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Stories Of The Underdog: Companies Succeeding Despite The Odds

Last updated 03/19/2024 by

Theresa Cummings
We all love a good success story, but what’s even better is one that has the little guy faced with seemingly impossible odds, yet somehow managing to come out on top. The following are some of our favorite success stories of those who were once ridiculed as insignificant start-ups, but became incredibly successful against all odds.

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Apple Logo
Many don’t realize what Apple was up against when it began in the garage of Steve Jobs in 1976. At the time, Microsoft was the largest technology giant and was a formidable foe, turning a blind eye to this seeming gnat on the wall. Apple introduced the Macintosh computer in 1984 and struggled for years while climbing the consumer ladder uphill. Yet when Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, it revolutionized how people listen to music. The huge success eventually made the Walkman obsolete. This was followed by the introduction of iTunes, then the iPhone, iPod Touch, and most recently the iPad.
By 2010, Apple exceeded Microsoft in sales, reaching a new record of $76.3 billion in sales for the year. An article on CNN Money by David Goldman in 2012 was humorously entitled ‘At $500 billion, Apple is worth more than Poland’. Not bad for a young man starting in a garage.

Samuel Adams Beer

Samuel Adams Logo
Although micro brewing has been around for decades, it’s only been in recent years that the trend to brew your own beer has skyrocketed. According to, there were about 6 newly-emerged microbrewers in 1982. There are now 1,829 small and independent craft brewers in the USA. Jim Koch’s father, Charles Koch, was a 5th generation brewer that eventually went under during the prohibition era. The family archives and equipment of the St. Louis Koch Brewery were stored in the attic of their home.
In 1984, Jim Koch recognized that people were starting to want something different in beer, so he retrieved the brewing articles from the family attic. He started brewing in the kitchen and chose the brand name Samuel Adams because Adams was a Boston revolutionary who fought for independence. Most importantly, Samuel Adams, had also dabbled in brewing since his father was a brewer. Koch filled his briefcase with bottles from his sample brew and started going door to door asking Boston bars and restaurants to serve the beer that he had named Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Getting into the mainstream was a struggle for this underdog, but Koch persisted having two things in his favor: a full flavored quality beer, and an incredible desire to succeed. Samuel Adams now boasts over 50 different beer styles and is available in all 50 states and more than 20 foreign countries. Annual revenue is over $800 million.


Chipotle Logo
Colorado resident Steve Ells opened his first Chipotle restaurant in downtown Denver in 1993. Public sentiment concerning the need for healthier fast food was just gaining speed. His ideals were uncommon and even Bloomberg Business reported why Chipotle was expected to fail. “Its outlets aren’t in the busiest locations. It spends too much money on food. It doesn’t serve breakfast; it doesn’t do drive-through, franchises, or even much in the way of advertising. It almost never adds anything new to its menu. Employees still cut all the tomatoes — hundreds of thousands of pounds a day — by hand. It is, in so many ways, the anti-McDonald’s.”
At the time such thinking was still, somewhat, considered foolishness but as Ells learn more about the fast-food industry, the more he disliked it. Ells was so determined to resist fast-food trends, that he partnered with dedicated ranchers and farmers who raise livestock and grow produce sustainably and responsibly. As the healthy food trend has bloomed in recent years, so has Chipotle. From the one location in Denver, it is now a $22 billion dollar empire. With 1,755 Chipotle restaurants throughout the United States, as well as seven in Canada, six in England, three in France, and one in Germany, Ells dedication took this underdog to incredible heights.

Ben & Jerry’s

Ben & Jerry's Logo
Breaking into the ice cream industry is not for the faint of heart. Yet Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, born four days apart in Brooklyn, were ambitious young guns in the 1970’s. Meandering through the college years, they eventually ended up together and decided to go into the ice cream business. Taking a $5 course on ice-cream making, they opened up the first Ben & Jerry’s in 1978 in a converted gas station in Burlington, VT.
Besides providing a rich ice cream with unique flavors, the duo were bent on connecting with the community and gave away free scoops on the first anniversary of the store and continue this tradition to this day. Their investment in being community activists paid off. By 1983 they signed a deal with a Boston distribution company and over the next 4 years sales escalated to over $32 million. It also helped when President Ronald Reagan named them the U.S. Small Business Persons of the Year in 1988. Within that year alone, the company grew to be operating in 18 states.
Fighting off resistance from the likes of Haagen-Dazs, they kept pressing on. Although the process took some time, this dark horse has grown to selling over $300 million in 2014.

Burt’s Bees

Burt's Bees Logo
Beeswax products were a risky business when Burt Shavitz considered developing a marketable product out of it. According to a report by Kathryn Wheeler on the blog, “Shavitz had a local honey stand in Maine, and in 1984 Roxanne Quimby (a local artist) began using his extra, unused beeswax to make candles. Within a year, the candle business brought in $20,000.
Roxanne discovered a recipe for beeswax lip balm in a 19th century farmer’s journal, and in 1991 Burt’s Bees Beeswax Lip Balm was on the shelf. An all-natural, individually-owned lip balm was a game changer for Burt’s Bees, and was the beginning of a long line of homemade, natural beauty products.
By 1999, Burt’s Bees was global. Their branding really took the spotlight in 2007 when they established ‘The Greater Good’ business philosophy; beauty products that are good for you, good for us, and good for all. Their illustrated imagery and warm color scheme that’s prevalent in their branding evokes the all-natural, personal, inviting feel of the business. In an industry overflowing with cool blues, greens, and sometimes even stark white lip balm, and sleek, modern beauty products, Burt’s Bees is a welcomed contrast.”
Clorox purchased this company in late 2007 for a sum of $925,000,000. Not bad for a small local honey producer.


Clif Company Logo
Who’d have imagined that an energy bar would become a huge success in the 1990’s? According to the Clifbar website, “Gary Erickson set off on a one-day, 175-mile bicycle ride with his buddy Jay. As usual, he packed six energy bars for the ride—using the only bar on the market at the time. Halfway through the ride, exhausted and hungry, Gary realized he just couldn’t eat another unappetizing, sticky, hard-to-digest bar. Then and there, in a moment he now calls ‘the epiphany,’ the inspiration for the CLIF® Bar was born. He named his creation CLIF Bar in honor of his father, Clifford, the man who introduced him to wilderness adventures and encouraged him to follow his passions in life. CLIF Bar was formally launched in 1992.”
This energy bar came from being an unknown product to a winner. From 2002 to 2013, the company purchased 425 million pounds of organic ingredients. From such simple beginnings, this company has grown from a bike ride to $508 million in sales in 2012.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Five Guys Logo
How can yet another burger joint make it? The history of Five Guys Burgers and Fries is shared on their well-documented website. “Five Guys has been a Washington, DC area favorite since 1986 when Jerry and Janie Murrell offered sage advice to the four young Murrell brothers: ‘Start a business or go to college.’ The business route won when the Murrell family opened a carry-out burger joint in Arlington, Virginia. Under the guidance of Jerry and Janie, the Murrell family served only hand-formed burgers cooked to perfection on a grill along with fresh-cut fries cooked in pure peanut oil. During the 1980’s and 1990’s the Murrell family perfected their simple system. Four more restaurants with sit-down seating were added to accommodate the growing clientele.
Early in 2003 Jerry and Janie, together with the five guys began offering franchise opportunities. In just under 18 months, Five Guys Enterprises sold options for over 300 units. Now, over 20 years after Five Guys first opened, there are over 1,000 locations nationwide and over 1500 units in development. Five Guys continues to receive media attention and has grown a cult-like following around the world. According to, “As of 2012, Five Guys had grown 792% since 2006, making it the fastest growing fast food chain in the country.”

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