9 Global Businesses That Began as Side Hustles and How They Started

Why do some side hustles grow into massively successful companies?

Steve Jobs
Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Getty Images

The popularity of the side hustle is undeniable.

Whether it’s for a personal challenge, a way to create a legitimate source of alternative income, or the small first steps toward international business domination, it seems like just about everyone these days has a full time job plus a smaller entrepreneurial endeavor on evenings and weekends.

And why not? These days, a personal business can be run from just about anywhere.

You just need a dream and a smartphone with a decent data connection, and you can turn your nugget of an idea into pure gold.

It may sound like a long shot, but small personal enterprises have been transformed into contenders on a massive scale many times. Sometimes success is the result of hitting the market at the right time, sometimes it’s a product of many hours of hard work, and often there’s a little luck mixed in.

Still, when you look at some of today’s biggest and best companies, you’ll discover that they had their humble beginnings as a way for their owner to try something new, solve a nagging problem, and make a couple bucks while they were at it.

Here are nine global businesses that started out as side hustles, along with their origin stories.

1.

Their story is legendary, the stuff of tech startup folklore: two guys with high school diplomas, lots of motivation, and hours of sweat equity coming together to change the world.

Shaggy, unshowered, hippie Steve Jobs and his code geek friend Steve Wozniak worked together in Jobs’s parents’ garage in the early 1970s, building personal computers in their spare time.

Jobs worked at Atari, Woz worked at Hewlett Packard, and looking at the two of them in 1976, when they first completed the Apple I, you’d never guess that within five years, they’d have one of the hottest tech companies around.

Apple’s popularity and value have wavered over the years, hitting an especially low point in the late 1980s after Jobs was ousted. He was brought back in 1997, though, and he proved to be the ultimate key person to Apple: the company went from having just a small percentage of market share to a worldwide tech juggernaut.

Currently, the company that is so well known for hovering at the intersection of technology and the humanities, is valued at around $750 billion.

2.

Necessity is the mother of invention, or so the saying goes, and the founding of Under Armour was prompted by just that: necessity.

In the mid 1990s, Kevin Plank was a University of Maryland football player who was constantly frustrated with wearing heavy, sweaty shirts under his jersey during practice and on game days. In 1996, Plank created an athletic undershirt for himself that stayed dry even during the toughest workouts and practices. It worked so well that he thought he might try to manufacture and sell them to other athletes. In a move that really puts the “hustle” in his side hustle, he drove up and down the east coast for the next year, selling his shirts out of his car.

They caught on, and soon he went from making individual sales to making team sales.

Within two years, Under Armour moved out of Plank’s trunk and into a legitimate warehouse and headquarters. Currently, UA is a well-known worldwide brand with nearly $4 billion in annual revenues.

3.

The popular home improvement hub, Houzz is chock full of design ideas for any dwelling’s interior and exterior. It also contains a directory of home improvement professionals, a user forum, a shopping portal, and more, so it’s surprising to learn that such a heavily used website came from such simple beginnings.

Back in 2009, Houzz’s founders, the husband and wife team of Alon Cohen and Adi Tatarko, were struggling with their own home improvement project. They created a small website to solicit input and look for contractors, and it proved to be a hit. The next year, their little side hustle became a fully fledged company and came out with an iPad app.

Just a few short years later, Houzz had an international presence, and by 2016, the company had over 40 million unique users per month around the world. As of the midway point of 2017, Houzz was worth an impressive $4 billion.

4.

If you’re at all into the unique, the crafty, the creative, or the handmade, you’ve probably taken a gander at the products for sale on Etsy. It started in 2005 as a small marketplace for individual artisans to hawk their wares, and as it turned out, there were a lot of people who wanted to both buy and sell handmade and one-of-a-kind items. Within a few years, the company was pulling in millions in annual sales, and in April 2016, it had a $100 million IPO.

In recent years, the company has had its ups and downs, partially as a result of growing pains and upper management issues, but it’s still a highly valued brand with tens of millions of active buyers and sellers.

5.

If you’ve ever gone into a place of business and asked for a group discount, then you understand the concept behind the multibillion dollar company Groupon. What started as a way for founder Andrew Mason to have some leverage in order to cancel a cell phone contract has evolved into a way for millions of people to save on all sorts of things, simply by working together.

Back in 2006, though, it was pretty small; Mason created a web tool called The Point, which allowed people to come together to accomplish a specific goal. He enjoyed moderate success as a side hustle, but certainly wasn’t a worldwide company — yet. After Mason noticed that more often than not, the specific goal was saving money, The Point became Groupon in November 2008, focusing on offering group discounts on things like food, entertainment, services, and more. The rest, as they say, is history.

6.

HubSpot is the place to go for robust SaaS inbound marketing tools, plus they’ve got one of the industry’s best and most cited marketing and sales blogs. So, it’s hard to imagine that such a huge force in the digital marketing arena started off as the humble brainchild of two MIT grad students who were just trying to share their marketing knowledge and make some money while doing it.

Founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah were working as independent contractors helping startups with their marketing strategies. Shah also had a blog that had a remarkably wide readership, but they thought they could do more. Halligan and Shah joined forces to found HubSpot in 2006, and they began working with small companies. Their early successes gave way to medium and soon large companies, and now Hubspot is one of the most respected digital marketing services around. The company pulled in over $270 million in revenue in 2016, and their numbers seem to be continually climbing.

7.

It’s hard to imagine the wildly popular photo sharing app as a little side hustle, but that’s exactly how Instagram got started back in 2010. Founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger created a check-in app much like Foursquare, but also incorporated photography from the increasingly popular smartphone cameras. They got the company, then called Burbn, started from a rented desk in a shared office during evenings and weekends when they weren’t at their day jobs.

At first, it didn’t really go anywhere; Foursquare was popular, and sharing of mobile photos was just getting off the ground. Soon, Systrom and Krieger changed the name to Instagram, changed the focus to almost entirely mobile photography, and the app took off. Two years later, before Instagram figured out a way to turn a profit, Facebook bought the company for a cool $1 billion. Business has only improved since Instagram became part of Facebook’s $300+ billion universe. It’s now one of the most popular apps of all time, currently with 700 million monthly active users.

8.

Perhaps one of the most positive uses of our constant connectivity is education, and Udemy founders Eren Bali, OktayCaglar, and GaganBiyani were definitely onto something when they launched the platform in 2010. It was small at first for several reasons: first, they were unable to raise any venture capital to fund their new online course website, and second, they were starting with hardly any courses. However, even if investors weren’t initially interested, students and instructors alike could see the potential of online education.

Udemy quickly grew by leaps and bounds, with 2,000 courses and over 10,000 users in the first few months. Investors finally followed, and the small side hustle was well on its way to becoming an educational powerhouse. Currently, Udemy boasts over 55,000 classes in topics ranging from computer skills and foreign languages to advanced makeup techniques and test preparation for a certification exam. The site has over 10 million users, and it’s one of the world leaders in affordable online education.

9.

Back in 2004, before Khan Academy was even a side hustle, it was simply a way for Sal Khan to provide some long distance tutoring to a family member. It worked well, and when other family members became interested in Khan’s lessons, he made them publicly available. Soon, even more people, including complete strangers, watched Khan’s short video explanations, found them helpful, and asked for more. Finally, with the growing popularity of his online lessons, Kahn turned his attention to online education, full time!

He created a website that featured free online courses, made it a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, successfully solicited donations, and brought in users — lots of users! Currently, Khan Academy has over 10 million unique visitors each month. What’s more, while Khan and his senior level employees are well compensated, their salaries are consistent with those of other professional nonprofit jobs, demonstrating that his heart truly is in his work.