Read these three inspiring stories of entrepreneurs who made their first moves toward greatness – by accident.
Before I started my company, I’d secretly hoped that I’d just “stumble upon” success. You know how it happens – you spend all of your time working hard and tinkering with a new invention in the garage or plugging away on your computer trying to come up with the next great startup, and then, boom, it just happens.
How these accidental million-dollar ideas occur is beyond me. Call it kismet, serendipity or just plain blind luck, it seems that some of the greatest business ideas and everyday products have come from moments just like this.
Perhaps the desire to have this, we’ll call it, “surprise success” is what led me to study a few of these products and their inventors. I thought, hey, maybe if I traced their paths, I could have the same accidental achievement they did!
In all honesty, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m not in it for the hard work and long hours, but if I could find a way to inadvertently invent something like the Wacky Wall Walker and make a cool $80 million, I wouldn’t be upset.
Here are three of the most successful surprise successes so you can plot your own fortuitous fortune!
3. Frank Epperson – the Popsicle
When I was a kid, it just wasn’t summer without a trip to the pool and racing the sun to finish your Popsicle before it melted. As I grew older, my taste for the icy treat waned some, but I never shook the question: How did someone invent the Popsicle? At first, I was sure it happened in a lab at some frozen food conglomerate in the ’40s or ’50s (the era when seemingly everything got invented).
But I was wrong. Instead, the frozen summertime stalwart was actually invented by an 11-year old named Frank Epperson all the way back in 1905. The young man allegedly left a cup of soda powder and water out on the porch on a cold night with a stirring stick fortuitously sticking out of the mixture. It wasn’t until eighteen years later when Frank was running a lemonade stand that he first marketed and sold his famous “Eppsicles.”
Now, we may never know whether or not the Popsicle origin story holds water (accounts of the tale differ), but by 1924 he’d patented his “frozen confection of attractive appearance, which can be conveniently consumed without contamination by contact with the hand and without the need for a plate, spoon, fork or other implement,” or “Popsicle.” By 1928, he’d sold the patent to the Joe Lowe Co. and, by 1983, had made royalties on over 60 million Popsicles.
Popsicles remain wildly successful as Unilever still sells two billion every year!
2. Percy Spencer – the microwave
There’s nothing more ubiquitous in the American home than the microwave, the quick-cooking savior for families and broke college students alike. As a good friend of mine often says, “There’s nothing a microwave can’t overcook!” All joking aside, with nearly 12 million units sold in the U.S. alone in 2015, the microwave has to be one of the most important (and lucrative) inventions of the 20th century, and its invention was totally by accident.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the microwave began its lifecycle as a military device. Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer was trying to find a better way to detect enemy planes in World War II and, as he was fiddling, found that microwaves radiating from the device he was working on had melted the candy bar in his pocket.
Instead of worrying what else the microwave might melt, Spencer decided to continue experimenting with his project, codenamed “Speedy Weenie” (in reference to hot dogs, people). Raytheon secured the patent and by 1997, 90 percent of all households in America owned a microwave.
Luckily for Spencer, he didn’t have to sell his patent, like Epperson. Instead, he stayed on at Raytheon, eventually holding 150 individual patents, becoming senior vice president and then a senior member of the board of directors.
1. Sara Blakely – Spanx
Looking at lists of accidental inventions, it can seem like every creation was invented in the early part of the 20th century. Not true, as you need look no further than the story of Spanx for proof!
If you’re a guy, you may have never heard of Spanx (although they do make Manx), a “body-shaping” undergarment, which turned inventor Sarah Blakely into the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.
Spanx was certainly a product of necessity rather than blind luck. After graduating college at Florida State University, Blakely was working door to door selling fax machines. In the heat and humidity of the Sunshine State, she needed an undergarment fit closer to her needed specifications. She invested her life savings ($5,000) in R&D and put the $350 patent fee on her credit card.
She hocked her product on the sales floor of department stores, eventually securing deal after deal until Spanx became a worldwide sensation. Now, the company is estimated to bring in just under $250 million a year in profit.
When you look at it, the idea might have come easy for these entrepreneurs, but that’s when the easy part ended and the real work began. Great ideas are like opinions (everybody has them), but the thing that separates these surprise successes is that the inventors were ready to put in the work after they had that great idea. So spend some time dreaming, but be ready to put your nose to the grindstone when the time comes!
Eric Samson is the co-founder and CEO of Group 8A, a boutique digital marketing agency. With over a decade of digital marketing and entrepreneurship experience, Eric has a wealth of first hand knowledge and insight that he enjoys sharing through his writing.