It’s certain that 2020 will be remembered as one of the most challenging years in recent memory. The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked chaos all over the world with millions of lives and livelihoods affected.
But let’s be positive for a minute. Throughout history we see that revolutionary and disruptive ideas often emerge during challenging times. Political movements are born. Technological leaps are taken. Artistic movements are sparked. Businesses are founded.
Back in 1945, Japan was reeling from its devastating defeat in the Second World War. Tokyo, although spared the atomic bomb, lay in ruins. It was in these unforgiving circumstances that Masara Ubuka opened his electronics store in the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo. Initially specialising in radio repairs, he was soon joined by Akio Morita. The two would go on to found Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation which would later become Sony Corporation in 1958.
Today, Sony is one of the world’s most well-known electronics brands responsible for iconic products such as the Walkman cassette player, Triniton television range and the PlayStation games console. Not bad for a business that started out from the basement of a bombed out department store.
During the swinging twenties a young cartoonist by the name of Walt Disney started experimenting with a new form of film involving animated cells. In 1928, Steamboat Willy was released into cinemas and became the first animated film with sound to find a widespread audience. This was just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
The subsequent Great Depression was a time of mass unemployment and hardship around the world. But it was during this era that the newly formed Walt Disney Productions, Limited came to prominence with a string of innovative releases. This culminated in the release of the first full-length animated feature Snow White and Seven Dwarves in 1937. The film went on to win Academy Awards and break box office records, establishing the studio as a household name.
Today, Disney is a multi-media empire turning over billions in revenue every year. Perhaps its greatest legacy is its imprint on the imagination of children and adults all over the world.
OK, we’re going to be a little loose on the rules here. Apple was actually founded back in 1975. But the Apple we know today was really born with the return of Steve Jobs back in 1997 and the launch of the iPod in 2001. This came around the time of the dot-com bubble which saw internet-based companies being vastly overvalued on the stock exchange, ultimately leading to a crash in the early 00s. This was a testing time for any tech company and Apple in the 1990s was already on shaky ground. Without Jobs, the company had seemingly lost its identity launching a mishmash of new product lines.
Whilst the dot com crash could’ve seen the company lose its way further, under the direction of Jobs as CEO, with the help of influential product designer Jonathon Ives, Apple entered the millennium with a new-found zeal. Jobs refocused product development and made the Apple brand relevant again. With the launch of the iPod in 2001 the company started generating huge profits at a time when many tech companies were going out of business. In 2019, Apple became the world’s first company to reach a $1 trillion dollar valuation.
For the most part, the 90s and 00s were a time of economic prosperity. The financial crisis of 2007-08 changed all that, helping to trigger a global recession that had profound consequences around the world. It was a hugely uncertain and challenging time. But arguably a great time to be launching a company like Uber.
Focusing initially on premium taxi rides for business executives, Uber shifted its focus to the mass market – significantly undercutting traditional cab operators through its use of gig workers. Cheaper cab rides for punters and readily available gig work at a time of economic uncertainty meant take-up was swift. Today, Uber is one of the world’s most downloaded mobile apps and raised $75.5 billion when it was IPO’d in 2019.
Looking back at these businesses founded during challenging times, we can hopefully present a more positive outlook for aspiring entrepreneurs today. You can be sure right now there are bright minds looking to solve today’s problems – and history tells us that challenging times can prompt important innovations.