Tech’s Bizarre Beginnings & Lucrative Pivots
When you’re building something great, things are bound to get messy.
As many as 80-90% of startups fold and those left standing also fail, repeatedly. Rarely does a business take a straight run at success, and that includes the likes of Apple, Facebook, and their fellow tech giants.
Product lines can come to a screeching halt. Ideas can be stolen. And, yes, even geniuses like Steve Jobs get forced out. But by embracing uncertainty and making timely pivots, the tech companies in the infographic above have become some of the most influential—and valuable—organizations on the planet.
Let’s take a closer look at some of tech’s intriguing beginnings and lucrative pivots.
Samsung’s Evolution from Fish to Phones
Samsung spent much of the 1950s and 1960s testing market waters. The South Korean company tried everything from insurance to textiles, and most oddly, trading dehydrated fish.
Following its experimental phase, Samsung released its first consumer electronic product in 1970—a black-and-white television.
After making a name for itself with TVs, Samsung entered the telecommunications hardware sector in 1980 by way of acquisition. Its product diversification strategy was a successful one. Samsung went on to gain international prominence throughout the 1990s and restructured in 1993 to focus on electronics, chemicals, and engineering.
- Today, Samsung is worth more than $275 billion.
- It has the second-largest market share of smartphone sales in North America, behind Apple.
Facebook Ratings to Friend Requests
Thanks to movies like “The Social Network”, Facebook’s origin story has been hotly discussed.
“Facemash” was developed in Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, as a platform that compared and rated pictures of coeds. When it pivoted from rating coeds to connecting coeds, “TheFacebook” quickly took off across Harvard and spread across the university ecosystem.
- In 2012, Facebook became the first social network to reach 1 billion users.
- It now boasts more than 2.7 billion users across the planet.
- In total, the company has more than 3.14 billion account holders across its platforms, which include acquired companies like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
— Henry Ford
About Them Apples: Mac Starts with Schools
From the jump, Apple was strategic.
To open up the market for personal computers, Steve Jobs (Apple’s now legendary co-founder), personally lobbied multiple levels of government to increase tax incentives for companies that donate to schools—a remarkable undertaking for a scrappy startup.
After his federal lobbying fell through, Jobs was successful in the state of California. By initially focusing on education—and giving their computers away for free to the California school system—Apple amassed a potential user base and claimed mindshare.
“… for about $1 million, Apple put an apple in every elementary, middle, and high school in California.”
— Hacker Education
Today, an Apple computer is the go-to tool of the creative class. In 2018 alone, the company sold 18.21 million Mac computers. By early 2020, there were 1.5 billion active iPhone devices, and by the end of August 2020, Apple was worth more than $2 trillion.
Apple proves that even with a solid strategy and excellent products, the corporate machine can still veer out of control. Jobs was famously forced out of the company in 1985.
In his absence, ventures backfired. After his return in 1997—and the subsequent introduction of the iPod—Apple went on to become one of the most lucrative tech companies in the world.
Sony Sticks to Electronics
Sony’s brand name has long been synonymous with quality—but its first electronic product didn’t make it to market.
After WWII, Sony wanted to make a rice cooker to serve post-war Japan, so the company developed a simple wooden rice cooker with electrodes attached. Due to inconsistent electrical power throughout the country, the project was shelved.
Sony, however, stuck to electronics. After establishing its brand name with TVs, Sony branched out into gaming and is now the largest video game console manufacturer and game publisher.
- As of 2020, its global revenue neared $77 billion.
- The company brings in 26.7% of sales from game and network services.
- Meanwhile, nearly $4.5 billion in revenue stems from its mobile communications segment.
YouTube’s Dating Game
Gen Z has become the first generation to watch more YouTube than TV. But when YouTube was founded in 2005, it was a bit more akin to Tinder.
Back when video dating was still a thing, YouTube aimed to take the experience online. The company even went so far as to offer women money to upload videos. However, the idea didn’t click. YouTube’s co-founders decided to release a platform that would allow for any video type—and from there, sparks flew.
- YouTube was acquired by Google in 2006 for $1.7 billion.
- By 2019, it had more than 1.68 billion users worldwide.
“If you’re competition-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering.”
— Jeff Bezos
Twitter Ditches Talk for Type
For the platform known for a deluge of words and character-count limits, it may be a surprise that Twitter was meant to be a podcasting platform called “Odeo”.
When Apple announced its entry into the podcasting world, the team realized they couldn’t compete. Instead, Odeo turned to its engineering manager Jack Dorsey to pivot the company into his side project, now known as Twitter. Although original Odeo investors weren’t happy with the move, the strategy proved successful.
- In 2019, Twitter raked in $3.46 billion in revenue.
- It averages 150 million daily users.
- Twitter collected advertising revenue of nearly $3 billion in 2019.
- It was valued at nearly $35 billion in 2020.
Rubber Boots to Phones: Nokia’s Puzzling Pivot
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Nokia made a very different kind of product—rubber boots. The Kontio product line was successful, but in the early 1990s, the company pivoted to focus on mobile connectivity and hardware.
Released in 2003 and 2005, the Nokia 1100 and 1110 still hold the record for the world’s most popular phones, with more than 250 million units sold of each.
Although Android and iPhone have sped past Nokia as smartphone manufacturers, Nokia is still worth about $24 billion. While its phones were incredibly popular, the pivot took a financial toll, and the company’s mobile and services division was acquired by Microsoft in 2013.
Shopify Rides into Sales
Frustrated with the online sales experience, the founders of Snowdevil—a Canadian secondhand snowboard shop—decided to create their own online experience. Instead of their gear taking off, it was their platform that caught wind with consumers, and the team knew they were on to something.
In the span of two years, 2004-2006, Snowdevil became Shopify. Less than a decade later, it went public in 2015.
- Today, Shopify claims 20% of global market share among ecommerce platforms.
- It has more than 800,000 online sellers using the platform.
Nintendo Games Span Centuries
When it comes to gaming, Nintendo has more than 150 years of experience to draw from.
Beginning with hand-painted cards in the 1800s, Nintendo sold cards for multiple games, including gambling. Their nature-inspired and cartoon-like style was carried into the 20th century when Nintendo partnered with Disney to create playing cards.
Like other tech companies, Nintendo has ventured into some unusual markets over the years, including ramen noodles.
However, its primary focus has remained on games. In 1985, Nintendo released what would become the world’s most popular video game, Super Mario Bros—which has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.
The Winding Road to Success
Silicon Valley’s “fail fast” philosophy—pressure testing and pivoting—can be a lucrative, albeit grueling, one.
It’s an adaptive strategy that isn’t relegated to tech companies alone. Pivots large and small are often a key part of any company’s evolution, from products and services to marketing strategies.
Beyond bizarre beginnings and pivots, if there’s one thing successful companies have in common, it’s the audacity to evolve.
Vintage Viz: World Cities With 1 Million Residents (1800–1930)
From someone born in the 19th century, in the midst of historic population growth, comes this vintage visualization showing world cities growing ever bigger.
World Cities With At Least 1 Million Residents (1800–1930)
This chart is the latest in our Vintage Viz series, which presents historical visualizations along with the context needed to understand them.
The explosive world population boom in the last 300 years is common knowledge today. Much and more has been written about how and why it happened, why it was unusual, and how the specter of a declining population for the first time in three centuries could impact human society.
However, equally compelling, is how people in the past—those living in the midst of the early waves of this boom—were fascinated by what they were witnessing.
Evidence of this comes from today’s vintage visualization, denoting the increasing number of world cities with at least one million inhabitants through the years.
The above pictogram was made by Austrian philosopher and sociologist Otto Neurath (1882–1945), found in his book, Society and Economy, published in 1930.
World Population Doubles Between 1800 and 1930
In 1800, the world population crossed 1 billion for the first time ever.
In the next 130 years, it doubled past 2 billion.
The Second Agricultural Revolution, characterized by massive land and labor productivity, grew agricultural output more than the population and is one of the key drivers of this population growth.
And in the pictogram above, where one silhouette indicates one million inhabitants, this exponential population growth becomes far more vivid.
In 1800, for example, according to the creator’s estimates, only London had at least million residents. A century later, 15 cities now boasted of the same number. Then, three decades hence, 37 cities across the world had one million inhabitants.
|Cities with One Million Residents
Importantly, the data above is based on the creator’s estimates from a century ago, and does not include Beijing (then referred to as Peking in English) in 1800. Historians now agree that the city had more than a million residents, and was the largest city in the world at the time.
Another phenomenon becoming increasingly apparent is growing urbanization—food surplus frees up large sections of the population from agriculture, driving specialization in other skills and trade, in turn leading to congregations in urban centers.
Other visualizations in the same book covered migration, Indigenous peoples, labor, religion, trade, and natural resources, reflecting the creator’s interest in the social life of individuals and their well-being.
Who Was Otto Neurath and What is His Legacy?
This vintage visualization might seem incredibly simple, simplistic even, considering how we map out population data today. But the creator Otto Neurath, and his wife Marie, were pioneers in the field of visual communication.
One of their notable achievements was the creation of the Vienna Method of pictorial statistics, which aimed to represent statistical information in a visually accessible way—the forerunner to modern-day infographics.
The Neuraths believed in using clear and simple visual language to convey complex information to a broad audience, an approach that laid the foundation for modern information design.
They fled Austria during the rise of the Nazi regime and spent their later years in various countries, including the UK. Otto Neurath’s influence on graphic design, visual communication, and the philosophy of language has endured, and his legacy is still recognized in these fields today.
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