964 Olympics.

The Olympics themselves weren’t a disaster. But they were held in Tokyo and they did change the culture of Japan.  When the Olympics came to Tokyo, the Olympic games drew a lot of international attention and Japan was trying to put its best face forward. Card games were kind of seen as low-brow and childish, and suddenly they weren’t cool any more. Nintendo’s sales plummeted.

Then, one day the President, Hiroshi Yamauchi, visited the production floor and saw an employee playing with a toy mechanical arm he had made on his own. Yamauchi loved it, and ordered the company’s resources thrown into selling it, and other electronic toys and gadgets. At this point, Nintendo clearly faced a fork in the corporate road, each path leading the dominance of a cutting edge industry: “video games” or “playing cards.” We know which one they chose.


#3 The Company: Lego

In the Beginning:

Kirk Christiansen was a carpenter working in Denmark in the 1890s. At the time he was building houses for local farmers, and did this up until his workshop was burned down by his sons in 1924.

Christiansen saw this as an opportunity to not only rebuild his workshop, but build it bigger and better. Additionally, he had plans to expand his business.

What happened to change his business plan:

The Great Depression! And no, the depression wasn’t just an American thing, in case you were wondering. Our carpenter was forced to downsize in every way possible, from staff to even the products he built. No longer was he making full-blown houses and furniture, but smaller versions. Much smaller.  Christiansen got into toys.

Soon after, plastic became available and in 1949, Christiansen’s company (“Lego”) started making little interlocking bricks.

That was more than 400 billion LEGO bricks ago. Lego pieces now outnumber humans 62 to one.

#2 The Company: Sharp

In the Beginning:

In 1912, Tokuji Hayakawa had a metal workshop in Tokyo. At just 21-years of age, he invented a mechanical pencil he named the Ever-Ready-Sharp. While sales of the pencil were low at first, things picked up for Kayakawa when he landed a large order for them from a trading company in Yokohama. He was on his way!

What happened to change his business plan:

In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake slammed Tokyo. Among the devastation and rubble was Kayakawa’s workshop and his pencils.

With no orders, product or income, mounting debt forced the young inventor to sell his patent.  He fled to Osaka. He considered restarting his effort to build Sharp pencils into a famous brand but then he heard that there was this new invention called the “radio” that some people were claiming to be the Next Big Thing.

Well, if people wanted radios, then by gum he’d take what he knew about making sharp pencils and give Japan the sharpest radios they’d ever seen/heard! This is how a clearly confused Kayakawa turned the Sharp Corporation into an electronics company. Today, probably at least one piece of electronics equipment in your home bears their logo. So, no it’s not because it was owned by a guy named Sharp. It’s still named after those pencils that were always SHARP.


#1 The Company: Ferrari

In the Beginning:

Enzo Ferrari was a racecar driver. It’s all he ever wanted to do.  In 1929, Ferrari became a big enough deal in the racing world that he ran his own stable of drivers, calling his team Scuderia Ferrari. They raced Alfa Romeos, and eventually that company hired Ferrari to head up their motor racing division.

The future looked bright. Cars and racing were both getting more popular by the day. What could possibly happen in Europe that would make it all fall apart. . . it was 1938.

What happened to change his business plan:

World War II broke out. Fascism had already come to Italy, with Benito Mussolini having been in charge since the early 20s. When the war started, the Italian government took control of the car company, Alfa Romeo. Ferrari’s team wound up making tools and airplane parts for the war effort.

Prohibited from racing and having absolutely nothing else to do, Ferrari’s team built a car so he could race it.

Waiting for the bombs to stop dropping, Ferrari would open a business a few years later so he could get back to doing what he had wanted to do since he was a kid. He started building cars specifically so HE could race them, but quickly found that you can’t actually pay the rent that way (there’s a reason NASCAR cars are covered with ads, after all) so, reluctantly, he started selling cars to the public purely as a way to pay for his racing career.

That’s right: The most beautiful automobiles ever made were manufactured for the same reason a struggling actor takes a job at Starbucks. It was nothing more than a necessary evil to pay the bills, and rumors persist that he thought of his customers as a bunch of arrogant, rich, privileged people, buying them just as a status symbol.

Excerpts taken from and NYT and Wall Street Journal

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jim Winar permalink
    February 11, 2010 1:04 pm

    Good food for thought.We often vision successful companies and people and think they started at the top. Thanks for the rest of the story and now I better get back at it.

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