Zero To Hero: Here’s A List Of Huge Businesses That Began As Successful Start-Ups!

From Apple to Instagram, some of the biggest brands out there began as successful start-ups. Here’s the story of our favourites to inspire your side hustle!

Apple started as a small start-up

There’s definitely an appeal to start-ups for the businesses-minded bunch – if you think you’ve got what it takes to sell a great product or service and think you can have a go at it yourself, start-ups are the way to go. They’re independent, you can be your own boss, and the success is all yours, baby.

That being said, often people are scared to invest in their own start-ups. It involves a lot of risk, with little to no guarantee of success. A lot of start-ups fly under the radar… and a lot of them blow up. Here are some huge, multi-million dollar businesses you may recognise that actually began as start-ups. If they could do it, why can’t you?

Apple (yes, THE Apple)

I know. I know. Unbelievable, right? Back in the 70s, just out of high school Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built computers in their parents’ garage. They dropped out of university to go on to develop the first Apple computer, and had to get a bank loan of $250,000 to keep testing different models. That’s a hell of a lot of money to make a bet on – but considering Apple is now valued at around $750 billion dollars today, we’d say that bet definitely paid off!

In fact, Steve Jobs actually ended up leaving Apple in 1985 to pursue bigger and better things, and the company just about tanked without him. They had to go crawling back to their original creator because it just didn’t work without him! Apple all but runs the planet, responsible for creating our Mac PCs, iPods, iPads, iPhones, Apple watches… And to think it started between two college drop-outs in a suburban garage! It definitely goes to show that while a tertiary education may take you far and wide, it’s not the end of the world if school ain’t your thing. 

Under Armour

You may recognise Under Armour on all the fit young things coming out of the gym. But you may not know that the successful activewear brand actually began as a start-up! Kevin Plank was a university football player who saw a necessity in the market. He was tired of wearing heavy shirts under his ‘football armour’ (hey, get it?) and wanted to see an absorbent, athletic undershirt to wear during workouts.

He created the shirt for himself, and it worked so well for him individually he started selling them to other athletes… all over the country. He was driving up and down the east coast of the United States literally selling Under Armour shirts out of his car! He then graduated to selling to entire teams. Within two years Plank had upgraded from the boot of his car to a full-blown warehouse. The biggest start-up inspiration is when in 1999, Plank used all of his profits and employees even agreed to go without pay so the company could take out a $25,000 advertisement in ESPN magazine. The ad resulted in $1 million in sales…. So we’d say it worked out pretty damn well!

Now, Under Armour is a fitness brand you’ll spot on every other morning jogger on your block. Plank studied business administration while at university. He had a whole bunch of side hustles to raise money for Under Armour, including selling roses on Valentine’s Day. If you’re feeling inspired, maybe pick up a business admin subject, or think about having your own side hustle on your own campus!


As a student, Groupon’s are a total blessing. Who would say no to free discounts? Nobody, that’s who! But where did all these great life hacks and free money come from? Andrew Mason, one of the founders, was actually a music major and getting a graduate degree in public policy at University of Chicago. Our equivalent would be a combination of majoring in government, international relations, economics and law, if you want to follow in his footsteps.

At his internship, he ended up creating a social network called ‘The Point’ which was intended to get groups of people together to accomplish goals. One of the campaigns started by a group of users had one key mission – to round up several people who all wanted to buy the same product, and see if they could get a group discount. Mason and his boss Eric Lefkofsky were inspired and Groupon was born, backed by Lefkofsky financing the venture. They helped local businesses in Chicago with cash flow and aimed at helping people find cool, discount things to do in their city. It caught the attention of local press and local business owners and families began to sign up.

Mason would set small goals to meet – expand to 5 cities by the end of the year, expand to 10 cities, so on and so forth. In January 2009, Groupon held its company holiday party at a small apartment where employees were given a home-cooked meal. Today, Groupon has more than 10,000 employees. Talk about a little internship project that made it big!


Unsplash is a huge online database of royalty-free, professionally taken photographs with over 1100,000 contributors and 1.5 million photos available for use. But where did it all start? Well, once upon a time there was a small little Canadian photography start-up that went by the business name of Crew, headed by Montreal-based entrepreneur Mikael Cho.

The start-up had nothing to do with photography. In fact, the basis of their business was to be a marketplace for freelancers. They couldn’t find any good stock photography to use for their website landing page. All of the options were just bad quality or too expensive. They hired a professional photographer for a shoot, but ended up having more photos than they could use.

Instead of letting the photos go to waste, Cho posted the leftover photos for use on social network Tumblr for people to use for free. Advertising the site on platform Hacker News as posting ‘10 free photos every 10 days.’ From that moment on, the Crew team were getting millions of visitors, thousands of which they redirected to Crew’s marketplace, ultimately saving their start-up. They ended up closing Crew in the end to focus full time on Unsplash, which hosts tens of thousands of free photos and generates more than 11 billion photo impressions per month.

Khan Academy

Salman Khan was just using Yahoo! Doodle Notepad in 2008 trying to teach his cousins mathematics. His teaching methods were so good that all his other cousins wanted in too. Soon other relatives and friends, so Khan decided to put his lessons up for them on YouTube. Soon, his videos were garnering more and more attention, and Khan, who was working as a financial analyst, decided to quit his job the following year to focus on developing his YouTube channel, which he called – you guessed it – Khan Academy. He received a scholarship from Ann Doerr, the wife of John Doerr aka the famous venture capitalist, and his videos sparked worldwide interest with more than 458 million views in the first few years.

Khan went on to open an actual school, Khan Lab School; wrote a book about his education goals; and Khan Academy videos are used to educate all over the world, including in rural areas in Africa and Asia. By 2018, Khan Academy had 1.6 billion views on YouTube, and has served as the inspiration for other online education platforms like Coursera. Who knew school could be so cool? For your reference, if you want to be a savvy entrepreneur like Khan – he was born in Louisiana to a Bengali and Indian family. He was valedictorian in high school, attended MIT where he studied a Bachelor of Science and a Masters of Science in electrical engineering and computer science. He also later went to Harvard to get a Masters in Business Administration.


Yep, another giant from humble beginnings! Instagram began as was once upon a time known as Burbn, a mobile check-in app. Burbn? Heard of it? Nah, neither have we. Founder Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger came up with the idea after one of their girlfriends didn’t think their vacation photos looked good when taken on the iPhone 4. Leading them to design filters, some of which are still in use today. Burbn allowed checking into locations, making plans (future check-ins), earning points for hanging out with friends, posting pictures, and much more.

The two founders pitched Burbn to an investor and venture capital at a party, and received $500,000. They decided to peel back the focus to just photo-sharing after noting the similarities the app had to Foursquare and renamed the app Instagram – meshing ‘instant camera’ and ‘telegram.’ The first two photos to be shared were of a beach, and then Systrom’s dog and girlfriend’s foot. In these days, most of Instagram’s IT engineering and user experience were developed and maintained solely by Krieger. He even recalled a moment when Instagram went down at 3.30 in the morning and he had to revive it while being completely drunk. Pitching to numerous investors, Systrom and Krieger raised $7 million for the app and continued to fundraise. In 2012, Facebook then bought the app for $1 billion dollars.

Thank you, Burbn.

For your inspiration, Krieger is Brazilian and moved to the United States to study symbolic systems at Stanford. Systrom became interested in computer programming after playing Doom 2 as a child. He did his Bachelor’s degree in management science and engineering at Stanford, and studied photography on exchange in Florence. He became engaged in start-ups when he was selected for the Mayfield Fellows Program at Stanford, which led to an internship at the company that would eventually become Twitter. Before getting started on Burbn, he worked as a product marketer at Google and left out of frustration with lack of opportunities for growth in the company.

Thinking of kickstarting your own start-up?

Those are just some of the successful start-ups that have grown from early, start-up beginnings. There are countless more, Imgur, Twitch, Slack, WeWork, HubSpot, Houzz, just to name a few. Universities are incredibly supportive of nurturing their future entrepreneurs, with some even specifically having grants and loans available for all the innovators of the future. Maybe your whacky business idea could work out after all! With the right funding, the right work ethic and determination to succeed, you might just be the next Steve Jobs.  

Follow some of our tips on beginning your own side hustle or successful start-ups at university.