3 Inspiring Businesses That Started Small

Sometimes the best businesses are spawned from a very simple idea.

There may be lots of complexities getting from idea stage to setting up a business, and the journey to gain market share can be a real struggle, but ultimately the simple idea is the springboard to success.

We have chosen three companies whose simple ideas led to massive success while positively disrupting their marketplace.

Dollar Shave Club made distribution of shaving products a subscription service. Tough Mudder built a loyal tribe by embracing the idea of community. And Stripe took the hassle out of making online payments.

We found each of these stories inspiring for two reasons; firstly their journey to success but equally, the simplicity of the ideas that launched them.

Dollar Shave Club

This story is a great starting point for our list.

Dollar Shave Club was a start-up idea that went from nothing to a billion-dollar sale in just 5 years.

In round numbers the global razor blade market is worth about $7 billion annually. The US accounts for $3billion of that market and one company, Gillette, owned by Proctor & Gamble accounts for about two thirds of the US market.

Enter the DSC

The idea for this company was generated over a few drinks at a party in 2011.

Michael Dubin was complaining about the cost of shaving in general and the ridiculous security measures involved in buying razor blades.

Mark Levine was describing how he had a warehouse full of quality shaving products that he was trying to offload after a failed business venture.

The two men adopted the subscription business model. Members who signed up to the Dollar Shave Club would have fresh grooming products posted to them every month for a fraction of the price that traditional retailers were charging for the same products.

About a year later, with the business up and running, orders were coming in but not at the level the founders had hoped for.

The Video

Dubin, using his 8 years of improv stand-up comedy training, wrote and starred in a video ad. In his attempt to make his company stand out he created the tongue in cheek classic.

With a modest promotional budget, the video went viral leading to 12,000 views in the 48 hours after the video went live on YouTube, which resulted in their website crashing.

Once the idea took hold, the company would grow to command approximately 60% of the online razor blade market.

In 2016 Unilever reportedly paid $1 billion for Dollar Shave Club. The acquisition gave Unilever a 16% stake in the razor blade market overnight.

Wall Street analysts remarked that “Unilever are parking their tanks on P&G’s lawn in one of their most profitable categories.”

Gillette responded by adjusting their price. On their website they credited their customer base for the price move – “You told us our blades can be too expensive and we listened”.

The rise of Dollar Shave Club and its purchase by Unilever probably had something to do with their decision too.

Tough Mudder

Imagine your company is so inspiring that people get your logo tattooed on their body. That has happened over 20,000 times with the Tough Mudder logo.

Tough Mudder was the brain child of Will Dean while he was studying at Harvard Business School. He asked fellow Brit, Guy Livingstone, who also lived in New York to help him build the company.

Dean wanted to embrace the principles of his former career as a counter terrorism officer. He wanted to create a physical challenge based on team work, not leaving anyone behind and working together to achieve collective goals.

Up and running, literally

Tough Mudder held its inaugural event at Bear Creek Ski Resort, Pennsylvania in May 2010 that saw participants try to complete 20 obstacles across a 10-mile course. The organisers had run some modest promotional campaigns on Facebook and expected approximately 500 people would turn up. After 5,000 people attempted the course they realised they were on to something.

They ran 3 events in 2010, 14 in 2011 and 35 in 2012. Midway through 2013 they received their on millionth event registration.

While the growth in participants and therefore the company was beyond expectations, Dean noticed he may have an issue with his demographics.


The people who took part in the events were predominantly 20-something males. While this still equates to a potential global market of hundreds of millions, it was a very narrow cohort of the population.

Dean had a dilemma.

The Tough Mudder product set needed an easier event that would appeal to those outside the young male demographic.

He was conscious that Tough Mudder had been built on a community that had revelled in the sense of achievement of completing a massive physical endeavour. He did not want to dilute this feeling among the community by launching a “lessor” event.

So, Dean doubled down and broadened the product set by adding a much more challenging event called The World’s Toughest Mudder.

This was a race that challenged participants to do as many laps of the course as possible in 24 hours. Typically, the winner will have travelled over 100 miles in doing so.

Now, no one could doubt their commitment to creating genuinely challenging courses and events.

Even more products

The company went on to develop a total of 7 courses.

  1. Challenge Series
    1. Mini Mudder
    2. Tough Mudder 5K
    3. Tough Mudder 5 Mile
    4. Tough Mudder Full
  2. Race Series
    1. Tougher Mudder
    2. Toughest Mudder
    3. World’s Toughest Mudder

Today 500,000 people take part in Tough Mudder events every year with a gender split of 60% male, 40% female. The completion rate across all events is approximately 78%.

Rather than diluting the brand by designing easier events, Tough Mudder have found the shorter courses are excellent recruiting vehicles for the longer, tougher events.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2016 Dean noticed that about 15% of people who sign up for an event don’t show up. A common reason for not participating was the people had failed to train properly and weren’t confident they would last the course.

At the same time, Tough Mudder were issuing hundreds of ‘cease and desist’ letters to gyms that claimed to be running ‘official Tough Mudder’ training programmes.

As there were no official programmes, Dean created one by converting a floor of the Tough Mudder office in New York into a gym. He then invited people who had signed up to events to come and train there.

They designed a series of specific workouts tailored around four fitness pillars: strength, power, agility and endurance. Tough Mudder Bootcamp is now a successful franchise business and another source of recruitment for the events.

By focusing on the community aspect rather than the fitness, Dean created a loyal tribe and a global business.


The story of Stripe and the Collison brothers is nothing short of remarkable.

By the time John and Patrick were 20 years old they had become millionaires, shaken up the tech community and revolutionised the world of online payments.

If there is an underlying theme to their route to the top it’s ‘let’s keep it simple’.

School will only teach you so much

Having accomplished so much in business you’d probably expect to see a glittering academic career in the lead up to their professional life.

The older of the brothers, Patrick did win the 41st Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in 2005 for his project that created Croma, a LISP programming language. John returned to finish secondary school in 2009 to complete his Irish Leaving Certificate and received 8 A1 and 2 A2 grades in the examination. But the education system was a bit of a distraction.

John had taken a break from education to set up a software company, called Shuppa, with his brother who had already left school.

Shuppa eventually merged with other developer projects and became Auctomatic.

In 2008 Auctomatic was acquired by a Canadian company making John (17) and Patrick (19) millionaires at the time.

Embrace the grind

Their real education happened outside of the classroom.

Having taken their first classes in computing while still at primary school, the brothers became self-taught coders in the 2000’s by building websites and continually having side projects on the go with school work.

They were increasingly frustrated with state-of-the-art websites (for the time) having antiquated payment systems. This meant that visitors from Ireland quite often could not make purchases from a US website.

It was during their years developing Shuppa that the brothers joined up with Y Combinator, a seed capital accelerator company. Y Combinator have played a role in helping the likes of Dropbox, Airbnb, Coinbase and Reddit get up and running.

After the sale of Shuppa/Auctomatic, the brothers enrolled in the prestigious MIT and Harvard universities in Massachusetts.

By this stage the brothers had been discussing for years the idea of making payments online a whole lot easier. The ‘keep it simple’ mantra appeared to go into overdrive.

In 2010 John and Patrick co-founded Stripe and reconnected with Y Combinator for funding. They both realised that further education was not going to add to their start-up journey and both dropped out of their university courses.

In June 2010, Stripe received seed capital from Y Combinator to get up and running. In May 2011 they received a $2 million investment from venture capitalists Peter Thiel, Sequoia Capital, and Andreessen Horowitz.

Sequoia Capital are one of the longest running and most successful venture capital companies in Silicon Valley. They first became aware of the brothers Collison when they were injecting some money into some Y Combinator programmes in 2009. Sequoia Capital have invested in over 250 companies since 1972, including Apple, Google, Oracle, PayPal, YouTube, Instagram, Yahoo! and WhatsApp.

“Founders build roads, not cars”

When they began working on Stripe, the Collison’s thought they were working on a narrow problem that software developers encounter. They set out to solve a problem rather than build a business. Patrick is often quoted as saying “Founders build roads, not cars”.

There were some online payments systems in existence at the time, but installation was cumbersome, the product features were limited, and they didn’t deal with all e-commerce platforms. Stripe works seamlessly with its pre-built integrations system and numerous product features available to all platforms.

Stripe offers a simple and straightforward pricing scheme with no setup or monthly fees. Instead, they charge a small fee on each transaction. With Stripe now processing billions of transactions and having received more rounds of funding, the company is currently valued at $9bn.

Can we help your idea grow?

If you are looking for one provider to get your business connected in every way, look no further than Virgin Media Business. We want to be the only telecoms partner you’ll need. We have an award-winning support structure to make sure all your needs are catered for.

Find out more about our small business broadband, phone, Wi-Fi and TV services or contact our team to discuss where you want your business to go next and how we can help.