7 Side Projects That Became Million Dollar Startups

Many people would say that side projects are just distractions, but often that’s not the case. If you are thinking of starting your side project, or growing your side project into a proper startup, don’t be discouraged.

Some of the biggest companies in the world started as side projects, and many of them seemed like crazy experiments at first.

If you think you have a great idea for a side project, read on for inspiration.


Perhaps there’s no better example of a mega-successful side project than Apple. The origin of Steve Jobs’ visionary company became legendary startup folklore: two college dropouts with nothing to their name that came together to change tech forever.

Even though they didn’t have any money, they had a lot of motivation to make it big. The duo started building personal computers in Jobs’ parents’ garage. Jobs, who was a shaggy hippie at the time, worked at Atari, while his geeky friend was employed at HP.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak
Image: Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak early days of Apple – Source

They first completed the Apple I in 1976. Their first invention put Apple on the map. Soon after, Apple II followed, and Apple became one of the hottest tech companies around.

The leadership ousted Jobs from Apple in the mid-80s. But, he proved to be the key person to the company as soon as he was brought back in 1997. Apple’s value had wavered over the years, but Jobs’ comeback turned it into a worldwide tech juggernaut. Last year, Apple became the first company in the world to record a market capitalization of $1 trillion.

Under Armour

One football player from the University of Maryland, Kevin Plank, really disliked the fact that he had to wear sweaty and heavy undershirts on game days and during practices. “Necessity is the mother of invention” and necessity is exactly what prompted Plank to invent a far superior athletic undershirt—one that will stay dry even during the sweatiest practices and games.

The design was so great that he decided to start manufacturing and selling his own undershirts. For an entire year, Plank drove up and down the east coast and sold undershirts out of the back of his car.

Thanks to the incredible passion he had for his project and the ingenuity of his invention, Plank was eventually able to move his business out of his car to and set up legitimate headquarters.

He started making team sales within 2 years. Currently, Under Armour makes almost $4 billion in revenues every year.


You are probably familiar with Etsy, if you are into the handmade, the creative, the crafty, and the unique. Today, Etsy is a major US company that has a market value of $12 billion, but it started out as just a side project of a small business called iospace.

Etsy website
Image: Etsy website 2020

Haim Schoppik, Robert Kalin, and Chris Maguire, the founders and sole employees of iopsace, decided to launch a small marketplace for individual artisans. They quickly learned that there are many people who want to both sell and buy one-of-a-kind handmade products. Today, the platform has tens of millions of active users.


Before he reached success, Igor Salindrija was your average college student. While he was majoring in law, he worked as a bartender at a local casino to make ends meet.

Salindrija had a strong passion for web design. He often took on freelance gigs and worked on them whenever he had some spare time—even when he was at the casino. One day, the boss caught Salindria messing around on his laptop while he should have been tending to the bar.

What happened next could only be described as destiny. Not only did Igor’s boss decide not to fire him, but he offered him a promotion. Salindria’s new role in the company was to help the casino enter the world of iGaming by building its first online platform.

Even after landing such an awesome job, Salindria remained passionate about his side projects. He took what he had learned at the casino and founded an iGaming portal called AskGamblers with the help of a few friends. The insights and knowledge of the industry he had gained while working at the casino helped him grow and promote his site.

He managed to build one of the most reputable info portals in the entire industry. Eventually, Salindria sold AskGamblers for $17.1 dollars to Catena Media.


Dharmesh Shah had just sold his first startup, so he had more time on his hands than usual. He decided to start a small blog where he will talk about the things he learned as an entrepreneur. The blog was so popular that it generated more traffic than sites run by professional marketing teams, and it didn’t even have a budget.

This inspired him to launch HubSpot as a side project. Currently, HubSpot is worth around $2 billion and many would argue that the site has reached success precisely because of the quality content it publishes.


Back in 2010, when smartphones were just becoming a thing, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom launched Instagram. Much like Foursquare, Instagram (then called Burbn) was a simple check-in app. But, there was a twist—their app allowed users to upload photos along with their check-ins.

Instagram on a desktop
Image: Instagram on a Desktop – Follow @anthonygaenzle

The duo rented a desk in a shared office and worked on their side project whenever they had some free time. At first, they didn’t have much success. People were not that keen on sharing mobile photos and, since Foursquare dominated their niche market, there really wasn’t room for another big app.

Instagram took off when Krieger and Systrom decided to focus entirely on mobile photography. Their re-envisioned app became so popular that Facebook decided to buy the company for $1 billion even though the duo hadn’t yet figured out how Instagram can turn a profit.


Back in 2019, Alon Cohen and Adi Tatarko, a passionate husband and wife team from Silicon Valley, founded a home improvement hub after struggling with their own home renovation project. So that they could look for contractors and solicit input, they launched a small website.

Just one year after launching, Houzz became a full-fledged business with its very own smartphone app. Today, the site is chock full of home design ideas and boasts more than 40 million unique users per month. In just seven years, the company reached a value of $4 billion.


Many of us have great side project ideas, but lack the motivation to do something about them. When you have doubts about your own capabilities, remember that many successful self-made entrepreneurs have humble origins. If you are passionate about your side project, an old laptop, a corner in your garage, and a bit of free time may be all you need to make it big.

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Emma Sumner
Latest posts by Emma Sumner (see all)

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