14 Big Businesses That Started in a Recession

Updated: June 17, 2009

It might seem counterintuitive to start a new business when the economy is in the dumps. But a recession can actually be the ideal time for launching a company. In fact, many well-known and successful organizations were born during an economic slump.

Why do these companies succeed? Usually it's because the founders recognized a market need and filled it. Identifying that need — whether it's related to entertainment, travel or even streamlining how businesses operate — is the key to any thriving enterprise, regardless of the economic climate in which it begins. The following major corporations made it big during recessions by doing just that.

Hyatt Corp. opened its first hotel's doors at the Los Angeles International Airport during the Eisenhower recession (1957 to 1958). The chain rose to worldwide fame in the following decades and now operates more than 365 hotels in 25 countries with premium services such as wifi hotspots.

Burger King Corp., with its flame-broiled burgers, is another recession startup. The company began in 1954 when James McLamore and David Edgerton opened a Burger King restaurant in Miami, Fla. During another recession in 1957, the company introduced its successful signature burger — the Whopper. Today, the company operates more than 11,100 locations in 65 countries.

IHOP Corp. is another star from the Eisenhower recession. The first restaurant in the now national chain opened its doors July1958 in Toluca Lake, Calif. Owners Al and Jerry Lapin were at the helm of the fast growing company, which began franchising just three years later. Today, there are more than 1,300 locations across the U.S.

The Jim Henson Company was created by famed puppeteer Jim Henson in 1958. Henson's business was responsible for some of the best-known puppet characters of all time including Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog and Elmo. Today, the privately held company is managed by Henson's children and continues to thrive by creating popular kids-friendly shows and movies.

LexisNexis is a research hub for the law, media and more. The company, originally a government contractor, began its LexisNexis computerized legal research service during the 1973 oil crisis that rocked the country into steep economic slump. The now Web-based service is used in 100 countries by individuals in law, government, education and business.

FedEx Corp. began operations on April 17, 1973 as Federal Express, a nod to the Federal Reserve, with whom founder Frederick W. Smith had hoped to get a contract. He didn't, but the company that delivered 186 packages to 25 cities on its first night of operations now manages more than 7.5 million shipments everyday worldwide.

Microsoft Corp. wasn't always the jaw-dropping enterprise it is today. In 1975, when it was created by Harvard University dropout Bill Gates, Microsoft was just a little company in Albuquerque, N.M. It dealt in rudimentary computing languages and began its climb to business stardom with the success of MS-DOS, which was sold and marketed to IBM Corp. and then-IBM clones. Today, the company is estimated to earn more than $60 billion in revenue per year and is branching into new areas including VoIP and CRM.

CNN might be a news giant now, but in recession-plagued 1980, it was a little-known station called The Cable Network News. It revolutionized how people received information when it premiered as the first 24-hour all-news channel. Today, 1.5 billion people across the globe watch CNN.

MTV Networks brought something new and different to the music scene when it debuted in the economic slump of 1981. Intended to be an all-music-video channel, MTV used VJs (video jockeys) to host programs and facilitate transitions between videos. Today, MTV is a global brand with dozens of shows, music-related and not.

Trader Joe's started as a chain of convenience stores called Pronto Markets in the slow financial times of 1958. In 1967, the company changed its name to Trader Joe's and began to carry unique grocery items under its own brand. The company now operates more than 280 stores in the U.S.

Wikipedia Foundation Inc. was born during the recent post-9/11 recession. Established in January 2001, the online encyclopedia had more than 100,000 entries by 2003. Today it is home to more than 2.5 million articles and continues to grow.

Sports Illustrated magazine was launched on August 16, 1954, at the tail-end of a recession. The magazine benefitted from fortunate timing as a boom in professional sports exploded soon after its founding. Sports Illustrated now sells about 3 million copies in the U.S. each week.

GE (General Electric Co.) was established in 1876 by famed American inventor Thomas Edison. In the middle of the Panic of 1873, a six-year recession, Edison created one of the best-known inventions of all time — the incandescent light bulb. In terms of market capitalization, GE is now the third largest company in the world. The enterprise has evolved from a manufacturing-strong business to an enterprise earning more than 50 percent of its revenue from its financial services division.

HP (Hewlett-Packard Development Company LP) was inauspiciously born in a Palo Alto garage at the end of the Great Depression. The electronic company, initially supported by a mere $538 investment, has grown into the first technology business to exceed $100 billion in revenue, earning $104 billion in 2007. It now operates in nearly every country in the world.

Recessions, however, aren't advantageous only to start-ups. Pre-existing companies can also make incredible gains in years where the economy is down. Some of the most recent success stories are those of Google, PayPal and Salesforce.com Inc. From 2000 to 2001 each of these companies thrived, leading PayPal to go public in 2002, followed by Google and Salesforce.com in 2004.