The process of starting or operating a small business can be difficult and discouraging at times. Where we can gain the biggest amount of inspiration is by visiting and learning more about successful online businesses and the innovative founders behind them. Their stories, particularly for the founders of Dropbox, Instagram, and Tumblr, reveal that it’s still possible for anyone with enough skill and determination to build a savvy and successful company.


Dropbox is an online file sharing and storage service that allows users to store videos, images, documents and other files on its servers. People can share files by creating download links or giving access to other Dropbox members. The basic account is free; users pay to obtain extra storage space. To limit marketing costs, Dropbox gives members more space when they refer new users.

The concept emerged in 2007, when Drew Houston accidentally left his USB drive at home. The idea for an online file storage service occurred to him as he waited for a bus. To create the system, Houston joined forces with MIT student Arash Ferdowsi. Investors quickly supplied over $7 million dollars in funding, according to Dropbox now has over 25 million members and employs 50 people.

So how did he do it? By taking a risk as well as advice from a mentor, Paul Graham. Nobody can build a multi-million dollar company on their own, which is why Houston asked for help. He also took a giant risk by posting the idea to Hacker News in the hopes of it being well received in the tech world. As much as he was worried about copycats stealing his idea, he needed to prove to Y Combinator (a startup funding company for digital entrepreneurs) that the concept could succeed. His idea drew the attention of all the right people and Houston was granted the funds after one nerve-racking PowerPoint presentation to Y Combinator.


Instagram is a photo sharing service that makes it easy for people and businesses with camera phones to distribute their pictures. To access the service, phone users download a free application. It allows them to modify, enhance and upload photos.

Kevin Systrom enjoyed creating computer games, taking pictures and experimenting with Photoshop. He saw photography as a powerful method of self-expression. After Systrom graduated from Stanford University, he worked at Google and NextStop. He was 28 years old when he started Instagram and during the first 90 days of its release, the app gained one million users. Systrom eventually sold Instagram to Facebook for $1 billion dollars, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Systrom didn’t make $400 million dollars in his 40% stake in Instagram simply by creating a product specifically for profit. He thought of his users first and what they would want. He took an idea and tailored it to give people the ability to share their creativity through photographs, which was always a passion of his. Originally, Systrom was offered a job at ‘The Facebook’ in 2006 but turned it down to finish his last year of school. By following his own priorities, this would lead him to his own version of success.


Tumblr is a major microblogging service that millions of people use, including celebrities like Beyonce and Lady Gaga. While traditional blogs often provide daily or weekly lengthy text-based content, microblogs entries are brief, in a paragraph or less, and typically based heavily on visuals. Tumblr users like to post interesting quotes, images, songs and videos and to generate revenue, the site sells blog themes, apps and featured directory listings.

Tumblr began in 2007 when founder David Karp was 19-years-old. Karp had tried other blogging systems, but he didn’t like the emphasis on text. He decided to create a multimedia blogging service. With the help of his excellent programming skills, Karp was able to build the system and rapidly expand it. Tumblr received $85 million from investors in a single month, according to Wired Magazine. The service now has about 36 million members and more traffic than Twitter.

By employing a well-worn technique in product manufacturing, Karp merely took something that he didn’t like and made it better. Blogging platforms aren’t a new thing by any means, but Karp discovered what modern bloggers were craving; more ways to express themselves. Once again, Karp – like Systom – focused on his users, concentrating their apps on each individual’s personal creativity.

These inspiring stories have many similarities. The founders believed in their ability to succeed. These individuals could have secured well-paying jobs at other companies, but they risked time and money to start their own businesses. Rather than relying on paid advertising, they created services that millions of people wanted to recommend. Although it isn’t feasible for everyone to immediately establish insanely popular websites right off the bat, business owners can benefit from these strategies and apply them to their startups. Combined with dedication and original ideas, such techniques are sure to yield success.

About the author

Carly Lance loves to blog about saving money and small business finances in hopes of helping others achieve financial bliss in their lives, as she has in her own. She is also the blog manager for Personal Bankruptcy Canada, a company of bankruptcy trustees dedicated to helping “good people with bad debt.