Learning from Multi-Billion Dollar Brands with Humble Beginnings

Tips for Colorado startups on breaking the mold to rise to the top

Many of today’s biggest, multi-billion-dollar tech companies share a common heritage  ̶  they all started out from the “humblest of beginnings.” ̶ Business Inquirer, June 2019

Airbnb, Uber, Snapchat, Twitter, the list goes on.  The thread connecting each of these tech startups is the unique way they found their niche to break out of the oversaturated consumer environment.

Today, these brands are a household name, but they weren’t always. It’s worth a look at how they started, and what they did to get where they are today  ̶  utilizing technical innovations, savvy customer experiences and a genuine commitment to community – to break the mold and rise to the top of the consumer’s journey.

Technical Innovation


In 2007, internet searches for hotel rooms and places to stay were just gaining in popularity.  Airbnb was able to catch the wave early by offering an easy-to-use platform to find a room anywhere in the world. Their app soon followed, giving anyone looking to book a room or an entire house a one-stop shop. Today, their “airbed” idea is a $10 billion company – Airbnb is used by travelers to find rentals worldwide.


In March 2009, two friends in graduate school in San Francisco built their initial black-car service with a twist to the old way of hailing a cabby – instead, using text messaging to quickly order a ride.

Previously, anyone wanting a quick ride across town would either have to rent a car or take a cab, bus or train to their destination.  Uber changed all of that with their mobile app connects you to available in-service cars in the immediate area.


The humble beginnings of this home-improvement company are a great example of how a personal challenge can turn into a billion-dollar solution.

Founded by a husband and wife in 2009, this duo was having a difficult time finding contractors and designers to hire for their home-improvement project.  They launched an online gathering of contractors and other experts to find help.  With the creation of a website and iPad app, their idea exploded less than a year later.

Customer and User Experience

CorePower Yoga

Yoga was once a mom and pop business operated out of the basement or in a backroom office.  I remember, in the past, having to take off my shoes in the hallway before entering a yoga studio with only a yoga practitioner and no music.

As a co-founder of CorePower Yoga, the three main things we changed were to do with the customer experience – creating a high-end studio atmosphere that focused on a unique workout, having fun with good music and sweat.

Trader Joe’s

Knowing the customer is what got founder of Trader Joe’s, Joe Coulombe started, and it has grown from there.   Trader Joe’s employees understand that they have a big impact on the store’s customer experience.

Joe noticed a trend among college graduates whose salaries were falling, but not their need for quality groceries. He jumped on the health-food train and began slashing prices and increasing inventory for items customers were demanding.

Trader Joe’s is all about bending over backwards for the customer.  To demonstrate this, you only have to look as far as the large, hand-pulled bronze bell at the check-out lines that is rung to summon customer support.

Jet Blue

Making the travel experience a good one, with little hassle and providing good value, is what won over air travelers weary of being nickel-and-dimed to death.

A customer-focused approach won the New York-based, no-frills airline a loyal following.  JetBlue took its first flight in the winter of 2000, vowing to “bring humanity back to air travel.”

Unfortunately, Jet Blue may be turning their focus on the very thing that won them customers from other airlines – going after those “extras” –increasing baggage fees, and business travelers who often book at the last minute and pay a premium – to improve their bottom line. Time will tell if this refocus will have an impact on the airline’s success.

Committed to Community


Those interval-training studios are transforming the fitness landscape from a typical work out facility to a lifestyle movement, which is creating healthier communities. 

Annual events like the brand’s One Dollar, One Day, One Heart campaign benefiting Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Heart Institute; and its biannual DRI-TRI for Muscular Dystrophy Association Rocky Mountain, which raises money to send Colorado kids with Muscular Dystrophy to summer camp; are all part of the Orangetheory’s commitment to the community.


Building community support has been a gamechanger for this athletic clothing company, known for their high-end leggings.  Lululemon was founded in Vancouver, Canada in 1998 as a design shop by day and yoga studio by night.

Lululemon stores now invite community members to stop by as a place to gather and discuss healthy living. Sales associates then have the ability to create real relationships to learn more about what customers or “guests” are passionate about. This commitment to community has been a big part of the brand’s success.

Clif Bar & Company

This protein bar company is engaged in fighting for the rights of farmers in the its supply chain, because they have a vested interest in doing what is right.

Part of the company’s mission is giving back to the community through its employee engagement efforts.  Employees can donate bars or money (matched up to $2K) to an organization of their choice and receive personal time off and company matching funds for a designated charity.


Growing from humble beginnings to having a worldwide footprint, these companies provide a great roadmap for Colorado startups looking to achieve success in an ever-changing consumer-driven environment.

Tim Johnson is the area developer for Orangetheory Fitness Colorado. He owns and operates 16 of the 29 Orangetheory Fitness studios in the state. Johnson is also a co-founder of the Denver-based CorePower Yoga and worked as the director of its corporate headquarters.

Categories: Company Perspectives