14 Famous Businesses That Launched With Less Than $10,000
With less than $10,000 (adjusted for inflation), these 14 entrepreneurs turned their business ideas into reality.
How much money does it take to start a new business from scratch? While financing needs vary based on the type of business, a study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation puts the average cost at just over $30,000. If you are opening a microbusiness ($3,000) or a home-based business ($2,000 to $5000), the Small Business Administration estimates the process will require significantly less money upfront.
It's important to calculate your expected startup costs before launching a business, but know that you don’t necessarily need a lot of money to get your idea off the ground. For these 14 entrepreneurs, it took a dream and less than $10,000 to make their business ideas a successful reality. Here's how they made it happen.
Related: 63 Businesses to Start for Under $10,000
Plenty of Fish
Markus Frind told Business Vancouver that $500 was the most he ever invested in Plenty of Fish. He started the app in 2003 without much of a plan. According to The Wall Street Journal, Frind created the site as a way to keep busy. Plenty of Fish generates revenue through advertising and premium memberships. The free app has been profitable since day one.
"By the time I found out what VCs were, I was already making millions in profit, and I didn't need to raise money because I wouldn't know what to do with it," Frind told the Journal.
In 2015, Frind turned his $500 investment into $575 million when Match Group bought his company. Plenty of Fish is now one of the largest online dating companies, with more than 150 million users registered worldwide. The dating app is available in more than 20 countries and in 11 languages.
In 2003: $500
In today’s dollars: $690+
Related: This Guy Sold His Startup for $575 Million in Cash — and Gets to Keep Every Penny
It took only $32 to create the largest chewing gum manufacturer in the world.
In the spring of 1891, William Wrigley Jr. moved to Chicago to begin his career as a salesman. The 29-year-old entrepreneur sold soap and, later, baking powder. When the chewing gum he offered as a premium became more popular with customers, he shifted the focus of his business to chewing gum.
Two years later, Wrigley debuted Juicy Fruit, the oldest brand in the Wrigley family. A few months later came Wrigley’s Spearmint. By 1908, sales of Wrigley's Spearmint brought in more than $1,000,000 a year.
Mars Incorporated has owned Wrigley since 2008. In 2016, the candy powerhouse announced that Wrigley would be merged with its chocolate segment to form a new subsidiary, Mars Wrigley Confectionery, uniting brands like Juicy Fruit, M&M’s, Skittles and Orbit.
In 1891: $32
In today’s dollars: $850+
Related: How to Know When to Give Up, When to Pivot and When to Persist
John Paul Mitchell Systems
It was 1980, and John Paul DeJoria and Paul Mitchell had an idea for a luxury haircare business. The men were looking for someone to invest $160,000 in their venture, but no one was interested. DeJoria and Mitchell decided to go it alone. With only $700 in their pockets, they founded John Paul Mitchell Systems.
The friends were determined to set the business apart. Their cruelty-free professional products were sold exclusively at salons with a money-back guarantee.
“Make sure your product or your service is the best there is,” DeJoria said in an interview with Entrepreneur. “With Paul Mitchell, it had to be a product so good that hairstylists that know more about hair than anyone else — and that is all we sell to. You never see Paul Mitchell in a drug store or supermarket."
The haircare company that began with two shampoos and a conditioner now sells over 100 products. John Paul Mitchell Systems has a presence in over 100 countries and products in over 100,000 salons in North America.
In 1980: $700
In today’s dollars: $2,180+
Related: Why Becoming a Billionaire Was 'No Big Deal' to This Entrepreneur
In 1984, Michael Dell founded Dell Computer in his dorm room at the University of Texas, Austin. He was only 19 years old.
″[I] started the company with $1,000 a week before I was taking my final exams as a freshman,” he told CNBC.
“Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea, but when you’re 19 years old, you haven’t developed all the skills you need in terms of judgment and rational thinking,” he added.
The young entrepreneur sold computers he customized. Soon, he was making $50,000 to $80,000 a month. He dropped out of school to focus on the growing business and never looked back.
Four years after launching in Dell's dorm room, the company went public. In 1992, the founder became the youngest CEO ever to earn a ranking on the Fortune 500. The multi-national company became Dell Technologies after a 2016 merger with EMC Corporation. Dell Technologies has a market cap of $37 billion.
In 1984: $1,000
In today’s dollars: $2,470+
Related: After Going Private, Entrepreneur Michael Dell Isn't Looking Back
The business that eventually became Papa John’s began in an odd location. In 1984, John Schnatter started the pizza restaurant in a broom closet in the back of his father’s tavern with $1,600 of used restaurant equipment.
“We were selling $5 pizzas out the back [and] 50-cent beers in the front,” he told Entrepreneur.
“The original goal for Papa John’s was to make $50 [thousand] a year and have $50 [thousand] in the bank so I could get a date,” he added.
To grow Papa John’s, Schnatter began to franchise. Papa John’s has more than 5,000 locations in 45 countries and territories around the world. The publicly-traded pizza chain has a market cap of more than $2 billion.
Schnatter no longer runs the company he founded. In 2017, he stepped down as CEO after he blamed bad sales on NFL player protests. Two years later, Schnatter resigned as chairman of the pizza chain after he admitted he used a racial slur. He remains one of Papa John’s largest shareholders.
In 1984: $1,600
In today’s dollars: $3,955+
Related: Papa John's Ex-CEO Says He Ate More Than 40 Pizzas in 30 Days and That 'The Day of Reckoning Will Come'
Dan and Frank Carney were unlikely entrepreneurs. Neither brother knew anything about the pizza business, but in 1958, they reportedly borrowed $600 from their mother to open a pizza place in Wichita, Kan.
Only two weeks before Dan and Frank’s store opened, they managed to find someone to teach them how to make pizza. They named the business Pizza Hut because their sign only had room for eight letters.
Despite their inexperience, the business was a hit. The Carney brothers eventually began to franchise. After its first decade in business, Pizza Hut grew to 310 locations. In 1971, Pizza Hut became the number one pizza restaurant chain in the world, as far as sales and number of restaurants.
In 1977, the brothers sold the company to PepsiCo for more than $300 million. Pizza Hut is now a subsidiary of Yum Brands, which also owns KFC and Taco Bell. Pizza Hut operates over 18,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries.
In 1958: $600
In today’s dollars: $5,330+
Related: 5 Things You Need to Know Before You Buy a Pizza Hut Franchise
Steve Jobs built a business that revolutionized the tech industry. It all started with an investment of $1,350. In 1975, Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak launched Apple in Jobs’s parents’ garage.
Jobs once said in an interview: “That’s why we started Apple. We said, 'You know, we have absolutely nothing to lose.' I was 20 years old at the time, Woz was 24 [or] 25, so we have nothing to lose. We have no families, no children, no houses. Woz had an old car. I had a Volkswagen van, I mean, all we were going to lose [was] our cars and the shirts off our [backs].”
By 1985, Jobs’ relationship with Apple had soured. Jobs resigned from the company that year. He came back to the tech giant in 1997 when Apple bought NeXT, the company then headed by Jobs.
Before Jobs passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2011, he left behind a legacy of innovation including the iPhone, iPad, iPod, iMac and iTunes. Apple is the world’s most valuable company, worth more a trillion dollars.
In 1975: $1,350
In today’s dollars: $6,450+
Related: Steve Jobs: An Extraordinary Career
In 1960, Tom Monaghan borrowed $900 to purchase "DomiNick's," a failing pizza store in Michigan, with his brother James. While Tom threw himself into the business, his brother grew tired of the grind. Almost a year later, James traded his half of the business to Tom for a Volkswagen Beetle. In 1965, Tom became the sole owner of the business and renamed it Domino’s Pizza.
At the helm of Domino’s, Tom served up the recipe for the pizza chain's success. He simplified Domino’s menu, set strict standards for ingredients, limited the number of sizes and toppings and offered delivery service in 30 minutes or less. By 1985, Domino’s was the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the United States.
In 1998, Monaghan retired and gave up ownership of the company to Bain Capital Inc. for an estimated $1 billion. Today, Domino’s has over 16,500 stores, including more than 10,000 outside the U.S.
In 1960: $900
In today’s dollars: $7,800+
Related: Why Domino's Doesn't Need to Go Full-On Fast Casual
John Johnson was on a mission to shape his own narrative. With a $500 loan he borrowed against his mother’s furniture, he started Johnson Publishing in 1942.
“On November 1, 1945, I started Ebony,” Johnson wrote in his autobiography Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman. “On November 1, 1951, I started Jet. In other Novembers and in other years, I founded Fashion Fair Cosmetics and Supreme Beauty Products and bought controlling shares in Supreme Life insurance Company, where I started my career as an office boy and a gopher.”
Johnson Publishing once enjoyed significant success, but in recent years, the company struggled. In 2016, Ebony and Jet were sold to a private equity firm. Three years later, Johnson Publishing filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In 2019, a consortium of foundations bought the Ebony and Jet photo archives for $30 million. Also this year, Fashion Fair Cosmetics was sold to two of its former executives and a hedge-fund founder for $1.85 million.
In 1942: $500
In today’s dollars: $7,880+
Related: John H. Johnson: The Voice of Black America
It all started with a pair of pantyhose, scissors and a bright idea.
Sara Blakely was trying on her pants in front of the mirror. She didn’t like the way she looked from behind. Blakely decided to wear her control-top pantyhose underneath the pants,with the feet cut out. That is how the footless body-shaping pantyhose Spanx was born.
Blakely started Spanx in 1998 with $5,000 of her own money. She was rejected by every manufacturing company she approached. Blakely continued to work her day job while she explored Spanx as a side hustle.
“A lot of people want to start big and think big and oftentimes get ahead of themselves,” she told students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “That can end wildly successful, but it can also cause a lot of problems. You dilute yourself down, and you have people you’re answering to.”
From rejection to reward: Spanx is now a household name. In its first year of operation, the company saw $4 million in revenue. Blakely is one of the youngest self-made billionaires.
In 1998: $5,000
In today’s dollars: $7,880+
Related: Spanx Founder Sara Blakely Has 99 Pages of Business Ideas
At age 17, Frank DeLuca knew nothing about how to make or sell sandwiches. But what the high school graduate did know is that he wanted to open a sandwich shop.
“I was not among the ‘poorest of the poor’ when I started my business,” DeLuca wrote in his book, Start Small Finish Big: Fifteen Key Lessons to Start — and Run — Your Own Successful Business. “But I had no money at the time, no collateral and no business savvy. I was a 17-year-old kid who needed to find a way to pay for his college education. I needed resources. When a family friend offered me a small loan to start a business selling submarine sandwiches, it made all of the difference in my life.”
That family friend was Dr. Peter Buck. In 1965, Buck loaned DeLuca $1,000 to start Pete’s Super Submarine in Conn., which would eventually become Subway.
For many customers, it was love at first bite. Subway rakes in billions of dollars in sales each year and has more than 40,000 locations around the world.
In 1965: $1,000
In today’s dollars: $8,160+
Related: How a 17-Year-Old With $1,000 Started Subway and Became a Billionaire
It all began with $372 and a 17-foot storefront.
In 1883, Barney Kroger used his life savings to open his first grocery store in downtown Cincinnati. Kroger traces its origins back to the Great Western Tea Company, founded by Kroger and B.A. Branagan. A year later, Kroger bought out his partner. 25 years after opening his first store, Kroger had more than 100 locations.
Kroger sought to revolutionize the grocery experience. His motto was, “Never sell anything you wouldn’t want yourself.” Kroger was the first grocer in the country to establish his own bakeries, as well as the first to sell meats and groceries under one roof.
Acquisitions have played a key role in Kroger’s growth, including the 1983 merger with Dillion Companies and the 1999 combination with Fred Meyer. Today, Kroger has nearly 2,500 stores in 31 states.
In 1883: $372
In today’s dollars: $9,450+
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In 1939, Hewlett-Packard began in a garage in Palo Alto, Calif. Founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard became friends when they were engineering students at Stanford University.
Hewlett-Packard’s first breakthrough product was an audio oscillator. The device caught the eye of Walt Disney Studios, which used it to produce the feature film Fantasia.
“At the end of 1939, our first full year in business, our sales totaled $5,369, and we had made $1,563 in profits,” said David Packard in his book The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company. “We would show a profit every year thereafter.”
Hewlett and Packard formalized their partnership in 1939 and decided on the company name with a coin toss. The co-founders pooled their cash and equipment and started the business with $538.
In 2015, Hewlett-Packard split into two companies. It spun off its enterprise products and services business as Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Hewlett-Packard kept its personal computer and printer businesses and renamed it HP.
In 1939: $538
In today’s dollars: $9,950+
Related: William Hewlett & David Packard: Maverick Managers
Nike began as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964. Bill Bowerman, a track-and-field coach at the University of Oregon, and Phil Knight, his former student, founded the company with a $1,200 investment.
Knight was trying to get his business — importing running shoes from Japan — off the ground. At a lunch meeting, Knight showed his former coach the Onitsuka Tiger shoes he'd recently received, and Bowerman liked the shoes so much that he brought up a partnership.
“I looked at him. In? Deal? It took me a moment to absorb and understand what he was saying,” Knight wrote in his memoir, Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike. “He didn’t merely want to buy a dozen Tigers for his team, he wanted to become — my partner? Had God spoken from the whirlwind and asked to be my partner, I wouldn’t have been more surprised. I stammered and stuttered and said yes.”
The multi-national corporation that began with selling footwear also designs, manufactures and sells sporting apparel, goods, accessories and equipment. Nike has a market cap of almost $126 billion.
In 1964: $1200
In today’s dollars: $9,950+
Related: 12 Quotes on Leadership, Passion, Hard Work and More from the Entrepreneur Behind Nike Phil Knight