Among the ridiculous ways people have made money, there are several gems that stand out. Billy-Bob teeth. Duck calls. Internet pan-handling. These stories inspire us because it seems like anybody can come up with a good – or idiotic, but popular – idea and sell it for millions of bucks. Well here’s a list of five people who did just that. Don’t be jealous of their wealth. Be envious of their enterprise.
Everybody dreams about making a fortune. Some people achieve their goal, making enough money to live how they want for the rest of their lives, and most people who earn a comfortable living do so in traditional ways: Advanced technical degrees, in-demand professions, technical knowledge consulting, or just buying low and selling high.
Some go about things differently, taking bigger risks to pursue their passions or for the promise of bigger rewards. These are the shop owners, the restauranteurs, the inventors. But then there are the truly inventive people. The trailblazers that make us say, “Why didn’t we think of that first?” The inventors who make us shake our head in wonder. The business people who hacked the system and found a loophole that was right in front of our eyes the entire time.
Jerry Springer once quipped, “People ask me all the time, ‘where do you find your guests?’ I reply, ‘I’m more amazed we can find an audience.’” Jerry was just joking about the demand for his special brand of low-class entertainment, but he was on to something. If there were dozens of Jerry Springer style shows, would there be a sizable audience for all of them? Jerry created a new type of TV entertainment. It seems obvious to us now that smut and drivel are a surefire path to high ratings, but when Jerry first came to television there was nothing like it. Jerry gave people something they didn’t know they wanted and, as a reward, the king of trashy television beat Oprah Winfrey in the ratings.
The innovators on this list – inventors, businesspeople, and master salespeople – all share that in common with Mr. Springer. They all looked at the world around them, had a moment of brilliance and the confidence to follow through with their inspiration. They all changed the world, for better or worse, and they all made incredible fortunes with in some truly strange ways.
5: The Cardboard Queen Of Hong Kong
Zhang Yin is the name of one of the richest people in all of China. She was, in 2010, the richest self made woman billionaire in the world, holding more than $4.6 billion. More than Oprah and J.K. Rowling. But she didn’t make her billions in media. Nor did she get rich on real estate. It wasn’t diamonds or oil or construction. Nope, Zhang Yin made her money from cardboard boxes, becoming the envy of hobos everywhere.
Zhang Yin started her company with $3,800 – her savings at the time. Her logic was simple: China was becoming a global exporter. Virtually everything shipped is packed in a cardboard box. So she bought scrap paper from the US and recycled it into boxes to ship Chinese goods with. Take a moment to consider the beautiful, ironic, poetic simplicity of her operation. She purchases paper from America at low prices, converts it into a higher price product and then sells it back to us at a premium. Zhang’s company, Nine Dragons Paper Holdings, sells us our own trash.
4: The Cutout King Of The UK
Richard Branson might just be my favourite billionaire. It’s not hard to figure out why he’s successful – he’s just so interesting. The way the sixth richest man in the UK got his start in business was by selling records. Oh, you knew that Virgin started out as a record store, sure – but what you might not have known is that it was founded in the back of a van.
Young Richard trolled local record stores for cut out albums. A cut out album is an overstock or hard-to-sell album that a retailer sells at a big discount – sometimes just pennies – after removing a small portion of the cover or case. Richard rightly believed he could purchase these cut out albums and sell them at a huge markup, while still presenting a discount compared to the more expensive dealers. Yes, one of the richest people in the world, an undersea adventurer and the founder of a space tourism company, got his start like the curbside vendors in Central Park.
3: The Cat Picture Prince Of Hawaii
Erik Nakagawa, AKA Cheezburger, made a fateful decision one cold January morn’ when he uploaded a picture of a smiling cat with the words, “I can has cheezburger,” to the website Something Awful. The image’s popularity prompted the software developer to change professions. He became the man responsible for the cute-pictures-and-text memes the that have become virtually synonymous with the Internet.
Erik’s monetary worth isn’t known for a fact, but IcanHasCheezburger.com – the flagship enterprise of the cheezburger network of blogs – was sold for $2 million and its value continues to grow. I can has that kind of luck?
2: The Furcula Pharoah Of Seattle
Ken Ahroni took an American tradition and simultaneously improved and destroyed it. Ahroni invented the plastic wishbone so that everyone at thanksgiving could have the satisfaction of snapping a wishbone. The product’s success is amazing and dumbfounding- though there’s an undeniable appeal for those looking to add some fun to a family’s next turkey dinner. It takes a special kind of genius to even consider making a product like this, and another kind to actually gamble on its popularity. But Ken did just that and even won a copyright infringement lawsuit against Sears. That’s right: the phoney baloney boney is so big that Sears wanted it all for themselves.
And that is the problem with the fake wishbone. Everyone wants the one wishbone. But now everyone at dinner can bust one in half and wish for a pony. Where’s the disappointed glare of your family members? Where are the pouting lips and envious stares? Thanks for nothing, and everything, Mr. Ahroni.
1: The Rock Duke Of California
By far the strangest way that anyone has ever made millions of dollars is a true testament to the power of advertising. In 1975 Gary Dahl made marketing history when he sold all of America on a silly invention for a mere $3.95 each – the price of two nice meals – and five million people were buying. Bill Dahl invented the pet rock.
No, he didn’t invent pets. He didn’t invent rocks. He invented the concept of describing rocks as pets, barely decorating them and attaching an owner’s manual to them. It was a great big hoax and all of America wanted to get in on the joke.
How much money did Bill make from the pebbles he bought from a construction supplier? $56 million. Now that’s a rock roll.