Startup Folktales: Where Small, Simple Things Work

When you see the word “startup”, what do you think of? Facebook, Google, revolution, tech? With an overwhelming amount of tech startup popping up around the globe, many are afraid that one day the bubble will burst, taking with it the dreams of millions of Bill Gates wannabes. Many young entrepreneurs have grand designs of their own, hoping to change the world one way or another. But sometimes what you need to be successful is not a ground-breaking idea or a 50-year-down-the-road vision. Sometimes, it’s actually the simplest, the craziest and smallest idea that works. Let’s have a look at some of the lesser known startup stories and see if there is any lesson to be had.

The Body Shop


People are too used to knowing Body Shop as a giant in the cosmetic industry as it is today, to actually forget that it must had been a startup at some point. Here is something that people actually don’t know about The Body Shop: it first started as a small cosmetic store located between two funeral parlours. Can you imagine the amount of wackiness it took to open a place named “Body Shop” between 2 funeral houses? And yet one woman who goes by the name Anita Roddick got the guts to pull it off.

It goes without saying that if you happen to run a funeral parlour and suddenly your neighbour decides to call her place “Body Shop”, you will want to make a scene. And in fact, Anita’s neighbouring funeral house owners did everything in their power to force her to change her cosmetic shop’s name, from simple demands to threatening legal lawsuits. But Anita put this to her advantage, and generated a lot of buzz for her shop from the ruckus by leaking the news to local newspapers. And that’s the starting point of her early success which is a prelude to a long and glorious journey that made Anita one of the richest women in England.

Moral of the story: do not be intimidated by the circumstance. There is always another angle that you can exploit to turn the disadvantage to unexpected advantage. And do not dismiss any idea by looking at its face value, just because something is too wacky to be done doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.

Let’s not talk about diapers first. Do you ever wonder why so many startups are in the tech industry? Think potentially huge profit, hyper-growth, and opportunities for innovation…etc, just to name a few. After all, if you are going to do business, why waste time with low margin, MNCs-dominated industries? Now think of diapers. Low margin? Check (do you have economies of scale? No you don’t. You are a startup, remember?). MNCs-dominated? Check (“P&G” and “Amazon” just pop to mind for no reason). So who on Earth would build a startup in the diaper industry?

Marc Lore and Vinit Bharara would like to disagree. These guys propose a simple business model that isn’t going to impress anyone: build a super friendly website that even computer-illiterate moms can use, and sell these moms bargain diapers. But don’t you dare to smirk at their idea, because it worked. Within a few months they were buying and selling so many diapers to so many moms that they had to clear out all the stores in a hundred-mile radius. And after that, P&G noticed their business and gave Lore and Bharara a wholesale account. became one of the most successful diaper startup stories in the history of mankind, and everything else is irrelevant.

Moral of the story: simple things work. It’s as simple as that. Just make sure there is a demand for whatever you are doing.

Innocent Drinks


Ok so let’s say you cannot find a good place that is located between funeral parlours, and you don’t fancy diapers either. So what do you do? Selling smoothies, of course! Just get some huge investments, purchase a huge factory and sell your smoothies at huge outlets located in huge shopping mall, what else? Oh wait, you cannot do any of those things. Actually, you are not even sure whether your smoothies taste good or not. So let’s be serious here, what should you do if you really, really want to sell smoothies?

Three college students, Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright, decided to start small. Really small. They opened a booth at the school fair, and put up a giant sign asking people “Should we just give up our jobs to make these smoothies?” Then under the “YES” and “NO” signs, there were 2 bins for people to cast their vote by throwing in empty smoothies bottle. As it turned out, almost everyone who tried the drink voted “YES”, and the three young college students set out to do just what they said: give up their jobs and chose “smoothies maker” as their permanent occupations. They named their startup “Innocent Drinks”, and after 15 years of selling more than 2 million smoothies a week, it was acquired by Coca-Cola recently.

Moral of the story: there is nothing wrong with starting small. Be clear of what you want to do, and pour everything you have into it. Your idea could be as simple and as small as making smoothies, but it could work out just fine.

Of course you could say that these stories above sound a bit too similar to fairy tales, and there are certainly other factors involved that are not mentioned here. But the most important point is that sometimes you don’t have to be dreaming of changing the world to build a startup. Being visionary without looking at what is in front of you is not much different from being clueless, so focus on the present. And if you happen to have a simple idea that you think is too humble to turn into a startup, don’t hesitate, you may never get another chance.


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Article contributed by Startup Jobs Asia‘s Team.

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