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Low-tech Startups

Article by Luke Richbourg.
The term “startup” has come to mean “coding”, “engineering”, “data science” and the like.  Don’t let those notions quash your entrepreneurial ambitions. Consider the following examples and think more broadly about the possible universe of potential startups. Each of the businesses below was the result, not the capital of Wall Street or corporate titans or a billionaire, but of the efforts of one or a few individual founders, most often under-resourced everymen whose “competitive advantage” consisted of little more than a dream and a lot of drive. The dramatic details of the stories below and many others can be heard on NPRs excellent and inspiring podcast, “How I Built This with Guy Raz.”

  • Stonyfield Yogurt: Two hippies began producing homemade organic yogurt as a fundraiser. Surviving against all odds, now Stonyfield is one of the most well-known yogurt brands in the US.
  • 24-Hour Energy: Inspired by a mediocre product he encountered at a trade show, Manoj Bhargava launched 24-Hour Energy with a novel positioning and marketing strategy: a quick single-servng pick-me-up at the register. The thriing business established a new category in energy drinks.
  • Spanx: Today a billion-dollar business, Sara Blakely abandoned her job selling fax-machines door-to-door and inspired by her experiments with cutoff-nylons, founded Spanx.
  • OtterBox: Initially founded to produce waterproof containers for outdoorsmen, the advent of mobile phones opened a major growth opportunity for OtterBox, now a dominant player in the phone-case space with over a billion in annual sales.
  • Luke’s Lobster: A Wall Street banker’s side-project lobster-roll shack in New York’s East Village opened in 2009 a decade later had grown to 40 locations and 500 employees.
  • Birchbox: Shortly out of B-school, Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna disrupted the beauty industry with the improbable notion of a curated selection of beauty products by subscription.
  • LÄRABAR: Unemployed and recently divorced Lara Merriken struck upon the idea of pie-like energy bars made of dried fruit and nuts; eight years on General Mills acquired the company for an estimated $55 million.
  • Gimlet Media: Noobish NPR podcast producer Alex Blumberg sets out to launch his own podcast production company, his initial offering being the documenting of his own clumsy entrepreneurial efforts. Five years later Spotify acquired the operation for $200 million.
  • Stitch Fix: Stylish Katrina Lake bet on her ability to pick clothes for others; a decade later her online personal shopping service has about three million customers and does over a billion dollars in revenue.
  • Dyson: Inspired by the engineering of industrial sawmills to extract dust from the air, James Dyson, an art student and tinkerer, built the ultimate vacuum only to find no established manufacturer cared to license his superior technology. Launching his own brad in the mid-1990s, Dyson is now a billionaire and his brand one of the most popular in the world.
  • Belkin International: As a teen in the 1980s Chet Pipkin hung out in the sprouting computer shops of the era. In the frustrating proliferation of proprietary computer cables and accessories, Chet saw an opportunity and, as a teen from his garage, built Belkin, subsidiary of Foxconn for more than $800 million

About the Author:

Luke Richbourg is an experienced international corporate and finance attorney, who has done work in structured, bank, and cross-border finance. As a former associate at Simpson Thatcher and a partner at Mayer Brown, he has represented banks, borrowers, investors & family offices, and private equity sponsors, frequently in emerging markets. You can contact Luke Richbourg on his Facebook page.