24 Successful Businesses Launched During Economic Downturns

FedEx Begins Operations in 1973

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Delivering Value

The economy took a severe beating from the pandemic, and while it seems to be on the mend, we still have a ways to go. Even though many are still out of work and some sectors are recovering more slowly than others, we can take heart knowing that some of America's greatest companies were forged amidst economic turmoil. As a matter of fact, now may be a ripe time to consider a startup: According to a Lending Tree survey, 52% of Americans want to support community businesses that offer essentials, such as clothing and groceries. Here are some companies, big and small, that offered value and thrived during challenging times, with the latest estimated or total revenue figures available.

Related: 25 Emerging Businesses That Nobody Saw Coming

Procter & Gamble
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Procter & Gamble, 1837

Revenue in 2019: $67.7 billion
Despite the sharp downturn in the economy that began in 1836, and the ongoing financial crisis for the next six years, P&G stayed afloat and went on to secure contracts to equip the Union during the Civil War. Having one solid customer base to build off is useful, and Procter & Gamble has gone on to create some of the most recognizable brands in the U.S.

Related: Competing Brands That Are Actually Owned by the Same Company 

General Electric

General Electric, 1892

Revenue in 2019: $95.2 billion
The American icon that transformed daily life was launched just before the Panic of 1893 but stayed the course as hundreds of banks closed and thousands of businesses failed. Charles Coffin, GE's first president, is said to have saved the company from bankruptcy through astute negotiations, which resulted in its rapid recovery and growth. Of course, the success was built on a technology that changed people's lives: the first practical incandescent light bulb.

Related: 17 Incredible Feats of American Ingenuity Across the Country

General Motors Headquarters in Detroit

General Motors, 1908

Revenue in 2019: $137.2 billion
In the shadow of the 1907 economic crisis, GM founder William Durant took risks: He turned GM into the world's first automotive conglomerate with a spree of company acquisitions. Though not all of his efforts paid off, General Motors went to become one of the world's "Big Three" of automakers.

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IBM, 1911

Revenue in 2019: $77.1 billion
With the aim of offering products that increase business efficiencies, the Computer-Tabulating-Recording Co. was launched just after the Panic of 1910. It was renamed IBM in 1924, and has adjusted to a variety of technological trends and maintained its focus on continuous innovation, going from time clocks to typewriters to computers to computing services.

Related: The Secret Histories of 25 Popular Brands


Hewlett-Packard, 1939

Revenue in 2019: $58.8 billion
The nation suffered one of the worst economic plights of the 20th century during the 1937-1938 recession. It was during this time, though, that Bill Hewlett and David Packard rented a small garage and invented their company's first product — a sound-testing device sold to Walt Disney Co. Now, HP is one of the world's leading tech companies. The founders probably couldn't have done it without a mentor: Fred Terman, a Stanford professor who encouraged and guided his students, and sometimes invested in their work.

Burger King
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Burger King, 1954

Revenue in 2019: $1.8 billion
Recognized around the world as one of the most iconic American businesses, Burger King got its start in Florida during a post-Korean War recession. It is the second-largest hamburger chain in the U.S, after McDonald's, succeeding on a message of fresher "flame-broiled" taste. While its menu experimentation doesn't always work, offering the meatless Impossible Burger recently turned out to be smart.

Related: Iconic Companies Founded the Year You Were Born


Hyatt, 1957

Revenue in 2019: Approximately $5 billion
Though business and travel activities lagged during the eight-month recession of 1957, entrepreneur Jay Pritzker took a chance and bought the Hyatt House motel near the Los Angeles International Airport. Then Pritzker, with the help of his brother Donald and other business family interests, added additional properties, which eventually became Hyatt Hotels Corp. They're not all near airports — they no longer have to be — but that convenience was a good, all but guaranteed way to start.

Aldi Owns Trader Joes

Trader Joe's, 1958

Revenue in 2019: $13.3 billion
In 1958, Joe Coulombe took over a group of convenience stores and called them Pronto Markets. In 1967, Coulombe gave the chain a fresher vibe — the stores are decorated with a nautical motif and employ cheerful workers who wear bright, tropical-patterned shirts. But the secret sauce for Trader Joe's success is its private label products.

Related: The 22 Best Things to Buy at Trader Joe's

Fed Ex Box

FedEx, 1971

Revenue in 2019: $69.7 billion
At the end of the 1970 recession, Frederick Smith hatched an idea as part of a Yale Business School project for a fast and reliable delivery service. The concept was a tough industry sell, but he stuck to it despite all the rejection. He began the business in 1973 from Memphis International Airport, and on the first night, FedEx shipped 186 packages to 25 U.S. cities. Today, FedEx ships to more than 215 countries and territories.

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Microsoft, 1975

Revenue in 2019: $126 billion
The tech giant got its start as the country was enmeshed in a 16-month recession. Software engineers Bill Gates and Paul Allen launched the company to produce software for the Altair 8800, an early personal computer — but Microsoft wasn't built on innovation as much as it was about finding efficient business shortcuts that might even leave some actual innovators feeling robbed. (There's a reason a 1999 biopic about Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs was called "Pirates of Silicon Valley.") Microsoft also figured out the magic of bundling its various services to capture the market, so much so that an antitrust court tried to break up the company to undo some advantage.

Related: 12 Historic Failures by Successful Billionaires

EA Games
EA Games

Electronic Arts, 1982

Revenue in 2020: $5.5 billion
Trip Hawkins has always had a passion for strategy and gaming, so much so that during a recession, he left his job at Apple to create a software company that eventually became one of the largest and most successful video game firms in the world, with titles such as The Sims, Medal of Honor, and Rock Band. It not only showed flexibility in building titles for whatever platform looked dominant, but seemed to value its game designers with prominent credit – like an author would be displayed on a novel.

Arizona Jeans

Arizona Jeans, 1990

Revenue figures are unavailable
Launched during the Gulf War recession, the Original Arizona Jean Co. was founded as a private label for JCPenney and is credited with driving the company's revival in the '90s, especially with younger consumers. It is known for its very low prices and frequently offered discounts of up to 50%. Today, the clothing of the now-independent company is still available at many stores, including JCPenney, showing the power of getting an initial boost from a bigger company.

Related: 30 Things to Buy at JCPenney While You Still Can 

1998 — Netflix
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Netflix, 1997

Revenue in 2020: $21.2 billion
Though the DVD/streaming giant was up and running way before the Great Recession, Netflix introduced its streaming service in 2007, which upended the television industry and altered the course of entertainment. Not only did Netflix figure out how to make life easier for people with its generous DVD shipping and no late fees; it figured out how to stay ahead of changing trends with its pivot to streaming, followed later by the creation of its own content.


Mailchimp, 2001

Revenue for 2019: $700 million
The bust of the dot-com bubble and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks spurred an eight-month recession that pushed unemployment to 5.5%. To help small businesses, Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius founded email marketing platform Mailchimp, stumbling into the role while running a graphic design firm and winning customers over by coming off as competent but non-threatening — giving the impression of being helpful, and a cozy, easy way to get started communicating with people for free.

Credit Karma
Credit Karma

Credit Karma, 2007

Revenue in 2016: $500 million
With the collapse of the housing bubble during the 2007-2009 Great Recession, Kenneth Lin wanted consumers to have free access to their credit scores so they could make informed financial decisions. With a focus on long-term growth and technology, Credit Karma became one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. In February 2020, software company Intuit agreed to buy Credit Karma for $7.1 billion. The company didn't just demystify getting credit scores and make it free — it put a focus on self-improvement by asking customers what it could do better.


Airbnb, 2008

Revenue in 2017: $2.5 billion
To help pay the rent, roommates Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia rented out air mattresses at their San Francisco apartment to travelers. As the Great Recession worsened, the strategy morphed into a business that wound up disrupting the hotel industry. Airbnb answered a real need for the time: Connecting people who needed cheap places to stay, anywhere and everywhere — not just in vacation areas, but in the heart of a sometimes unglamorous city — with people who needed to make money and were willing to open their doors to do it. They happened to meet the need with good technology that made the transaction seem like a fun lifestyle choice.

Related: 20 Most Luxurious Airbnbs Around the World


Groupon, 2008

Revenue in 2018: $2.6 billion
Entrepreneur Andrew Mason launched The Point, a site aimed at leveraging people's collective bargaining power. From there came Groupon, an online coupon site offering deals at businesses in Chicago, where it is based. Groupon, a blend of "group" and "coupon," eventually expanded to other cities and into a wider range of products and services. It had a business model that energized customers to try a new service with a deal, helping both sides of the transaction at the same time.

OneSource Virtual
OneSource Virtual

OneSource Virtual, 2008

Revenue in 2015: $63 million
Marketing and sales professional Brian Williams, along with two other former co-workers, created OneSource Virtual as a way to offer outsourcing services via the cloud. The company, a pioneer of "Business Process as a Service," offers HR services to an estimated 500 businesses. In 2019, the private firm made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies for the seventh year in a row. The work isn't glamorous, but it is essential … and it's good to be needed.


Pinterest, 2008

Revenue in 2019: $1.1 billion
It was a long, slow slog to create the pinboard-style photo-sharing website. "No one got it," cofounder Ben Silberman said of the site's early days; it actually began as an iPhone app called Tote. But around 2010, the site's popularity took off. It went public in 2019, and now about 300 million "pinners" a month use the site. Pinterest grew out of the founder's own interests — as a collector — and focused on how best to serve people like himself, even starting out as an invite-only community.


Venmo, 2009

Revenue in 2019: Expected to do $300 million
The digital wallet service — it lets people send money by smartphone — has grown rapidly since its founding by University of Pennsylvania freshmen Andrew Kortina and Iqram Magdon-Ismail. Venmo was acquired by Braintree in 2012 for $26 million, which was itself acquired by PayPal in 2013 for $800 million. Also, Venmo has announced partnerships with Chipotle, GrubHub, Uber, and other businesses. The company found a way to let people make financial transactions the way they wanted, rather than the way the banks demanded. It was a bit like how Uber and Lyft grew alongside the taxi industry.

Related: Companies That Have Changed the Way We Live Over the Past Decade


WhatsApp, 2009

Revenue in the first half of 2014: $15.9 million
With an aim to create the world's largest messaging service, Yahoo! alums Jan Koum and Brian Acton's ads-free encrypted messaging app eliminates barriers to connect, thanks to such features as group chatting, voice messages, and location sharing. The ease of use and low price reflects an overall modesty: The app also never advertised or did marketing, and instead let its reliability and usefulness speak for it. Facebook bought it for $22 billion in 2014.

Related: 22 Essential Remote-Work Tools for Your Business<

Square App

Square, 2009

Revenue in 2020: $5.1 billion
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey joined forces with friend Jim McKelvey to create a technology that allows people to buy, sell, and send money via a mobile device. More than 30 million businesses use Square to carry out credit card payments and record sales. In 2017, the Square Cash App allowed merchants to use Bitcoin. But the key was the Square card reader, a convenient way for small businesses to accept the card payments they never could — again proving that it's good to solve problems, especially for other businesses whose own success becomes yours.


Slack, 2009

Revenue in 2019: $400.6 million
CEO Stewart Butterfield and his team at now-defunct gaming startup Tiny Speck created the workplace messaging app as a way to communicate with each other in real time. Slack now has more than 10 million daily active users and is used by more than 600,000 organizations. It's yet another business that helps business, in this case solving the problem of how to get people communicating and sharing information — even if they're not on the same continent.

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

Uber and Lyft

Uber, 2009

Revenue in 2018: $11.3 billion
After being unable to get a cab while in Paris, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp came up with the idea for a timeshare limo service that could be ordered via an app. From there, the concept expanded into what is now the ride-share giant, which has expanded internationally, offering food delivery and experimenting with rental bikes, helicopters, and self-driving vehicles. While Uber solved a problem and created a way for people to get things done the way they wanted, rather than the way they'd had to in the past, Kalanick's approach to moving fast, breaking things, and barely bothering to apologize looked like success only for a while. Eventually, legal difficulties piled up and Kalanick had to abandon his leadership role.