12 Companies That Reinvented Themselves to Stay Relevant

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Innovate or Die

The march of time takes a toll on even the best companies. For many, it’s just a matter of time before another comes along and builds that proverbial better mousetrap. For others, it's a chance to innovate and become even more dominant. Here are some big names that found success after their pivot point — some in the face of adversity, others because their leadership was driven to find the next big thing. They include Netflix, which recently announced that it will be introducing a lower-priced ad-supported version in a bid to get departing viewers to come back. 

Related: 24 Big Names That Changed to Avoid Being Canceled

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Netflix: DVDs to Streaming

Remember when you were excited to get a few bright red Netflix DVD envelopes in the mailbox? The company launched in 1997 and by 2013 was the largest individual commercial client of the U.S. Postal Service, spending more than $500 million on postage annually. 

The Pivot: When video streaming services emerged, Netflix went with the flow. Since shifting to join them in 2007, the company has become one of the biggest in the world, now with an enviable subscriber base of 204 million. In the past few years, it began shifting again to making the content it offers viewers. And now, with subscribers down as pandemic-related viewing drops, the company is preparing to lose over 2 million viewers. In order to win customers back, Netflix is exploring more pivots: offering lower-priced ad-supported versions, putting the kibosh on password sharing, and offering free video games.

Related: 21 Things We Use All the Time That Didn't Exist a Decade or So Ago

BANGKOK, THAILAND- June 26, 2019: Social media app, mobile multi-channel, cross-channel internet online application for people digital lifestyle with logo on iPhone X and ipad pro touchscreen

Apple: Computers to Devices

Apple didn’t invent the personal computer in 1976, but it made some of the best models available and continues to command a premium price for them. While those units built a loyal following, Apple has always been something of a niche player in PC sales.

The Pivot: During a second stint with Apple beginning in 1996, co-founder Steve Jobs decided that people needed a few more gadgets in their lives, even if they didn’t know it yet. The company subsequently became a digital music leader with the iTunes music platform and the iPod in 2001. But the real revolution was the creation of the iPhone, launched in 2007, which popularized the smartphone, followed by the iPad in 2010, which continues to dominate global tablet sales. So far, so good — Apple became the first publicly traded company to be valued at over $3 trillion in 2022, just four years after it hit the $1 trillion mark in 2018.

Related: 12 Tech Flops of the 1970s and '80s That Were Ahead of Their Time

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IBM: Hardware to Services

International Business Machines has been through more than a few changes since it began in 1911 as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. Nicknamed “Big Blue” in the 1960s at the height of its dominance in building and selling mainframe computers, the company didn’t react well when personal computers began to proliferate — and lost $8 billion in 1993 alone. 

The Pivot: Following a series of reorganizations and the sale of its PC division to Lenovo in 2005, the company has reinvented itself to become a leader in cloud computing and artificial intelligence research. Total revenue for 2020 was an impressive $73.6 billion.

Related: 25 of the Biggest Product Launch Disasters Ever

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Amazon: Books to Everything

Once upon a time, Jeff Bezos started a little company in his garage that just sold books. And it did well from its 1994 start, adopting the moniker of “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” on the novel convenience of online purchases. Over the years, the company added more and more products to its online offerings, partly by creating a marketplace for smaller sellers in 2000.

The Pivot: Amazon's forays into three areas — streaming video, cloud computing, and its own delivery system — continue to keep the company on top. And that’s done nice things for Bezos’s bank accounts, though he’s since left what’s come to be known as “The Everything Store.”

Related: Jeff Bezos and Other High-Profile CEOs Who Stepped Down From Their Companies

Buy It: Lego

Lego: Wood to Plastic

The Danish company had humble beginnings during the Great Depression, when master carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen began making wooden toys. Kristiansen named the company Lego, a combination of Danish words meaning “play well.”

The Pivot: The Lego we know began to take shape when an injection molding machine was ordered in 1946 to make plastic bricks. But it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the company really took off after a redesign of the coupling system for the bricks and a decision to stop building wooden toys. When the company struggled financially in the early 2000s, a change in leadership led to the introduction of lines with ties to popular film series, including  the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises. That revived the company’s fortunes.

Related: These Are the Most Reputable Companies, According to Boomers

General Motors
General Motors

General Motors: Classic to Electric

Founded in 1908 through the consolidation of several car companies, GM was the world’s largest automaker for more than 70 years. Increased competition from foreign manufacturers resulted in heavy losses for GM in the early 1990s, forcing it to close many plants and cut its workforce.

The Pivot: After a bankruptcy reorganization in 2009 following the recession and government assistance, the company downsized, discontinuing several brands to emerge as a public company again in 2010. By 2012, it had regained the title of world’s largest automaker; it just recently announced plans to offer 30 electric vehicle models by 2025 in a bid to bring the world “to an all-electric future.”

Related: 24 Successful Businesses Launched During Economic Downturns

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Marvel: Comics to Cinemas

The publisher of “Spider-Man,” “The Avengers,” “Iron Man,” and other popular superhero comics was founded in 1939 and waged war with fellow comics publisher DC for decades. It fell on hard times and went into bankruptcy in 1996. Over the years, Marvel characters were hit or miss on the silver screen.

The Pivot: When the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to take shape with the first Iron Man film in 2008, it marked a shift that generated the most lucrative movie franchise ever. Disney’s purchase of Marvel in late 2009 just accelerated that growth.

Related: The Highest-Grossing Movie the Year You Were Born

Ally Bank: Dealerships to Internet

Ally Bank: Dealerships to Internet

The General Motors Acceptance Corp. was formed in 1919 as a GM division to help car dealers finance and maintain inventory, but grew quickly into an easy way for consumers to get financing for vehicle purchases through those dealerships. GMAC went on to finance locomotives during World War II, some household appliances, and later got into home mortgage products.

The Pivot: The company used the 2008 economic downturn as an inflection point, shaking off the taint of the government auto bailout and reinventing the business model by eliminating physical branch locations. It moved all of its operations online, relaunched as Ally Bank in 2009.

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American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card

American Express: Industry to Consumers

Founded in 1850 by John Butterfield with Henry Wells and William G. Fargo — who left to start Wells Fargo in 1852 — the company moved valuable goods throughout New York and other states. Its largest clients in those days were banks, since handling stock certificates, notes, currency, and other financial instruments was much more profitable than larger freight. The company later added money orders and traveler’s checks to the mix.

The Pivot: The company’s big reinvention came in 1958 when it began offering a charge card for individuals and businesses. Today, millions of people wouldn’t think of leaving home without one.

Young Woman, Hipster style, holding a smartphone while holding a coffee cup with the logo of Starbucks, one of the main cafe chains in the World.

Starbucks: Beans to Beeps

When the coffee chain started in the 1970s, it sold only coffee beans and coffee-making equipment in a few stores in Seattle. Howard Schultz, then the company’s director of marketing and retail operations, convinced the owners to sell the company to him and a group of investors, who turned the stores into coffeehouses where you could buy prepared coffee as well as beans.

The Pivot: Schultz stepped down as CEO in 2000, but returned in 2008 and convinced the company to embrace technology, developing its popular app and loyalty rewards program, as well as offering some colorfully oddball dessert drinks that might have shocked its original, earnest bean enthusiasts.

Related: 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Starbucks

A man playing Nintendo Switch.

Nintendo: Cards to Consoles

You might know Nintendo for its iconic video game titles, but its history dates back to 1889 — no, that’s not a misprint — as a manufacturer of hand-crafted playing cards. A 1959 deal with Disney introduced the company to U.S. consumers, but when the bottom fell out of the playing-card business in the early ’60s, the company began making electronic toys. Its first video game, “EVR Race,” followed in 1975, and “Donkey Kong” lit up arcades in 1981.

The Pivot: Not satisfied as just a game developer, the company made the jump to building game consoles in 1983 with the short-lived Famicom in Japan. It retooled the Famicom and relaunched it as the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, featuring “Super Mario Bros.” The Game Boy followed in 1989, making gaming portable.

Related: 20 Toys That Sparked Buying Frenzies

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Adobe: Packages to Subscriptions

Best known for its Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign programs, Adobe got its start in 1982 with the introduction of its PostScript printer language, which had a huge influence on the creation of the desktop publishing industry. It launched Photoshop in 1988, constantly expanding and improving its capabilities through a series of updates — like other software developers of its time.

The Pivot: In 2013, the company announced it would stop selling its software as one-time purchases, turning instead to a subscription-based Software as a Service model with the Adobe Creative Cloud. “Customer enthusiasm for the Creative Cloud, combined with the awkwardness of maintaining it alongside the slower-moving [Creative Suite] products, led the company to move aggressively to the subscription plan,” CNET wrote.

Related: Companies With Unusual Employee Perks