Moonshots and ideas that would never work are discussed in every company, with two of the most famous that made it to implementation being inventing the digital camera and then discarding it or giving away all product marketing rights to Star Wars which would then go on to net over $3 billion. However, the difference between a dumb idea and a great one is judged only on success.
There are people who have had seemingly ridiculous ideas which then go on to net them or their companies huge rewards. We take a look at some of the ideas that seemed bizarre at the time but went on to be hugely successful.
Whilst at a bar in the 1970s, Gary Dahl found his friends were annoyed at having to constantly look after their pets. Feeding them, taking them to the vets, walking them, and so forth, were hassles that they didn’t really want. So Gary had the idea of a pet rock, something people could look after but without needing to worry about leaving them when on holiday, feeding them, or them attacking a passerby.
It sounds like a dumb idea, but the reality is that the gimmicky product made Dahl a hefty $15 million in 6 months, selling more 5 million of them in a short time in 1975. After this initial rush the reality of what people were actually spending their money on hit home and sales dried up, but given the huge profit margins (they sold for $3.95 and with a $15 million profit, it suggests roughly a 76% profit on every ‘pet’ sold) Dahl walked away set for life, with a fortune equivalent to around $70 million today.
When Gmail and Chrome were released, both bucked all business sense. Gmail was entering a world where Hotmail, Yahoo, and AOL dominated the email world, with hundreds of millions of people already using the services for their email needs. Chrome entered a world where Internet Explorer, Safari, and Firefox similarly dominated the browser landscape, with a huge majority of internet users using one of the three browsers.
Therefore a fledgling search engine moving into either of these areas seemed at best ill-advised and at worst suicidal. What actually happened was that what was seen as a saturated market was soon blown wide open thanks to the massive improvements that Chrome and Gmail brought. Gmail, for instance, allowed people to keep emails forever whilst still being searchable, whilst Chrome integrated seamlessly into these accounts and allowed for extensions to be added, whilst not needing any kind of software updates to run effectively.
What makes this so impressive was that the idea and foundations for both came from Google’s 20% initiative, where they allow employees to dedicate 20% of their time to new projects.
Elon Musk is a man who made his money through firstly a web software company, then a payment company, before beginning to go full moonshot in his ideas.
The first of two in this list is Tesla, with the innovative Musk aiming to bring electric cars to the mass market. This he has achieved, with the company now safely the best known purely electrical vehicle manufacturer in the world. However, the company didn’t simply stop there, instead, the next logical step was house tiles.
It seems like an odd move, but one that is likely to pay off, with the accompanying ‘power wall’ already having a long waiting list after its launch in April 2015. Given that Tesla’s aim is to slow down global warming, it seems that this will be a moonshot that pays off.
The lingerie and underwear market is one that from the outside would appear to be clearly saturated. You have been able to buy almost every type of underwear you can think of for decades, everything from tights through to knickers and boxer shorts are available from most clothing stores. So when Sara Blakely looked to enter the market in 2000 with Spanx, armed with nothing but a pair of pantyhose with the feet cut off, it seemed like the farthest of far-fetched ideas that the company would be a success.
Fast forward 12 years later and Sara Blakely is sat atop the lingerie Pyramid, having become the youngest ever self-made female billionaire. Spanx is now a household name with annual sales in 2012 of $250m - not bad for a company started during the dot-com recession of the late 2000’s in a market that many would have perceived to be totally saturated.
The second of Elon Musk’s moonshot ideas and this one is very literally a moonshot, is SpaceX.
When starting the company, Musk wanted to start making reusable rockets and reducing the costs of space travel, whether that involves launching satellites or taking people to space. Historically, this has been a government agency job, whether that’s NASA in the US or Roscosmos in Russia, so the idea of a private company taking on this role seemed incredibly far-fetched.
Even with Elon Musk’s considerable wealth at the time of founding, the cost of doing this, combined with budget cuts to NASA and space exploration losing its lustre, seemed like it would be prohibitive, especially when you consider that one space shuttle program costs upwards of $200 billion, well beyond anything a private company could sustainably afford.
However, with the increasing necessity of satellites and the funding cuts to international space organizations, the company began to grow and its reusable rockets became a more reliable and cheaper way of getting things into orbit. It has seen the company reach a valuation of $12 billion in 2015.