10 Successful Companies That Started Off As Something Completely Different

It’s not uncommon for companies to alter what they provide as they grow. When the company gets bigger, it has more resources to figure out what the consumer public wants - or, in the loose sense of the word, what it "needs." Starbucks probably did not sell overly sweet, bottled Frappuccinos when it was just a little store in Seattle’s Pike Place market, but now they’re available in most locations.

There are also companies that start by producing one thing and then, either organically or through deliberate overhaul, begin producing something different altogether. Although sometimes the final "brand" is analogous to its original version, different with shades of sameness, oftentimes the thing has changed so much that its ancestry is barely visible.

Below is a list of 10 familiar companies that have totally changed their merch at some point in their corporate histories. Unlike Starbucks, which never stopped selling coffee, these companies took sharp turns into different industries as they expanded. Some will make you curious, some will make you skeptical, and some will make you sick to your stomach, but all of them will now provide something which no one "back then" would have ever guessed.

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10 Potbelly Started Off As An Antique Shop

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You might have heard of Potbelly, the American sandwich franchise with the mom & pop charm. The main contributing factor to this charm is Potbelly’s décor, ever suggestive of the pre-digital past. Every location is outfitted with such things as leather-bound books, sepia globes, and wire suspended airplanes. One might think that this was a calculated move by upper management, an attempt at coziness in response to Subway’s industrial feel, but really it’s an ancestral family trait of the company.

Potbelly opened in 1977 as an antique store in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, where the owner also refurbished antique potbelly stoves. After a few years of operation, he and his wife decided that offering customers a bite to eat might help boost sales. Peckish antiquers would leave to get lunch and then never come back due to post-meridiem lassitude.

The sandwiches and cookies eventually eclipsed the antiques and popularity. In 1996, Bryant Keil acquired the company and, along with his team, spread Potbelly across the states like mayonnaise over toasted ciabatta. What once was a place to buy antiques and perhaps a ham & cheeser is now one of the country’s most successful sandwich shops, that unfortunately no longer provides Amish-hammered cherrywood rocking chairs.

9 Abercrombie & Fitch Was Originally A Sporting Goods Store

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In this case, the final product is rather similar, because Abercrombie clothes, albeit stylized, still have an outdoorsy quality to them. It’s not like Zara, nightclub outfitter par excellence, used to sell fishing rods and hunting rifles to New York gentlemen. That being said, Abercrombie’s is still an impressive transformation.

David T. Abercrombie, in 1898, opened a small waterfront shop in Manhattan called “Abercrombie Co.” In 1904, longtime patron, lawyer Ezra Fitch, bought a major share of the company and gave it its current name. Although Abercrombie sold his shares in 1907, the store was so successful by 1910 that the owners opened a twelve-story location on Madison Avenue in New York. Included were an indoor shooting range and a golf school. By 1939, Abercrombie and Fitch was “The Greatest Sporting Goods Store in the World” according to its logo.

Now, more than a hundred years later, A&F is known for its teenage clothing and homoerotic catalogs, where the clothing models are mostly undressed. The history of the company is apparent in the cottage-filled backgrounds of the catalog’s photographs, but the foreground offers almost no insight into the merchandise it once sold over twelve busy floors.

8 Sears Started As A Mail-Order Watch Operation

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Even though it’s now in a massive decline (some have even called it “a death spiral,”) Sears was once one of America’s biggest department stores. It sold everything from refrigerators to treadmills to motorcycle parts at affordable prices. But before the decline and before the rise of this titanic retailer, it was just a little operation that sold watches by mail order.

Established in 1886 by Richard W. Sears, the R. W. Sears Watch Company was meant to sell watches to people who wrote in and asked for them. In 1887, Sears hired Alvah C. Roebuck as a watch repairman, that way they could not only sell but also repair them. In 1889, Sears sold his business, but kept the model in mind. He started another mail-order operation with Roebuck, which in 1893 came to be known as Sears, Roebuck, and Company. The company expanded quickly by offering a wide range of merchandise at low prices. The catalog model allowed them to acquire market share in places where people had no access to retail stores, such as farm towns and villages.

It was only in 1925 that the Sears company opened its first retail location, almost thirty years after it was created. These stores grew into the once-popular-now-abandoned stores, annexes to almost every shopping mall in America.

7 Lysol Was Originally A Form of Birth Control

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“Ouch, that stings!” said every girl who tried Lysol in the first half of the 20th century, and not because she ignored its current warning to avoid contact with the skin. By 1911, doctors had recorded 193 Lysol poisonings and five deaths from uterine irrigation: women were actually using the now counter top/toilet bowl spray as a form of birth control.

In the early 20th century, current and effective forms of contraception, such as condoms and diaphragms, were not only expensive, but also controlled by the medical industry. Although not officially labeled a form of birth control, Lysol was marketed as a generously interpretable “feminine hygiene” product, meaning women were made to believe that using Lysol would prevent them from becoming pregnant. Due to a scarcity of information about sexual health, they believed it.

In 1953, the cresol in the formula was replaced with ortho-hydroxydiphenyl, and Lysol was pushed for cleaning porcelain and treating ringworm. Despite that, Lehn and Fink Products continued to market it as feminine hygiene. Even though they now discourage use of Lysol Disinfectant Wipes on one’s body, not so long ago, they once recommended that consumers spray it up inside themselves to stay nice and puritanically clean.

6 3M Was Once A Mining Company

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3M’s sales probably spike in December, and not because people like to give out Post-It notes for Christmas. Nothing makes wrapping paper stay in place like a roll of 3M Scotch tape, especially when manipulated by a 3M tape dispenser. For most people, one look at the company’s logo probably brings back memories of taping down winter-patterned paper, or perhaps of taping posters of their favorite band up on their bedroom walls.

But the company didn’t always produce scotch tape (and surprisingly a ton of other things outside the realm of consumer goods). Originally, it was a small-scale mining venue, started in Minnesota in 1902. The 3 M’s of 3M stand for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.

The five founders of the company wanted to mine Crystal Bay, near Orono, for a mineral called corundum. However, the mineral was neither plentiful nor lucrative, so they quickly abandoned the endeavor, but kept the snappy sounding name. It was only in 1925 that the company began to produce tape, thanks to the discovery of masking tape by a young lab assistant.

Now 3M is a staple at Staples, but a hundred years ago, it would have been easier to find the logo on a giant underground drill than in a secretary’s desk drawer.

5 Old Spice Was Originally For Women

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In one of the most successful ad campaigns of all time with over 50 million views on YouTube, Old Spice displayed “The man your man could smell like.” Remember, ladies? He’s on a horse with “two tickets to the thing you love.” It’s an homage to American virility, apparently accessible only if you use Old Spice body wash (although it’s hard to imagine how rubbing yourself with a fluffy loofah could make you as tough as a Ford pickup truck, but alright if you say so).

The catch to all of this? Old Spice was originally for women and not big, hairy men.

Introduced in 1937, the first ever Old Spice product was called Early American Old Spice for women. Although its male successor hit the market only a year later, it’s hard to imagine that the brand that has been spoken for by Terry Crews, Isaiah Mustafa, and Fabio could once have been for dainty American darlings.

4 National Geographic Was Once a Scholarly Journal

via press.nationalgeographic.com

The magazine that we all know for its super high resolution, polychromatic pictures used to be a small-circulation quarterly for the brainiest members of society.

On January 27, 1888, the National Geographic Society was founded in Washington, D.C., for “the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.” Included in its members were lawyers, scientists, military officials, teachers, cartographers, and financiers who wanted to foster discovery, invention, change, and mass communication.

However, it wasn’t until an 1899 change in leadership that the magazine acquired broader appeal, especially through its photographs. Until then, it had resembled a journal, with few visuals aside from technical sketches and long, turgid articles on specific topics. Only at the turn of the century did editors begin including photos, which quickly overwhelmed the text.

The only thing leftover from National Geographic’s first few issues is its signature yellow border and an amorphous curiosity about the world. But never again would the magazine run an article about international soil conditions, preferring instead foreign human-interest curiosities

3 BMW Was Originally An Aircraft Company

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Founded in 1916, with the merger of Rapp Engine Works and Otto Aircraft Works, Bavarian Motor Works, or BMW, was originally a company for aircrafts. Among other things, the company powered German fighters in the first World War.

But after the war, which Germany lost, the Treaty of Versailles forbade the production of aircrafts in the central European country. Its main source of revenue gone, BMW turned to other types of engines, and began to manufacture motorcycles. BMW motorcycles are still coveted today, but not quite like their automobiles, which are an international symbol of effortless opulence.

The first car made by BMW was the small, 315 Dixi. It was small and inexpensive, fitting the needs of a country whose economy had been ruined by a war of attrition and its subsequent reparations.

Even though BMWs are known for their powerful engines, it’s hard to imagine that the company once built jets, and not only jets, but fighter jets meant to defeat another European country in war.

2 Cosmopolitan Didn’t Always Publish Feminine Sex Tips

via newsstand.co.uk

Nowadays, Cosmopolitan, commonly referred to as Cosmo, is a magazine for young women who want to discover some seven hundred sexy bedroom tips to titillate their pudgy boyfriends. But there was a time when Cosmopolitan magazine was actually quite refined.

Originally called The Cosmopolitan Magazine, the publication was first printed in 1886 as a journal of fashion, household décor, cooking, and other domestic interests. When Schlicht & Field’s, Cosmo’s publishing company, went bankrupt in 1888, the magazine was sold to Joseph Newton Hallock, who turned it into a literary magazine with serialized fiction and book reviews. John Brisben Walker took over a year later in 1889 and expanded the content to include short stories and travel essays, with an emphasis on social reform and education.

It wasn’t until 1965, when Haley Gurley Brown, author of Sex and the Single Girl, took over the magazine that it became the Cosmo common to us today. It was under Brown’s leadership that the magazine adopted its motto, “fun, fearless, female,” and began to run covers of pop-tarts in cocktail dresses.

1 There’s A Good Reason Coke® And Coke Are Homophones…

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Coca-Cola is arguably the most popular soft drink in the world. Even if it isn’t the most consumed of them, it is definitely the soda with the best brand recognition. Seeing as Coke, Pepsi, and RC taste more or less the same (BLASPHEMY!!!), could this immense popularity be because Coca-Cola is just the tiniest bit… addictive?

Not anymore. Now, it’s just delicious and goes particularly well with fast-food. But when it was discovered, Coca-Cola came mixed with cocaine.

The drink was inspired by a rich man’s cocktail of sweet wine and cocaine, first tried in France. Noting the trend, Dr. John Pemberton of Atlanta, Georgia began producing it at home, and soon his company prospered. Unfortunately for him, a county prohibition passed in Fulton thirty-four years before the 18th Amendment, and his product became illegal.

To circumvent the law, Pemberton created a sweet-tasting, non-alcoholic syrup to go with the cocaine solution. He called the bottled mixture: “Coca-Cola: The Temperance Drink,” however hard it may be to fathom that a sweet, caffeinated soda packed with cocaine could make anyone temperate.

Although today we let everyone drink Coca-Cola, almost a hundred years ago it was most definitely a libation for grown-ups. No longer illegal once the alcohol was removed, the mix was potent enough to get anyone high as balls, and, as such, was definitely not always the same excellent complement to a midday McDonald’s Happy Meal.


Sources: potbelly.combusinessinsider.com, finance.yahoo.combritannica.com,motherjones.comnews.oldspice.com , history.com , theatlantic.com

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