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6 amazing money-spinners that worked

Updated 22 December 2022

3min read

Nick Green
Financial Journalist

(…and one that didn’t). If you ever come across a get-rich-quick scheme, be very suspicious – but once in a blue moon, someone devises a cunning plan that really does pay off. Here we salute those brave, ingenious and sometimes just lucky jackpot-hitters. Article by Nick Green.

Bees in a bee hive

Let’s face it, big money doesn’t impress us anymore. But we still have a soft spot for those fairy tale moments where someone’s neat idea takes off like a rocket and leaves them rolling in cash. It’s not about the wealth, it’s about how it happened – because that means it just might happen to you. Here’s our rundown of Rumpelstiltskin stories.

Seeing the point

In the late nineties a young man named Pierre Omidyar set up a website called AuctionWeb to make it easier for people to buy and sell online. One of the first items sold was a laser pointer, which was actually broken. Pierre contacted the buyer to explain and perhaps apologise, only to be told the buyer collected broken laser pointers. He realised he had discovered the perfect market, in which literally anything could be sold. After a name change, eBay was born, and now has a revenue of over $10bn a year.

I knew there’d be a buzz

Burt Shavitz was a struggling honey and beeswax salesman who wondered if his bees were really ‘pollen’ their weight. His breakthrough was realising that people used lip balm ten times more often than they used furniture polish – so he ditched the old-fashioned applications of beeswax and made a beeline for the things people actually bought, such as soaps, candles and lotions. Today the business makes hundreds of millions… without having to sting anyone.

Sounds like a Nativity play…

Proving you can start making your billion from almost nothing at all, Joe Gebbie and Brian Chesky had their eureka moment in 2007, when a conference in San Francisco left many people without a place to stay. They rented out their apartment to strangers and literally overnight the concept was born. Today, Airbnb operates in 192 countries and is valued at an astonishing $31 billion.

Better than a student loan

The early years of the internet were a mad gold rush in which even the whackiest ideas could succeed. Alex Tew, a student of Nottingham University, hoped to fund his education by selling… pixels! In 2005 he set up a web page featuring a million pixels for sale at a dollar each, in 10 x 10 blocks. It became a word-of-mouth hit, and within five months the previously cash-strapped student was sitting on a gross income of $1,037,100. We bet that was some end-of-term party…

He earned his just desserts

Just to prove it’s not just web nerds who make the easy dosh, David Phillips is a civil engineer who now flies around the world for free thanks to puddings. He spotted the flaw in an air-miles deal on Healthy Choice puddings, realising the miles were worth far more than the desserts. For an outlay of just $3,000 he earned a total of 1.25 million air miles, worth about $150,000. For a final flourish, he secured an $800 tax rebate by donating all the puddings to the Salvation Army (who had helped him peel off all the vouchers). Sweet.

Smoothie operators

Adam Balon, Richard Reed and Jon Wright already had thriving careers, but came to the conclusion that what the world still lacked was a supply of organic fruit smoothies with funny packaging. They trialled their Innocent drinks from a stall at a music festival, and let the customers vote on whether or not they should give up the day jobs by throwing their empty bottles in bins marked ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Today the business is valued at around £320 million. Reed’s tip? ‘Never wait till you’re 100 per cent confident in business… you’ll never make a decision.’

The one that didn’t take off

A stroke of audacious brilliance nonetheless, this near-miss has echoes of David Phillips and his puddings. In 1999 John Leonard saw a TV commercial that explained how Pepsi Points (earned from buying Pepsi products) could buy a range of different gifts… and the advert concluded with a shot of an AV-8 Harrier II jump jet with the legend: 7,000,000 Pepsi Points. Leonard quickly realised that the price of acquiring 7 million Pepsi Points would be only $700,000 plus a $10 handling fee, as set against the $23 million price tag of the Harrier. So he sent a cheque, as allowed by the competition rules. Pepsi refused to send a jet by return of post and Leonard lost his subsequent law suit, but the legend lives on.

Still awaiting your own moment of inspiration that will make your fortune? Contact a financial adviser in the meantime.

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About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.