You may not have the brain power of Einstein or Edison, but that doesn't mean your vision isn't valuable. Fortunes have been made thanks to some of the simplest and seemingly stupid seedlings of ideas. Big Mouth Billy Bass may not hold a candle to the incandescent lightbulb, but hell if those tacky singing fish didn't make its inventor a creek full of cash.
To help you unleash whatever inner Jump To Conclusions Mat may be dormant in your subconscious, here are 18 absurdly simple products that have made huge money.
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Estimated Profits: $900 million in gross sales A Godsend for every killjoy parent who refused to buy their kid an actual animal, these virtual pets—originally developed for teen girls to give them an idea of what it would be like to care for a kid—began their takeover of tween hands in the mid-'90s. Their incessant demands and tendency to die unexpectedly hit a chord, and an estimated 76 million units have been sold since their debut.
2. Billy Bob Teeth
Estimated Profits: Over $50 million in profits Pandering to peoples' vain attempts to improve their looks is one of those no-brainer business plans, but creating sets of false teeth that do the exact opposite sounds like a doomed venture. However, that counterintuitive idea paid off big time for Jonah White, who's built Billy Bob Teeth, Inc. into an ugly mug-making empire, having sold over 20 million sets—including some developed with help from Miley Cyrus—around the world since 1993.
Estimated Profits: $1 billion in annual revenue (at its height) If you can forget their crimes against fashion for a moment, these definitely inedible foam clogs have brought in some serious scratch. Initially developed by a few friends as a special spa shoe, they grew insanely popular once people realized how comfortable they were, and managed to bring in over $1 billion annually at the company's peak.
4. Post-It Notes
Estimated Profits: $1 billion in annual revenue These little stickies were actually invented by accident. While attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive, a 3M scientist ended up instead with a low-tack reusable one. Rather than let his colleague's recipe lay to waste, fellow 3Mer Art Fry decided to toss it on the back of a scrap piece of yellow paper and use it to easily flip between market pages of his church hymnal. Boom, the Post-It was born. 3M's sticky note patent ran out in the '90s, but their myriad variations on the original continue to generate $1 billion every year.
Estimated Profits: $700 million in annual revenue (at their height) Your rabid addiction to these unremarkable stuffed toys helped catapult their inventor (and convicted tax cheater) Ty Warner's net worth well past the $2.5 billion it's estimated to be worth today. Not bad for a whim of an idea that he mortgaged his home for and invested the entirety of his life savings into back in 1993.
6. Big Mouth Billy Bass
Estimated Profits: undisclosed, but reasonably insane One of several early-aughts novelty sensations, this obnoxious crooning fish was a runaway hit, occupying prominent real estate in every Walgreens, K-Mart, and Spencer's Gifts you might have passed through. Gemmy Industries—the company who made them—won't release hard figures, but considering they've reportedly sold "millions and millions and millions" at around $20 a pop, it's hard to imagine they didn't reel in a fat profit.
7. The Slinky
Estimated Profits: $3 billion in total sales This age-old toy was developed by an engineer in 1943 who initially set out to develop a set of springs to stabilize ship cargo, then noticed how mesmerizing it was to watch them "step" after one accidentally fell off his workstation. He took out a $500 loan to manufacture an initial batch of 400, and after sitting on the shelves at a Philly department store for a single day, they were a hit. Between 1945 and 2005, over 300 million had been sold, including a cool 100 million in its first two years on the market. In those short 24 months, they brought in a revenue of $1 billion in today's dollars.
8. Bottled Water
Estimated Profits: $60 billion in global annual sales Despite the fact that much of the First World has access to safe, clean water from the tap, the producers of bottled water have helped convince us otherwise, considering consumption of their cap-sealed aqua quadrupled between 1990 and 2005, and doesn't appear to be slowing.
Estimated Profits: undisclosed Thanks in part to their inherent ridiculousness and being an earworm of a TV commercial jingle, these decorative planters have been a cultural sensation since they hit the market in the early '80s. As of 2007, the company behind them—Joseph Enterprises, Inc. who also make The Clapper—claims to sell at least 500,000 each year during the holiday season. And considering they cost significantly less to produce than the $16 they retail for, big Joe is bringing in big bucks.
Estimated Profits: $500 million in annual revenue (at their peak) The first successful attempt to produce and sell a domestically-aimed robot, nearly 40 million of these horrifying animatronic owl-hamster hybrids were sold in the three years following their debut. With a starting price of $35 (and outrageous bidding wars that erupted at the height of popularity), it's not surprising the Furby empire reached such great heights.
Estimated Profits: $1.7 billion in annual revenue Originally marketed in 1924 as a way for women to remove cold cream and makeup, the Kleenex "disposable face towel" was later rebranded as a disposable handkerchief that would better prevent the spread of colds and hay fever. Its name may now be synonymous with most any other facial tissue, but the Kleenex brand itself—owned by Kimberly-Clark—is valued around $3.1 billion.
Estimated Profits: undisclosed While the modern-day Crayola crayon was first developed in 1903 by a pair of cousins who were in the industrial coloring business, these days they're produced under the watchful eye of parent company Hallmark, who acquired the company in 1984. Hard numbers are hard to come by, but if Crayola's producing the 3 billion crayons, 600 million colored pencils, 465 million markers, 110 million sticks of chalk, 9 million Silly Putty eggs, and 1.5 million jars of paint they claim to annually, it's safe to assume they're lighting cigars with multiple hundred dollar bills.
14. Koosh Balls
Estimated Profits: $100 million These spindly rubber dongles were originally developed by Scott Stillinger in the mid-'80s as something his two young kids could easily throw. He went on to found the small company OddzOn in order to distribute them and after just 12 months they were a hit. In 1997, the company that purchased OddzOn (in '94) was acquired by Hasbro for a cool $100 mil.
15. The Pet Rock
Estimated Profits: $6.1 million Tired of listening to his friends bitch and moan about their “real” pets at a bar back in 1975, advertising executive Gary Dahl jokingly pitched them the concept of the Pet Rock. He later decided to take the idea seriously, and started marketing a batch of ordinary gray stones along with pun-filled 32-page instruction manuals on how to care for your inanimate companion. It hit big fast, and Dahl sold 1.5 million of them for $4 each over the next year, eventually pocketing over $6 million in today's money.
16. Magic 8-Ball
Estimated Profits: undisclosed The iconic soothsaying sphere evolved from an earlier cylindrical version called The Syco-Seer, which employed the same "tech" (a 20-sided die floating in colored water) and was invented in 1946 by Albert C. Carter, the son of a Cincinnati clairvoyant. It didn't get the billiards ball case until 1950, when Brunswick commissioned a run of 8 Ball-styled versions for use as promotional items. And that's when the buying public really got interested. It's unclear how much Carter made from of his creation during his lifetime, but considering the current owner Mattel sells upwards of a million per year (at $10 a pop), odds are it was more than "a lot."
Estimated Profits: Over $250 million in annual revenue Turns out (shockingly) that people would prefer to look better in their clothes without ever hitting the gym. So much so, in fact, that they've turned this body-shaping hosiery company—launched out of its founder Sara Blakely's apartment 15 years ago for $5,000—into a billion dollar business.
Estimated Profits: undisclosed The original adhesive bandage was developed in 1920 by Johnson & Johnson employee Earle Dickson for his wife, who was apparently a major klutz in the kitchen, constantly cutting and burning herself while cooking. J & J smartly invested in the idea, and began mass-producing them a few years later. At the time of Dickson’s death in 1968, the company was selling $30 million worth of 'em every year, and in 2001 they marked a milestone of selling 100 billion bandages. Scrapes are big business, people!
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercomressor, and patiently waiting for his eureka moment.