It’s easy to think we’ve seen everything. It’s simple to convince ourselves that all the good ideas have already been taken.
There are those innovators who take existing products and improve upon them. Robert Kearns, for example, converted his basement into a laboratory and developed the intermittent windshield wiper. Chrysler adopted Kearns’ patented technology without his permission and, after a protracted legal battle, he was awarded $18.7 million in 1992.
And then there are others, those who perceive a void in the market and decide to fill it.
In 1845, Elias Howe had a dream. Howe, who had been having difficulties while working on prototypes for a new sewing machine, dreamt that he “was building a sewing machine for a savage king in a strange country. Just as in his actual working experience, he was perplexed about the needle’s eye.” As the king took him to be executed, Howe noticed that, “the warriors carried spears that were pierced near the head.” The solution to his difficulty came to him instantly: he would move the eye of the machine’s needle to its point.
After Howe’s dream, the lockstitch sewing machine found its way into the waking world. He was awarded a patent in 1846 and — like Robert Kearns — was forced to engage in a lengthy legal battle to defend his patent from the likes of Isaac Singer. In the end, the courts ruled in his favor and awarded him significant royalties from Singer for sales of products making use of his invention.
In the cases of both Kearns and Howe, fortune awarded individuals who responded to the cries of a market in need. And, while the road for both of these men was long and arduous, this is not always the case. In some instances, an invention is so fresh, so unexpected, or just so unusual that it lifts off, carves a piece out of the old market and reshapes it to suit its needs. So, from one man’s angry potatoes to desserts prepared by light bulbs, here’s a list of seven people who created new markets out of thin air.
Gary Dahl literally created a market out of nothing. More importantly, he became a millionaire off of an investment that could likely fit into a medium-sized coin purse.
In April 1975, Dahl was sitting in a bar with his friends, listening to them complain about the logistics of pet ownership, when he conceived of the idea of the perfect pet, one that would require no training, upkeep, care or attention. Thus, the Pet Rock was born. Later that year, Dahl released the first batch of Pet Rocks. The original Pet Rock consisted of a slickly packaged gray builder’s stone that cost Dahl less than a penny.
By February 1976, Dahl had sold over 1.5 million Pet Rocks at $3.95 each, netting him a cool $6 million.
In 1941, George de Mestral and his dog took a hike in the Alps. Upon returning home, he found that a great many burdock burrs had gotten stuck to his clothing. Removing the burrs and examining them under a microscope, he received the inspiration for one of the most popular fasteners in use today: Velcro.
An engineer by trade and an inventor by nature, de Mestral began experimenting with various cloths, attempting to emulate the burrs’ hook and loop mechanism. By the late 1940s, he had refined his processes and created a version of Velcro that contained both hooks and loops on a single piece of cloth. In 1951, he applied for a patent and introduced the world to a method of fastening that it didn’t even know it needed.
George Crum didn’t intend to invent anything; he just wanted to stick a cork in a picky customer. After the customer returned Crum’s French fries several times for being too thick, Crum decided he would slice them as thin as humanly possible and fry them to a crisp. Thus, the potato chip — originally called Saratoga Chips — was created.
Crum’s first batch of potato chips was created in 1853 and in the 150 years since their invention they have evolved into a multibillion dollar industry. Crum’s act of culinary spite accidentally created a market for several million dollar companies, including Lay’s, Herr’s, Pringles, and even healthier options like Popchips.
During World War II, cocoa prices were on the rise. Stepping up to the plate, Pietro Ferrero launched a product called pasta gianduja, a thick paste of chocolate and hazelnuts intended to be sliced and served on bread. Shortly after the release of pasta gianduja, Pietro created a thinner, more spreadable version called supercrema gianduja.
In 1963, Pietro’s son Michele modified the composition of supercrema gianduja, renamed it Nutella and began marketing it throughout Europe with the hopes of making chocolate a part of breakfast. Nutella was an overnight success that spawned countless imitators and even provoked a tax increase on palm oil that was popularly dubbed “the Nutella tax.”
The spread, in 2009, boasted the third most “liked” Facebook fan page with a staggering two million fans, just barely trailing behind Barack Obama and Coca-Cola.
Scott Boilen didn’t invent the sleeved blanket; he just perfected how to market it. In late 2008, Boilen embarked on a massive media campaign to promote his product, the Snuggie. Essentially a robe worn backwards, the Snuggie was featured on television programs like Today and Oprah. Both Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres made good-humored jabs at the Snuggie on their shows.
Leveraging these mentions and appearances, Boilen elevated the Snuggie fanbase into a veritable cult, insisting that his company, Allstar Products, was “definitely in on the joke.” As a result of the public’s ribbing, Allstar sold more than 35 million Snuggies, earning in excess of $500 million in revenue.
The world would’ve never known that you could bake a cake with a 100-watt light bulb if it wasn’t for Ronald Howes. In 1963, Kenner Products released Howes’ toy invention, the Easy-Bake Oven. Inspired by the cooking methods of New York street vendors, the Easy-Bake Oven was America’s first toy oven and sold more than 500,000 units in its first year.
Evolving throughout the years, from side- to front-loaded and from light bulbs to dedicated heating elements, the Easy-Bake Oven has sold over 16 million units worldwide. In 2006, in honor of Howes’ visionary design, which filled an otherwise unnoticed void in the toy market, the oven was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
Another invention arising out of necessity after World War II, the Swanson TV dinner was originally pursued because it allowed the company to make use of excess freezer space that had previously been used to store food for Army soldiers. Betty Cronin, a bacteriologist by trade, was promoted to director of product development and tasked with creating recipes where all the ingredients required the same cooking time.
Originally sold in aluminum trays and heated in a conventional oven, TV dinners cut the time it took to cook a turkey dinner down from 8 hours to 25 minutes. In 1986, TV dinners began to migrate to microwave ovens. Provided in plastic trays, the new cooking method further reduced the preparation time to 6 minutes. By 2001, hungry consumers were spending $380 million per year on the prepackaged meals with the average person consuming 72 frozen dinners every year.