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Ideas That Made $100 Million

Michelle Fox

Chances are, just about anyone you talk with will have an idea for a business that they think can make millions. Although business pitches may be easy to come by, turning those ideas into wins is a whole new ballgame. However, many entrepreneurs with simple ideas and humble beginnings have been able to effectively turn the ideas into winning businesses.

Names like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg usually come to mind when people think about those lucky few who have cashed in on their ideas, but you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley or Seattle to turn your idea into millions.

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So what does it take to make $100 million? You may be surprised. 

Chris and Robin Sorensen — Firehouse Subs

Chris and Robin Sorensen were both firefighters in Florida when they came up with the idea to open a sandwich shop based on their family’s 200 year history of fighting fires. In 1994, the brothers borrowed on a credit card belonging to Robin’s in-laws and opened their first shop, decorated with fire equipment and a hand-painted mural that depicted the local fire department. They even gave their subs firefighter-inspired names like “Hook & Ladder” and “Engine Company.” Robin worked at the store while Chris continued to work part-time at the fire department.

These days both Sorensens have put their firefighting days behind them. Firehouse Subs is now a booming franchise business, with 514 corporate and franchise locations around the United States  — and the numbers keep growing. The company plans to continue its expansion in the Northeast, Central and Southwest in 2012.

In 2011, Firehouse Subs raked in $284.9 million in total system sales.

Mary Ellen Sheets — Two Men and a Truck

Mary Ellen Sheets never imagined that hauling trash would turn into a multi-million dollar company. In the early 1980s, Sheets’s sons, Jon and Brig Sorber, started doing odd jobs for locals, using their pickup truck to haul trash and brush from people’s yards and moving furniture.

Once the boys went off to college, the phone kept ringing. So Mary Ellen hired two men and bought another truck for $350. At first it was a hobby, but by the late-1980’s, she quit her job to focus on the business full-time. She also made another life-changing decision: she decided to franchise.

Today, Two Men and a Truck has 224 locations in 34 states. Brig Sorber has replaced his mom as CEO, but Mary Ellen Sheets still serves on the board of directors and Jon Sorber is an executive with the company. In 2011, Two Men and a Truck conducted 353,761 moves and had a total of $220 million in sales.

Bert and John Jacobs — Life is Good

Bert and John Jacobs designed their first t-shirts in 1989 and hawked them on the streets of Boston and at colleges along the East Coast. But for five years, success eluded them. Then, in 1994, they struck upon the idea to use a design of a cartoon figure called Jake and the motto “Life is good.” People seemed to embrace the simple message of optimism — the shirts were a hit at a local street fair and retailers soon became interested.

Now Jake’s face and motto are on more than just shirts. You can find him and other characters smiling on products from towels and totes to coffee mugs and dog leashes. And life sure is good now for Bert and John Jacobs. Business is booming, with 2011 sales coming in at about $100 million.

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Sara Blakely — Spanx

One night, Sara Blakely cut off the bottom of her pantyhose and the idea of Spanx was born. Armed with $5,000 in savings, Blakely researched and wrote her patent for footless pantyhose and drove around North Carolina begging mill owners to make her product. Most told her it would never sell, but one owner decided to take a chance and help her make her “crazy idea.”

In 2000, her prototype was perfected and she started hitting up high-end department store buyers. In the first three months, she sold over 50,000 pairs from the back of her apartment. Now her “crazy idea” has grown to include a full range of products that are sold around the world, and Blakely is soaring high. In March, she landed on the Forbes World’s Billionaires 2012 list, which estimated the company’s revenue at just under $250 million.

Geoff, Dave and Catherine Cook — myYearbook

Siblings Dave and Catherine Cook had just moved to a new high school in when they came up with the idea of an online yearbook to meet new friends. To get started, they turned to their brother, Geoff Cook, who had already started and sold a business while in college. In 2005, Geoff became the first investor and CEO of myYearbook. Within the first nine months, the site had 1 million users. As the company grew, it left the high school realm and started connecting people in general.

In November 2011, social networking site Quepasa bought myYearbook for $100 million in cash and stock, and in June of this year myYearbook was rebranded as MeetMe. All three siblings still work at the company, with Geoff Cook as the CEO.

The next big milestone for MeetMe is its merger with Quepasa, which will bring the number of users from 40 million to 80 million, according to Geoff Cook.

Click here for the full list of Ideas That Made $100 Million.

A new episode of “How I Made My Millions” premieres Monday, June 18 at 9 p.m. ET, with a re-air at 12 a.m. ET on CNBC.

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