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Updated Apr 17, 2024

‘Bad’ Business Ideas That Made Bank

Discover how these seemingly “bad” ideas were actually genius – and how to tell which side of the fence your concept falls on.

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Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
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Many entrepreneurs try to start businesses on the cheap. Some millennials and Gen Zers are coming up with creative ideas to sell on Instagram. But not everyone with a vision strikes it rich, and not everyone who begins with a crazy idea fails. For every 10 or even 100 bad business ideas considered for a serious business venture, at least one has succeeded.

In fact, business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs can learn a lot about success from seemingly bad business ideas that turned out to be genius enterprises. Just as important, however, is knowing when to pivot if an idea isn’t working.

‘Bad’ business ideas that were successful

These once-laughable business ideas defied the odds, logic, market expectations and even common sense, allowing their creators to get the last laugh – all the way to the bank. Here are some companies that turned a seemingly bad idea into a successful business model and made millions.

Ashley Madison

A dating website was nothing new when Ashley Madison debuted, but it came on the scene with a rather unique value proposition: It was marketed toward those already in a committed relationship. “Life is short. Have an affair” is the site’s slogan to this day.

While the concept drew heavy criticism and still does, no one can deny this business venture is a huge success. Ashley Madison has more than 70 million users worldwide. The company has generated both success and infamy, but this is clearly a case where controversy sells.

FYIDid you know
Ashley Madison took a huge hit when it suffered a high-profile data breach that exposed 32 million users, with some life-ruining results. Even if you’re fine with your business idea itself being controversial, this is not the kind of scandal you want. You must take proactive measures to protect your business from a data breach.

Beanie Babies

In 1983, when former aspiring actor H. Ty Warner opened his own toy company that manufactured small stuffed animals, he decided to “go big or go home” by investing pretty much every dime he had in it, including a $50,000 inheritance from his father. He called his first toys the Himalayan Cats, which quickly sold out in local stores, but he is best known today for creating the Beanie Babies line. What set Warner’s stuffed animals apart was the plastic pellets they contained instead of conventional stuffing materials, so the toys had a more lifelike and less stiff feel. His competitors thought he was nuts and compared his product to “roadkill.”

Well, that “roadkill” turned into a toy empire, partly because Warner never advertised his products or sold them in major chain stores like Toys R Us. This made the stuffed animals harder to obtain and thus more desirable. In addition, the Ty company would retire certain models after the initial stock run had sold out, making the few that were still in circulation prized possessions. Ty’s line created one of the most insane fad frenzies of all time.

Craigslist

Craig Newmark had an idea to conduct an online garage sale, so he created a simple website where strangers could list items they were selling or looking to buy. Not much about Craigslist has changed since then. It even has the same basic font and layout from when it launched. But there are some significant differences: What started as a seemingly silly and even rudimentary way of making purchases and trading belongings online now has over 200 million monthly visitors and is available in more than 70 countries.

Crocs

Ugly, rubbery shoes for the masses – who would have thought this idea had legs? Crocs (the spa shoe meets clog) was hatched by three friends from Boulder, Colorado, who, for some reason, were intrigued by the marketable possibilities of a spa shoe made for comfort. They found the right material in a squishy foam resin called Croslite and eventually grew big enough to acquire Foam Creations, the Quebec-based company that manufactured this new shoe. [Interested in unique fashion? It might not be a bad idea to start your own clothing store.]

Now the shoe is the awkward moment of footwear, and the company is in on the joke, playing up the ugly factor in ad campaigns. It’s happy being mocked – all the way to the bank. Simply put, if the ugly shoe fits (and feels good), people will wear it.

TipBottom line
Crocs’ success with its “ugly shoe” ad campaigns just goes to show that you don’t know what will make your campaign a hit until you try it. Just A/B test your ad campaigns first to see what resonates with your customers (calling your product “ugly,” for example, is a big gamble if you don’t know your audience!).

I Can Has Cheezburger?

The concept of creating ridiculous captions for absurd animal photos began with a photo of one very fat cat and ended with Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami becoming millionaires. Their original goal? To share a chubby cat picture with as many people who cared to see it. The domain name icanhas.cheezburger.com came from the caption they wrote for the feline: “I can has cheezburger?” A series of follow-up photos about the fat cat obtaining a cheeseburger followed, and soon fans began submitting their own creations. In 2007, Nakagawa and Unebasami sold the site for $2 million.

iFart App

Here’s a half-assed, half-a-million-dollar idea that came from the mind of Joel Comm: He squeaked out the iFart, a whoopee cushion app for iPhones. Want to know what’s even crazier? He thought people would pay $1.99 for the app.

And the absolutely insane part of all this? Comm was right. Hate on it all you want, but the app has been buzzed about all over the media, and pranksters everywhere love the variety of flatulent noises it features. The app has even ranked in Apple’s all-time top 20, according to its product page.

The takeaway here? People will pay for stupid – no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Lucky Break

It started with a man frustrated that only two people could make a wish around the Thanksgiving table. So Ken Ahroni created a company that would produce plastic wishbones, replicating the feel of dried bone. No more asking, “Whose turn is it this year?” No more waiting for the wishbone to dry on the windowsill. With Ahroni’s Lucky Break Wishbones, everybody could take a crack at making their wishes come true – vegans too! At one point, the business sold more than 2.5 million bones and even won a copyright lawsuit against Sears. Talk about a lucky break.

Peloton

An instructor-led bike class in your home? Consumers laughed at the idea of purchasing expensive equipment through which fitness professionals would supposedly guide them through a grueling workout. Why go through the hassle when bike studios like CycleBar and SoulCycle were everywhere? But while some thought the days of clunky home exercise equipment were left in the ’80s, Peloton sought to change the game – and did.

With gyms closed and people confined to their homes at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers began turning to Peloton to meet their fitness needs. Peloton adapted its marketing strategy for the COVID-19 era, and as a result, customers found the company’s exercise bikes available for purchase with affordable monthly plans and enjoyed an app with high-quality classes rivaling any gym’s offerings. Mock it all you want – nothing beats at-home convenience.

Did You Know?Did you know
A business’s outsized success may be only for a season. As COVID-19 vaccines became more available and more establishments reopened, Peloton saw its sales and stock price decline. The need for premium at-home workouts and fitness equipment wasn’t as great once people started going to their local gyms again. Perhaps its 2024 collaboration with TikTok to produce short videos may help rebrand the company.

Pet Rock

After a night out in a bar listening to friends complain about their pets, Gary Dahl joked about preferring to keep a rock. The crack turned into a successful business idea, and although the initial craze died quickly, Dahl sold millions of Pet Rocks and became a multimillionaire. Luxury stores like Neiman Marcus even featured the product. Dahl died in 2015, but his invention lives on. Pet Rocks can be purchased on Amazon today, and one was even featured in the 2022 movie “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” In other words, you could say this business idea ultimately rocked.

Snuggie

The Snuggie – a blanket with sleeves – has pulled in more than half a billion dollars since becoming a viral sensation more than a decade ago. Allstar Innovations, the direct-response marketing company behind the cozy offering, has sold more than 35 million Snuggies since 2008. Allstar is still thriving with the blankets and a host of other “As Seen on TV” products, like Snuggies for dogs, Snuggies for kids and Snuggies personalized with sports team and college logos. The buzz has even led to Snuggie pub crawls, Snuggie mockery clips on YouTube and a lot of gag gifts.

Humor is the selling strategy that made the Snuggie a star. As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously can result in some serious business.

FYIDid you know
Using humor is a great way to engage your audience. A prime example is the collaboration between meat producer Oscar Mayer and Korean beauty brand Seoul Mamas, which led to the amusing release of bologna-inspired face masks. The market loved the idea so much that it sold out in just hours.

How to know if you have a bad business idea 

Consumer appetites take twists and turns. What we deem useless right now might be next season’s bestseller, thanks to a product’s novelty, fun factor or sheer stupidity. But not all original business ideas are going to connect with shoppers. Here are some signs your business idea might not work:

  • Explaining your idea is a challenge. A successful business concept should be concise and easy for the audience to understand. If you’re unable to articulate your idea clearly, it will likely be difficult for the market to grasp.
  • Your idea leaves you feeling uninspired. When it comes to a business venture, nobody should be more passionate than the entrepreneur behind the idea. If you find yourself feeling uninspired or disinterested, reconsider before moving forward with the business.
  • People aren’t buying your idea. Good ideas garner enthusiasm from others. If you’re struggling to secure support for your concept, the lack of buy-in may be an indicator that your idea is a bust. 

How to get feedback on your business idea

The best way to know if you have a viable business idea is to get feedback from others. Here are a few places to start:

  • Ask someone who has market experience. Successful business founders and leaders in similar fields to yours can tell you if your idea is scalable or if it needs reworking. Seek advice from professionals in your industry by sharing details about your business. While not all experts may be open to having a discussion, those who are can provide great insights. 
  • Take to social media. Try building a social media presence to attract your would-be target audience, and visit online forums to discuss and tease your proposed business. You’ll likely get bluntly honest feedback. If no one is engaging in a conversation on the topic or you don’t feel compelled to talk about it, you probably have a bad business idea.
  • Explore different funding avenues. Small businesses have numerous funding outlets they can access, from angel investors to crowdfunding campaigns. However, if all of these avenues are coming up dry, this could be an indicator of a bad business idea. 
Bottom LineBottom line
With a business plan in hand, consult your mentors or even hire a marketing expert to determine if your idea is profitable, scalable and realistic.

How to pivot when a business idea isn’t working

Ready to ditch your bad business idea? You’re in good company. Many big-name companies initially pursued different directions before discovering their true calling, like the Slinky’s transition from naval ship equipment to a beloved toy.

Pivoting requires a reevaluation of a business’s model, product and target audience to redefine its value proposition. This strategy switch-up is useful when a business fails to reach its target market or achieve success; however, it is a drastic measure that should be carefully considered. [Read related article: How to Rebrand Your Business]

Here are some tips for successfully pivoting your business (if needed): 

  • Determine whether you truly need to pivot. Can the production process be improved? Do you need to raise more capital? Is the marketplace too crowded? Before heading in a different direction, determine whether the idea should be abandoned altogether or if there’s potential for your product in the market with some improvements.
  • Consider the alignment of your product and marketing strategy. If your business isn’t where you want it to be, it may not be your product that needs tweaking; it could be your marketing strategy. If you believe in your idea, develop a comprehensive marketing plan with new tactics to see if you can improve engagement.
  • Assess your idea honestly. Carefully consider where your original idea may have gone wrong, and use that knowledge to guide you to a better one. Although you may have emotional ties to your initial idea, it is essential to seek feedback from others and critically evaluate your own perspective to avoid investing in an idea that lacks viability.
  • Pick a goal and direction for your new idea. Redefine your idea by setting new goals for its success. Develop a business growth plan for your revamped concept, identifying your target market and outlining the benefits and value it will bring to the market.
  • Don’t start from scratch. Deciding to pivot doesn’t mean you have to throw away everything you’ve worked so hard to create. Instead, you can apply assets and what you’ve learned from your previous experience toward your new vision.

Traci Cox contributed to this article.

author image
Sean Peek, Senior Analyst & Expert on Business Ownership
Sean Peek co-founded and self-funded a small business that's grown to include more than a dozen dedicated team members. Over the years, he's become adept at navigating the intricacies of bootstrapping a new business, overseeing day-to-day operations, utilizing process automation to increase efficiencies and cut costs, and leading a small workforce. This journey has afforded him a profound understanding of the B2B landscape and the critical challenges business owners face as they start and grow their enterprises today. In addition to running his own business, Peek shares his firsthand experiences and vast knowledge to support fellow entrepreneurs, offering guidance on everything from business software to marketing strategies to HR management. In fact, his expertise has been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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