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The multi-billion-pound businesses which started life in garages

5 min read

11 November 2014

Every company needs a place to start, and for each of these six it was the trusted confines of a family garage or garden shed.

For most of us the garage is a place to let the spiders take over those barely used garden tools and put stuff you don’t to have in the house or can’t part with. Yet for these entrepreneurs the humble garage provided the first home to world-beating businesses that are now worth billions of pounds. 

Harley Davidson

At the turn of the 20th century 21-year-old William Harley completed the design of an engine which would fit into a bicycle. Two years later Harley produced the first Harley Davidson in a 10 x 15 foot wooden shed with the words “Harley-Davidson Motor Company” crudely scrawled on the door.

It took just a few years for Harley to outgrow the businesses humble beginnings and open a new factory, which wasn’t that much more impressive, but at least increased the square footage fourteen-fold and provided the space for six new employees. 

Hewlett-Packard

HP refers to the HP Garage where the company had its humble beginnings as “the birthplace of Silicon Valley”. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started their partnership there in 1939 and in the mid-noughties the company restored the site to its original state

Hewlett had a background working for General Electric in New York, while Packard was employed as a Stanford research assistant to develop medical equipment. The two decided to “make a run for it” business-wise in 1938 and they picked the apartment on Addison Avenue because it has a garage they could both work in. The pair had $538 in working capital to develop an audio oscillator, Hewlett-Packard’s first product. Today the company has a market value of $68bn. 

Mattel

The world’s most famous doll manufacturer started producing picture frames in a garage workshop in 1945. Doll house furniture was a side-line, but its success led to shifting the focus to toys like the Uke-A-Doodle. 

By the end of the decade things had become more formal. The company was incorporated, moved to a new headquarters and made the market-leading decision to start promoting its story through the Mickey Mouse Club, which changed the way toys were marketed for ever. Barbie made her first appearance shortly after in 1959. 

Apple

Apple is one a slew of software start-ups which were started in garages in California, including Microsoft and Google. The garage where Steve Jobs and Stever Wozniak started designing and building computers was designated as a historic site late last year. 

It was the childhood home of Jobs and is just ten miles from the original home of Hewlett-Packard. The company has stayed true to its roots and Apple’s corporate headquarters, a campus with six buildings that total 850,000 square feet in floor space, is located in the middle of Silicon Valley.

Nike

Legend has it the world’s most famous trainer company was launched when founder Bill Bowerman poured urethane rubber into a waffle iron. The iron was ruined, but the waffle-sole design went into production in the mid-1970s. 

The experiment was just part of the process of building a business. Co-founder Phil Knight was selling imported trainers at track meets from the back of his pick-up truck. The two businessmen were in the right place at the right time too and the expertise they gained from modifying foreign sneakers helped them take advantage of the physical fitness mania which swept through the country.

Lotus

Building multi-million-pound businesses from garden sheds and garages isn’t just for residents of sun-soaked suburbs in California, international car manufacturer Lotus was launched from a garage in north London

The first car that we now call a Lotus was built by Colin Chapman in a lock-up garage behind his girlfriend’s house in 1946 or 1947 and he called it an Austin Seven Special, according to Historic Lotus Register. Another later model was called built in the same garage and called Lotus while Chapman was in the Royal Air Force.

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