YouTube started as a dating website. Most people don’t remember that or had no idea that today’s second-largest search engine got its start with the aim for romance.
Good thing that didn’t work out. Instead, the three PayPal employees who started the video-sharing website became millionaires, and YouTube has changed the Internet.
More video content is uploaded to YouTube in a 60-day period than the three major U.S. television networks created in 60 years. YouTube was part of Time’s Person of the Year in 2006: You, and has since continued to grow.
YouTube’s creators have since laughed while explaining their initial thoughts behind the site. When no one wanted to upload dating videos, they opened it up to anyone. “Why not let the users define what YouTube is all about?” one founder said.
That one thought is the difference between a failed dating website no one has ever heard of and the billion dollar site we watch today.
Stumbling Into Success
YouTube’s creators aren’t the only ones who wandered their way into the business history books.
PayPal was initially supposed to be a cryptography company. Later its leaders tried focusing on transmitting money via Personal Digital Assistants. It took years for them to become the online payment system we know today.
McDonald’s started as a carhop business, selling mostly barbecue sandwiches.
When Facebook first launched, it was only open to college students. While some users probably preferred that, it left little room for growth.
Odeo began as a network where people could find and subscribe to podcasts. Today we call it Twitter.
Nintendo once sold all sorts of things, including vacuum cleaners and instant rice, and operated a hotel and a taxi company.
Common Themes: What Made Them Successful
At Imaginovation, we’re interested in that fine line between failed and successful enterprise. After all, what if YouTube’s founders had just given up on the idea? After reading some of these “stumbling success” stories, here are the themes we notice:
The Pivot – The McDonald’s noticed that burgers were the most popular item on the menu. Rather than focusing on what got them started, they switched gears and dumped the barbecue. Similarly, YouTube’s founders realized the people were telling them what YouTube should be, not the other way around.
Kleenex has a similar famous story; it was invented as a disposable cleaning cloth. Women wrote in saying they found it valuable as a disposable handkerchief. Founders of many companies are hung up on their idea, one they “just know people will love,” and yet never achieve success because they don’t listen to what customers want.
Chance – Everyone has random bits of good luck in life. Not everyone uses them. Isadore Sharp, who founded the Four Seasons hotel chain, worked in construction. A friend hired him to build a motel. But then he took a chance and opened one himself.Later, another opportunity came along: working with the builder of the Dorchester, an upscale hotel in London. Then, he had the chance to hire that builder for his next project. “Many parts of our lives are circumscribed by chance events and coincidences,” he said.
Determination – You might call it grit. The founders of Google tried to sell their new project to Excite in 1999 for $1 million. They were turned down. J.K. Rowling is famous for having submitted her book to dozens of publishers before getting a deal. Those who succeed typically keep going, even in the face of what appears to be a setback.
Connections – It never hurts to know people. Arthur Murray of dance lesson fame was a private dance instructor until he was asked in 1914 to teach Baroness de Kuttleson. Word of this spread and eventually led to the franchise. Whether the person you know is famous or not, the connections you make can take you in new directions.