Three inspiring companies that launched in hard times


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Starting a business at any time is challenging enough. And with the current global economic uncertainty, many startups may decide to hold off for a while until things pick up again.

Yet some of the most successful businesses in the world started out during hard and turbulent times. It’s those very challenges that can define a true entrepreneur, and push them to adapt, diversify and seek out new opportunities.

Disney, Netflix, and Airbnb are three inspirational examples of global-leading corporations that not only survived during economic uncertainty but went on to thrive. Here’s what you can learn from them.

1. Disney

When it comes to the entertainment industry, the Walt Disney Company is perhaps the most iconic global brand in existence. Consistently among the top on Fortune’s list of ‘World’s Most Admired Companies’, Disney is particularly regarded for its global competitiveness, people management, social responsibility, and long-term investment value.

One of America’s most profitable companies, the Disney enterprise today has a market worth of over $USD 203.61 billion.

Learn from failures and mistakes

However, the road to Walt Disney’s success was a long and rocky one. At the age of 22, he was fired from a newspaper job for not being creative enough. His first animation company went bust in the early 1920s, and his attempt to pursue an acting career in California also failed.

Undeterred, Disney was determined to learn from his failures, and pursue his animation dream. In 1923, he began making a cartoon series which had mild success with distributors. He then found further success with a cartoon character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unfortunately, Disney misread his contract with distributor Universal Studios, who took away his ownership rights, leaving him with nothing more than mounting debts. Disney learned a hard lesson and vowed never to make the same mistake again, ensuring from then on that he had ownership of everything he created.

If it’s not working, change it

Living on little more than beans and dogged determination, Disney wouldn’t give up on his dream. On the cusp of America’s Great Depression, in 1928, the Disney Studios created, what was to become the most iconic and beloved cartoon character ever – Mickey Mouse. However, Disney struggled to sell the concept to an industry that was evolving from silent films to sound. In fact, the world’s most famous mouse was rejected 300 times by bankers.

Instead of surrendering to the troubled times, Disney persevered with the belief that Americans needed a smile more than ever. Adapting quickly to the challenge, Disney made ‘Steamboat Willy’ – his first animated movie with synchronised sound . The movie opened to rave reviews, and as people flocked to see it, the Mickey Mouse legend was born.

Find new ways to diversify

The success of the Disney enterprise through adverse times, including the Second World War, is down to the vision and sheer determination of the man himself. Diversifying his business and branching out to merchandising, television and the world’s first ‘theme park’, ensured that Disney’s legacy would continue.

The man who believed that troubles and obstacles can strengthen us, and a ‘kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you’, is an inspiration for all businesses facing difficult times. It’s not enough to just stay afloat and survive, but to thrive on challenges, make them define you, and use them to strengthen your business.

2. Netflix

Founded in 1997, Netflix started its days as a mail order DVD rental service, providing an online alternative to high street video rental stores like ‘Blockbuster’.

Offer an alternative business model

Customers could browse videos online, receive them by mail, keep them for as long as they wanted, then simply post them back in order to rent out another. This model offered something that Blockbuster didn’t – a subscription-based service with unlimited rentals and no late fees.

Today, Blockbuster is no longer with us, and Netflix is worth an estimated $USD 85 billion.

Adapt to shifts in technology

The next few years were tough for Netflix. At the height of the dot.com bubble, with internet companies failing around them, the company could only manage to hold on to a meagre user base, and began losing money.

Struggling to survive, the company turned to rivals Blockbuster and offered to sell them a stake in the startup. They were turned down.

With little to lose, Netflix made a bold and ambitious move. The company changed course and moved away from the DVD rental market. In 2007, thanks to faster internet delivery, and outbidding traditional studios for original content, Netflix invested in a little-known concept at the time: ‘streaming’.

By adapting to the rapid technological changes, and creating a new business model, Netflix not only survived, but thrived. Blockbuster, refusing to innovate, filed for bankruptcy in 2010 – the same year that Netflix began its overseas expansion.

3. Airbnb

In 2007, with an upcoming major design conference in town and most hotels booked out, two roommates came up with the idea of renting out air mattresses in their San Francisco apartment, to help pay the rent and ‘make a few bucks’. That idea transformed into a global business which is now worth over $USD 79 billion.

Start simple

A basic website and three blow-up air mattresses set up in the loft space of their apartment were all Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky needed to attract their very first guests, who paid $80 each for their stay.  With the help of former roommate and fellow co-founder, Nathan Blecharczyk, the friends created a more professional online platform. And in the summer of 2008, Airbnb, as we know it, was launched.

Find innovative ways to fundraise

However, the US economy was experiencing a major downturn at the time, and the friends struggled to find initial funding for their venture. They came up with an ingenious idea of creating and selling special edition cereals during the Obama/McCain Presidential election campaign. With the help of crowdfunding, the trio’s cereals raised more than $30,000 to kickstart their Airbnb business.

Create a hook

Managing to secure further funding, the trio focused on marketing their business. They found their ideal target audience on popular classified site, Craigslist.

Airbnb’s initial marketing strategy is a contentious issue, with accusations that they hacked the Craigslist site – but the simple fact remains they hooked customers with something that the existing ads on Craigslist lacked: better quality photos, more detailed descriptions, and a more personal approach. The strategy worked, and the Airbnb website began gaining more traffic.

Once you’ve hooked them, offer more

As popularity for the site grew on home ground, the next move was to extend it to cities around the world.

Focusing on excellent customer service, the company began offering a more comprehensive service. New programmes were introduced to give users a taste of local neighbourhoods to help them enjoy a more authentic experience in the cities they were visiting. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Airbnb launched initiatives and introduced protocols to support both hosts and guests in a difficult time. The company continues to evolve by introducing new features that make life easier for both hosts and guests.

Today Airbnb has more than 4 million hosts listed in over 220 countries and regions across the world. By creating a unique niche which focused on the needs of both the hosts and guests, three college friends have managed to revolutionise and revive an established yet stagnant hospitality industry at a time when it needed it the most.

It’s true that the last few years have been tough. And maybe there are harder times to come. But learn from those that have been there.  If you can spot a gap in the market, are willing to adapt, and face challenges head-on, you may find opportunity in adversity that could lead to entrepreneurial success.