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10 Business Success Stories and What They Teach Entrepreneurs

The path to starting your own business isn’t always smooth—just ask these entrepreneurs. Sometimes, it helps to hear some business success stories, especially when you’re mired in the details of creating a business plan, getting a business loan, or finding a space. Even the most successful businesses—small, medium, and large alike—went through their share of challenges. And it can be so helpful to remind yourself you’re not crazy for feeling overwhelmed.

When you’re deep in the weeds of starting up, it can be easy to think about quitting. To comfort and inspire you, take a look at these 10 businesses success stories, and what you can take away from each—especially when the going is toughest.

1. Spark Vision, founded by MaryBeth Hyland

Spark Vision’s small business success story:

MaryBeth Hyland started her company Spark Vision to help offices and businesses create and maintain collaborative and inclusive office cultures. Specializing in millennial engagement, Hyland and Spark Vision offer one-time workshops to help offices foster collaboration and connections among workers.

A child of abuse, Hyland has faced a lot of challenges to her self-worth and confidence. She uses her survival daily as a way to motivate her to succeed in business, drawing on the experience of her past to connect with the people she works with. According to her website, Hyland says she thinks that her experience makes her more successful in her company.

The take away:

Everyone has a past—and not all are good. But whatever you’ve gone through, using your background and experience to inform your business can be great, even if your experiences aren’t. In Hyland’s case, she uses a troubled childhood to motivate and drive her, and her business benefits from it.

2. Zoom, founded by Eric Yuan

The business success story:

Eric Yuan came to the US from China in the mid ‘90s to pursue the internet boom—but it took a while to get here. The first eight times he applied for a visa, he was denied. Finally on the ninth attempt he was approved, but the process lasted two years. 

In 2012, after working for a Silicon Valley communication startup for years prior, Yuan founded the communication platform ZoomIn an interview with Thrive Global, Yuan says that Zoom started as a daydream, a solution to a long distance relationship that required a 10-hour train ride to see the other. 

Now, Zoom is used by more than 750,000 companies to keep their teams connected through video and audio conferencing, collaborative work spaces, chat, and more. The real-time, face-to-face aspect of Zoom makes it easier for companies to stay in touch, so people can work from home or distributed across other parts of the world.

The take away:

Yuan’s difficult visa experience is a reality for many immigrants. But it’s also a testament to what can happen if you’re persistent and willing to keep trying. Whether you’re applying for an official document like a visa or a permit, or you’re simply trying to solve a difficult problem, trying over and over again will yield results—even if it takes a few years.

3. Halfaker & Associates, founded by Dawn Halfaker

The small business success story:

Halfaker & Associates is a Virginia-based contractor dealing with data analytics, cybersecurity, software engineering, and IT infrastructure for the federal government. After being wounded in combat in Iraq, Halfaker worked on Capitol Hill and with various other contractors, looking for a way to still work with the military even after being medically retired.

As a veteran herself, Halfaker knows firsthand what troops in combat need to be successful, and she saw a disconnect between those needs and what people in Washington could provide. This inspired her to start her own company and offer real world, common sense solutions to help the military be more effective.

The take away:

Halfaker’s story is a clear example of perseverance and getting back up after life knocks you down, and of what can be achieved with determination. But maybe what’s most important here is her commitment to her community—and how it benefits not only those around her, but strengthens her business, too. By hiring veterans and wounded warriors, Halfaker betters her company through their experience and expertise.  And, as she puts it, “It makes good business sense.” 

4. Night Owl Cleaning Services, founded by Arlete Turturro

The small business sucsess story:

Arlete Turturro has a degree in merchandising from the Fashion Institute of Technology, and a real estate license from Queens College. But these days she’s not working in fashion or real estate. She’s the owner of Night Owl Cleaning Services, and has been for nearly three decades.

Night Owl offers a huge array of services, like commercial cleaning, providing party attendants, plus 24-hour emergency services, too. Turturro was featured by the Westchester Business Journal and awarded their Woman of the Year Award in 2004. She’s still going strong.

The take away:

You can plan for a certain future—and end up in a totally different place. In Turturro’s case, she changed fields, somewhat drastically, a few different times before finding the business that worked for her. And it’s paid off.

Staying flexible and open to new possibilities can lead to great things—as can hard work. Starting off by cleaning homes and offices by yourself on the weekends isn’t the most glamorous job in the world, but it is an important one, and it led to Turturro owning her own business.

5. Xaviar’s Restaurant Group, founded by Peter X. Kelly

The business success story:

Peter X. Kelly is a self-taught chef. He didn’t go to culinary school, but his four restaurants and catering business bring in around $10 million in sales a year. He beat Bobby Flay in 2006 and rose to become an Iron Chef (no small feat, as any Food Network fans can tell you). He became the chef of the Highlands Country Club in Garrison, NY at 23 years old. When asked if he was nervous to be so young in such a position, he said he knew he could pick up and try something else if he failed.

He didn’t fail. Quite to opposite, actually. He went on to open Xaviars at Piermont and the Freelance Cafe & Wine Bar (both sold in 2016), as well as X2O Xaviars on Hudson in Yonkers and Restaurant X & Bully Boy Bar in Congers. Restaurants are risky, as anyone who wants to open one will hear over and over again. But in Kelly’s case, the risk paid off. Kelly is also a vinter (a wine merchant) and the founder and culinary director of Impromptu Gourmet, which delivers chef-inspired foods made with real, fresh ingredients to your door.

The take away:

Entering the workforce can be challenging in any field, but especially one as competitive as the culinary world. Kelly dove in without any formal training, instead starting his career washing dishes and working his way up. He knocked on doors, talked to the right people, and eventually landed on his feet. This approach doesn’t work for all fields, but it’s also not an uncommon story. If you’re willing to put in the work and learn by doing, you might be able to make it big.

6. CorpNet, founded by Nellie Alkap

The business success story:

Nellie Akalp is the founder of not one but two hugely successful companies—plus mom of four, author, and speaker. Even though entrepreneurs just starting out are often advised not to go into business with their partners, she and her husband started a company, MyCorporation.com, in their living room, which they then sold to Intuit in 2005.

Then, rather than retiring on that sale, Akalp launched another company: CorpNet. CorpNet aims to help potential small business owners by preparing and filing the documents necessary to starting a business in any state. For those already started, CorpNet can help with ongoing paperwork like filling annual reports, changing a company name, and more.

The take away:

In Alkap and her husband’s case, ignoring advice not to go into business together resulted in a hugely successful company and a $20 million dollar sale. When you’re starting a business, you’re being inundated with advice from all sides—the internet, other business owners, family and friends. But in the end, you have to make your own informed decisions. Listen to advice from people who’ve been there before, definitely. But also remember that you’ve done your homework, and can ignore the advice if it isn’t right for you.

7. GooRoo, founded by Scott Lee

The Story:

GooRoo is an online platform for finding tutors, for everything from basic reading and writing skills to SAT prep to college admission essays and more. GooRoo has more than 1,000 tutors in New York and has facilitated upwards of 3,500 sessions. And those numbers keep growing.

Scott Lee founded his first company, Peertutor.co.kr, while he was still in high school in South Korea. Since then, he’s gone back to serve in the Korean army, founded an online clothing retailer, worked for JP Morgan, and served as an advisor for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. After everything, he’s come back to his roots in education to found GooRoo and offer affordable education services to people that need it—and can do it better with all of his worldly experience.

The take away:

Make sure you get a diverse set of experiences in order to help you run your business best. As Lee says, all of his experiences helped him be a better CEO when he came back to what he knew he wanted to do in high school. Of course, you don’t have to abandon ship and return to the roost, but you do want to make sure you incorporate outside-the-box experiences so you can have outside-the-box thinking.

8. Red Rabbit, founded by Rhys Powell

The small business success story:

Founded in 2005 by a former Wall Street trader, Red Rabbit’s mission is to provide healthy, nutritious meals to school children. Red Rabbit partners with different schools to offer students made-from-scratch meals at affordable prices.

Powell started Red Rabbit after talking to parents who were struggling to consistently find healthy meal options for their children. Initially, the business plan was to have parents order meals online and then they’d be delivered to school. They quickly realized that doing things this way had a lot of costs and not a lot of return, so they switched their model and had the schools be the main customer instead of parents. Now, Red Rabbit delivers more than 20,000 fresh meals to students every day.

The take away:

By switching his focus from the parents to the schools themselves, Powell was able to increase profits and lower Red Rabbit’s overhead cost. Being flexible and receptive to market changes is crucial to the success of your small business. No matter how thoroughly you plan and how well you stick to that plan, sometimes you’ll need to make adjustments. But if you stay flexible, your changes might pay off in major ways.

9. Wine & Design, founded by Harriet Mills

The business success story:

In 2010, Harriet Mills had a young child and had just gotten laid off from her sales representative job. Rather than panic, she took a breath—and a paint-and-sip class. As she enjoyed the outing with some girlfriends, she realized that group painting just for fun was a largely untapped area. Now, her own take on the idea, Wine & Design, has almost 80 franchise locations across the country, offering a range of events including children’s parties and corporate get-togethers.

The take away:

Always be looking for the market whitespace to fill—that’s where your business is going to see success. And if you’re looking to start a business, pivot, or grow one, your opportunities may come when you’re not looking for them. Heighten your senses for the areas within your own life that could use a little boost to start.

10. GrubHub and Seamless, founded by Matt Maloney and Jason Finger

This ain’t your momma’s picnic #EarthDay #EatOutside 📷: @peachonomics

A post shared by Grubhub (@grubhub) on

The business success story:

GrubHub has been operating since 2004, founded by two web developers who were tired of keeping track of paper menus and reading their credit card numbers on the phone. Seamless, under the GrubHub umbrella as of August 2013, has a similar origin story—just replace web developers with lawyers.

Today, GrubHub and Seamless combined serve from 80,000 local takeout restaurants in more than 1,600 cities in the US. They also have a corporate catering wing, so you can order larger-scale meals on a company card to the office in addition to their original single-meal model. But although they are the same parent company, they operate as separate brand. And this is a deliberate choice.

The take away:

Don’t reinvent the wheel—or your brand, in this case—if you don’t have to. If the easiest answer is answer is simplest, don’t question it. When GrubHub and Seamless merged, they decided to continue to keep the two brands distinct. GrubHub founder Matt Maloney explains that both brands had good awareness and success independently of each other, just in different cities. By keeping both brands, they didn’t have to spend time or money rebranding or re-marketing either company.

What Small Business Owners Can Learn From These Success Stories

Although all these businesses have different backstories and circumstances, there’s a common thread tying them together: the road to business success isn’t an easy one. You’ll experience hardship, obstacles, detractors, and decisions that seem impossible—but with hard work, smart planning, and a great idea you believe in, you can get yourself on the road to success.

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Lauren Diethelm

Lauren Diethelm is a writer living in New York.

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