10 Side Projects That Grew Into Million-Dollar Startups

Maybe you want to start your side hustle. Perhaps you want to grow your side hustle into a startup. Or perhaps you want to expand your startup. Should you? Absolutely.

You may think that turning a side project into a successful company is a bit far fetched, but the stories of these successful startups and their origin will prove you wrong.

Million Dollar Startup

Side projects are not mere distractions. Some of the biggest companies in America have roots in experimental ideas that seemed crazy at first. So, if you are looking for inspiration, read on.

ProductHunts: One of the Most Successful Tech Startups Founded by a Tech Newbie

The Founder and CEO of ProductHunt, Ryan Hoover, has proven that you don’t need to be technical to start a tech company.

He built a platform (as well as a community on that platform) to discover new products. The whole idea is based around finding the latest tech tools.

Hoover did not agonize over the technical aspects of his side hustle idea. He decided not to invest time and money in building a website from scratch because he wasn’t an engineer. Instead, he started an email list.

Once he created the list, he invited some friends and a few dozen investors and founders. Even with his knowledge, Hoover still found a way to use technology for business and make the most of it. The project has grown into a community of hundreds of thousands of members in just a few years since it launched.

Recently, AngelList bought the company for $20 mil. Not many successful startups have been founded by people who aren’t very skilled in tech. The story or ProductHunt is an inspiration for every tech newbie who likes to dream big.

Even if you are a tech expert, it may be best to make the switch from engineering to managing a team of experts in some cases. If you want to grow your side project into something more significant, this is one of the ways you can utilize your limited time resources.

Twitter: A Hackaton That Grew Out of Proportion

During a company hackathon, the podcasting platform Odeo created a small side project. That project became one of the biggest social media platforms of today—Twitter.

During its early days, Twitter was just an outlet for a few employees. The press and investors didn’t care much about it, but Odeo CEO Evan Williams was very passionate about it.

On top of building an entirely new business—Jack Dorsey, along with just a handful of passionate Odeo employees, managed to change the way we communicate online.

In the final months of 2019, Twitter had over 153 million daily active users. Twitter's co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is still the company's CEO, and he is as passionate about his project as he ever was.

Groupon: A Billion-Dollar Company That Found It’s True Purpose by Accident

Within two years of launching, Groupon scaled to a $1 billion valuation. It operates in more than 45 countries. What is now one of the biggest daily deals sites was just a social network for activists.

Not many startups have had such an unusual path to success as Groupon. Initially, the platform was named The Point.

Eric Lefkofsky, the founder of the platform, envisioned it as a place where people could rally behind a specific cause. But, he noticed that the site users were often joining together not to fight for a reason, but to buy items in bulk to get a discount.

He recognized the opportunity and launched his reenvisioned platform locally in Chicago. The economic crisis of 2008 spurred on the growth of the company, and the rest is history.

AskGamblers: A Startup Fueled by The Passion of a Law Student

Igor Salindrija used to be a typical law student. To make ends meet, he did some bartending at a local casino. But, Salindrija was more passionate about the web design gigs he did on the side than he was about his day job.

His boss caught him working on a website during his shift. Instead of firing him, he gave Salindrija a promotion. His new job was to help the company build its online platform and enter the world of iGaming.

But, even though the job was excellent, Salindrija still had a passion for side projects. He founded a casino web portal called AskGamblers when he gained enough knowledge about the industry.

Entrepreneurial in nature, he continued to grow his project. Salindrija recruited friends to help him build and promote his platform. Mind you, all of this happened 14 years ago when social media wasn’t that popular.

Today, the site counts 7,5000.000 monthly page views. A few years back, Catena Media bought the site for €15 million (about $17.1 million). What was once just a side project of a law student and passionate web designer has become one of the most reputable portals in the iGaming industry.

10 Side Projects

Craigslist: A Local Email List That Became One of America’s Most Iconic Startups

Craigslist may not be considered one of the most important or most influential tech businesses, but one has to admire its ability to weather the times. It seems like Craigslist won't ever go away.

Craig Newmark moved to San Francisco in the ‘90s. As any newcomer to a city, he wanted to meet people to hang out with. So, Craig started an email list for local meetups and events, hence the name.

Soon, his platform became a place for trading and bartering, and not just for meetups. It caught on pretty fast, so Newmark quit his job to work on Craigslist. He managed to build a billion-dollar business out of a simple email list he created to meet new friends.

Unsplash: A Company Built on Sharing

Do you have some extra shots leftover from the photoshoot you had for your site's landing page, but are not sure what to do with them? Mikael Cho, one of the founders of Crew, a Canadian startup, was in a similar situation.

After hiring a professional photographer for a shoot, the Crew’s team ended up with more photos they could ever use. They decided to give the photos away for free instead of just letting them sit on a hard drive never to be seen again.

When they saw that their photos reached over 50,000 downloads, the Crew realized they were onto something. Soon after, the internet’s best depository for royalty-free images was born. Today, the site hosts tens of thousands of free stock images.

Oculus: One of The Most Successful Kickstarter Campaigns in History

Many famous startups were launched in garages, including HP, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Oculus. Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, used to work at USC’s Mixed Reality Lab.

At the end of each day, he would retire to his garage and work on VR's future. Thanks to many generous Kickstarter donations, he was able to leave Mixed Reality Lab and devote himself entirely to his project.

It didn't take him that long to reach success. Luckey sold Oculus to Facebook for an astonishing $2 billion before the startup even had a consumer product out.

AppSumo: Turning $50 into Millions

If you want to build your side project, you don't need large buckets of funding. AppSumo was started for a measly $50, and it grew into one of the most successful daily deals websites for digital services and goods, proving that small businesses can indeed compete with large brands.

Noah Kagan, the founder of AppSumo, recognized the need for a discount website for online businesses while marketing for one of the most popular online budget planners, Mint.com.

Kagan invested his hard-earned $30 in building a landing page. His mom liked the idea, so she chipped in $20. When his page was up and running, Kagan started collecting emails and quickly grew his venture.

In their first year, AppSumo reached $1 million in sales. The startup has been growing that number every year thanks to the dedicated sales team Kagan assembled.

Side Project Driven By a Passion

Khan Academy: A Side Project Driven By a Passion for Teaching

Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, received a bit of a backhand compliment while tutoring his cousins. Rather than meeting Khan in person, they preferred seeing him online.

Khan contemplated on the remark, while most of us would have simply brushed it off. This led him to start making 10-minute YouTube clips on subjects such as art and biology.

At the time, Khan worked as a hedge fund analyst. But, when his project gained traction, he quit his job to build his very own online academy. Today, it employs more than 100 people.

Imgur: If You Want Something Done Right, Do It Yourself

Alan Schaaf liked to spend time on Reddit while he was studying at Ohio State University. Like many Redditors at the time, he was frustrated because there were no useful resources for hosting photos on the site.

Instead of just lamenting the fact, Schaaf built his platform. When he launched his side project, fellow Redditors immediately liked it.

It quickly became one of the most successful internet startups. Today, the site has millions of daily page views. Schaaf is still the company’s CEO.

Author Bio

Jessie ConnorJessie Connor

Open Source Research Analyst and Writer

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