As your business gets off the ground and expands its operations, you might no longer be able to manage all of your sales operations with Excel, orwi ...
30 Companies that Changed Sales Forever
Written by: Sean McAlindin
Sean McAlindin, a business and arts writer, has a decade-long experience in music and culture journalism and recently ventured into business writing.
Edited by: Sallie Middlebrook
Sallie, holding a Ph.D. from Walden University, is an experienced writing coach and editor with a background in marketing. She has served roles in corporate communications and taught at institutions like the University of Florida.
Updated on January 31, 2024
30 Companies that Changed Sales Forever
Every now and then a company comes along with a sales vision so unique and compelling that it changes the world forever. These brands become intrinsic parts of our culture, influencing everything from how we communicate to how our economy operates on a basic level.
Sometimes, building something unique leads to personal success, financial fortune, and a place in the history books. But what leads entrepreneurs to their visionary breakthroughs? And how have these quantum leaps altered the sales landscape as we know it?
If you’re looking for new ways to grow your business and make more sales, read on to learn how many pioneering companies broke the mold by building something unique, and how the world watched and changed along with them.
1. East India Company
Founded in 1600
Sure, governments, kingdoms, and empires have left their mark on history. But do you know who’s really driving the direction of humanity? Business.
More than any other institution in the world, free market enterprise has the greatest potential to upend tradition and completely alter society with shocking speed and power. And there’s nothing quite like the study of business history to illuminate where we’ve been and where we’re going.
One of the first companies to make a lasting impact on the global marketplace as we know it is the East India Company. Founded in 1600, two years before its Dutch equivalent, the East India Company sold textiles, precious metals, gemstones, spices, and tea acquired through colonial expansion in Asia.
Their primary method of sale was a simple catalog with the names of products printed on parchment. Through military invention, they aggressively expanded into new markets abroad while setting fashion and culinary tastes at home. At one point, as the first multinational corporation, East India Company grew to account for half the world’s trade.
From the colonization of India to the Opium Wars in China, the Company’s ruthless methods of subduing their trade partners (including the use of outright slavery) left a lasting scar on world history and birthed the global economy as we know it.
2. The Philadelphia Contributionship
Founded in 1752
In the United States, one sales team has been around longer than any other – the Philadelphia Contributionship, an insurance collective co-founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752.
Using door-to-door pitches and community selling, these founding insurers provided fire insurance to American businesses even before there was a United States of America. As part of a business agreement, they would place the company’s symbol cast in lead, depicting four hands clasped at the wrist, fastened to a square pine board to signify that a property was insured.
Modern insurance can actually be traced back to Nicolas Barbon and the city’s Great Fire of London in 1666, but there’s no denying that Franklin and company were some of America’s first sales and branding pioneers.
3. American Express
Founded in 1850
Although the concept of credit dates back at least 5,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia, one brand is known for blowing up the “credit card” as we know it today.
American Express began as a transporter of valuable goods, stock certificates, and currency throughout its home state of New York. During the late 1800s, the company added money orders and traveler’s checks to its portfolio.
The Diners Club card was actually the first modern-day credit card, an idea that came from Frank McNamara, a businessman who’d forgotten his wallet while out to dinner in New York. The next year, in 1958, American Express launched its first charge card to give travelers, consumers, and businesses more financial flexibility.
As of 2021, Amex had more than 120 million credit cards in use throughout the world.
4. National Cash Register
Founded in 1873
In 1873, National Cash Register founder, John Patterson, was one of the first people to draft a patterned sales script when he sent his sales representatives knocking on doors throughout assigned territory. The modern telephone was invented three years later by Alexander Graham Bell, and telemarketing was officially born.
Nowadays, NCR is a digital powerhouse worth $3.7 billion that manufactures self-service kiosks, point-of-sale terminals, automated teller machines, check processing systems, and barcode scanners.
Founded in 1885
AT&T has been at the center of telecommunications since its founding in 1885, and the company would belong on this list just for providing ubiquitous phone service, a major step up from telegraphy and letters.
Alexander Graham Bell started the Bell Telephone Company a year after he invented the telephone in 1876. It was later acquired by American Telephone and Telegraph Company, which you know as AT&T.
The communication company soon became a monopoly. If you were making a call in the 20th century, it was probably through AT&T.
But AT&T’s most significant contribution may have been its development of the transistor, in 1947. This key building block of all computing and electronic devices was not patented, out of fear of antagonizing the Justice Department over the monopolistic nature of its business. That decision opened the gate to the information technology and gadget-saturated world we live in today.
6. Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Founded in 1886
By the beginning of the 20th century Sears, Roebuck and Company, founded as a modest mail-order retailer of watches by Richard W. Sears and Alvah C. Roebuck, was already a household name known for thrift, industry, and consumer pleasures.
In an era when print media reigned supreme, Sears dominated the rural retail market through its huge catalog, an amazing work of product advertising, consumer education, and corporate branding. The retail behemoth also demonstrated how to run a business by cutting costs and tightly controlling national distribution.
As the American sales landscape changed with the spread of the automobile, Sears opened its first department store in Chicago in 1925. It was a dominant retail player until the 1970s when inflation and an expanding global marketplace allowed discount department stores like Walmart, Costco, and Target to undercut its prices.
Founded in 1886
In 1886, chemist John S. Pemberton brought his special syrup to Jacobs’ Pharmacy in downtown Atlanta where the first glass of Coca‑Cola was poured. Originally containing both cocaine and caffeine, it was marketed as a tonic for ailments.
While the drink was undeniably popular, what always set Coca-Cola apart was its branding. After all, it had to compete with PepsiCo which was founded in 1898. By the time its classic bottles were introduced in 1916, Coke was already spending well over $1 million dollars a year on advertising.
The famous Coca-Cola Christmas advertising campaigns began in 1931 with print illustrations of St. Nicholas drinking Coca-Cola. On Thanksgiving Day in 1950, the first Coca-Cola television commercials premiered, and the company soon began to diversify its product lines and expand its international reach.
In 1971, the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World A Coke” became one of the most iconic ads of all time for its universal message, an emblem of the company’s success in global branding and diversification. Coca-Cola was ranked sixth on the Forbes list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands in 2020.
8. General Electric
Founded in 1892
Thomas Edison’s General Electric changed the world in three big ways: it brought electricity and light bulbs to the masses, it created America’s first industrial research lab, and it pioneered modern sales management strategy.
By the first half of the 20th century, GE had transformed American domestic life. Basically, all modern appliances are the end result of this company’s tireless innovation, including toasters, stove tops, refrigerators, washing machines, fluorescent lamps, jet engines, dishwashers, nuclear power plants, and can openers.
On top of all, GE is the only company from the original Dow Jones Industrial Average — started in 1896 — that’s still around. Like most of the companies on this list, GE ended one way of doing things (gas-powered lighting), while leading the world toward another.
Founded in 1903
In 1896, an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit, named Henry Ford, went into the workshop behind his house in Michigan and built his first gasoline-powered vehicle.
Then, during a period of unparalleled innovation early in the 20th century, Ford Motor Company developed the moving assembly line, raised the wages of the workers who manned it to $5 a day, and made its Model T automobile affordable to millions of buyers.
By 1918, Ford would account for half the cars in America, and highways and byways were built to suit the times. More than a century later, our society and economy are completely dependent on automobiles and the fuels that power them.
Today, Ford is the world’s third-largest automaker, and the company is still controlled by the descendants of Henry Ford.
10. Multi-Mailing Co
Founded in 1903
In the early 1900s, the Multi-Mailing Co. started compiling and selling lists from local phone directories. Its first “lead list” consisted of 600,000 numbers which spread across multiple cities. At that time, the newly developed system gave sales representatives access to richer members of the community who could afford home phones.
While the company eventually flamed out, its pioneering methods for lead generation live on in a digital age where compiled customer data continues to reap a high return on investment.
11. General Motors
Founded in 1908
For the first decades of its existence, General Motors was used to second place. But the industry leader, Ford, had a weakness. It had built its empire on a repeatable, reliable product and was well-known for its resistance to change.
In 1924, GM’s Chairman of the Board Alfred Sloan came up with the idea to create five separate brands and five price ranges for five different types of consumers. By 1936, GM was the largest privately-owned company in the world, thanks to the pioneering concepts of brand differentiation, yearly model changes, planned obsolescence, and bundling products and services.
GM is still the leading automaker today with a 17% market share.
Founded in 1911
In the early 20th century, salespeople were not considered to be professionals. But, as competition between companies increased, managers began to see well-educated, well-trained, and knowledgeable salespeople as a source of competitive advantage. IBM CEO Thomas Watson Sr. was one of the first industry leaders to stress professionalism in sales.
Starting in the early days, Watson hired only the top-performing graduates from the top universities. He set up a sales school and put trainees through six weeks of intensive training in selling and servicing IBM equipment. He insisted that his salesmen wear suits and conduct business using the highest ethical standards. In turn, Watson rewarded his top performers with bonuses and celebrations.
All in all, IBM sales reps were given up to 18 months of sales training—much more than other companies required. By the time they graduated and became quota-carrying salespeople, they were experts not only in IBM’s products and services, but in the businesses of the companies and industries to which they sold.
It was the birth of “solution selling” which continues to be the global standard today.
Founded in 1919
In the 1920s, the Radio Corporation of America was at the forefront of a booming radio industry as a major manufacturer of receivers and the creator of the first nationwide American radio network, NBC.
Then, at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Queens, N.Y., RCA premiered television. In 1948, about 800,000 television receivers were sold. Two years later, annual sales were 7.5 million and remained at five to six million per year for the next decade.
The entertainment gold rush was on, and RCA led the way as the top maker of color TV sets, video cameras, and sound recordings (called “records”). Few, in any, other companies so profoundly influenced both the engineering and the content of the 20th-century media revolution.
Founded in 1923
“If you can dream it, you can do it.” – Walt Disney
The Walt Disney Company is one the best examples of how a brand can work its way into the cultural subconscious and never let go.
Throughout multiple generations, Disney’s name has become synonymous with cherished childhood memories, unforgettable entertainment, and groundbreaking innovations. Their legacy will forever be a testament to the power of imaginative storytelling.
Disney himself, who died in 1966, is the personification of a “self-made man.” Following World War I, he started his own studio in a converted garage using borrowed equipment. He failed miserably several times before finally hitting it big with Mickey Mouse in 1928.
In addition to conquering the entertainment industry, Disney has been at the forefront of color television, robotics, virtual reality, streaming, merchandising, and fashion. They pioneered theme parks that revolved around the customer experience. More recently, they’ve acquired Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm Ltd., 21st Century Fox, ABC, and ESPN.
Founded in 1943
Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA in Älmhult, Sweden, when he was just 18 years old, beginning a retail legacy that revolutionized product design while bringing stylish, contemporary, and affordable home furnishings to the masses. IKEA’s greatest innovation was the development of flat-packing furniture for home assembly which led to cost savings and shipping convenience.
Whether unanticipated or by design, one of the side effects of having customers assemble furniture themselves came to be known as “the IKEA effect,” a psychological phenomenon in which people tend to think more favorably of something when they contribute their own physical efforts toward its creation.
Founded in 1955
Big Mac, anyone?
New Hampshire brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened the very first McDonald’s on April 15, 1955, in San Bernardino, California. Their tiny drive-in bore little resemblance to today’s ubiquitous “golden arches,” but they would eventually come to evolutionize the fast-food industry by putting the hamburger on the assembly line.
With an emphasis on efficiency and consistency, their standard operating procedures and franchising model set the standard for the corporate takeover of small-town America. Employing two million people, they now serve 70 million customers a day in more than 39,000 restaurants in 120 countries. One in eight Americans has eaten at McDonald’s at some point in their lives.
If anything, McDonald’s demonstrated the power of repeatability, affordability, and convenience, albeit to the detriment of America’s public health and culinary reputation.
Founded in 1962
Alongside competitors such as Kmart and Target, Walmart forever changed the retail landscape with its low-cost, high-volume business model and all-powerful supply chain management. Its marketing penetration method, which takes over local markets through low prices and unmatched inventory, has changed small-town America forever.
Sam Walton opened his first Walmart in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962. It pulled in $975,000 within a year.
In only 17 years, Walmart would reach $1 billion in lifetime sales — the fastest of any company in history. By 1985, Forbes had named Walton the richest man in America, with a net worth of $2.8 billion. When Walton died in 1992, Walmart’s annual revenue was $43 billion.
Nowadays, 90% of Americans live within 15 minutes of a Walmart. The company averages a profit of $1.8 million an hour, employs 2.3 million associates worldwide, and serves over 200 million customers each week at more than 11,000 stores in 27 countries.
If it were its own country, Walmart would have the 25th largest economy in the world. More recently, it pioneered its GoLocal last-mile service as its in-home delivery, which now reaches 30 million American homes.
Founded in 1975
Nearly half a century ago, Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen set the ambitious goal of putting a PC on every desk and in every home. Forty years later that goal has been largely realized.
Over a billion PCs are now in use in businesses and homes around the world. With the advent of the Internet and the smartphone, their integration into almost every part of our lives is almost complete.
Microsoft grew from a company that employed just 30 people into a trillion-dollar corporation. As the age of AI dawns upon us, it continues to be a major player in the cross-section of business, society, technology, and global change. It’s also the second most valuable company in the world at $2.4 trillion.
Founded in 1976
At a time when you needed to know basic coding to operate a computer, Apple’s Macintosh was operated with a simple mouse and graphic interface. From its inception, it wasn’t just for hobbyists and computer engineers – it was a product for anyone and everyone.
Apple changed the world in 2001 by augmenting its simple-to-use PC with music software and the portable iPod player to go with it, followed by a groundbreaking smartphone in 2007 and a tablet iPad computer in 2010 – all of which work together brilliantly.
Steve Jobs deserves much of the credit for aligning every aspect of Apple’s business around two things: world-class products and a universal approach to selling. While many other smartphone and PC options exist, no other 21st-century brand has done as good a job at making their products indispensable to so many people.
In 2023, there are over 2 billion Apple devices active worldwide and Apple’s valuation has cracked $3 trillion, giving the largest market cap in the business world.
Founded in 1994
Amazon, now one of the world’s highest-valued companies at $1.3 trillion, originally started as an online retailer of physical books. When operations began in July 1995, it promoted itself as “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore,” and focused on competing with big box book retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Waldenbooks.
In 2000, Amazon launched an online marketplace where third parties could list items for sale. This move dramatically increased their selection and revenue, and the company quickly expanded into every retail market known to man. Amazon now owns more than 37% of the U.S. e-commerce market.
In 2006, Amazon began offering cloud computing services that today lead the industry. With Amazon Prime, it has become a forerunner of in-home delivery and entertainment streaming.
Founded in 1995
From his living room in San Jose, Cal., a French-born Iranian-American computer programmer named Pierre Omidyar added an experimental online auction section to his personal website. He called it AuctionWeb because it enabled people to bid to purchase items that other people were advertising for sale.
Omidyar had created an open global marketplace for individuals and businesses to buy and sell goods. The first sale on the site was of a broken laser pointer which went for $14.83. eBay sold its millionth item, a Sesame Street “Big Bird” Jack-in-the-box toy, within two years of its launch. As of 2023, Omidyar was worth $6 billion.
The key to eBay’s success has been the way it has kept pace with technology and listened to customer feedback. While it now has plenty of competition, including Shopify and Etsy, eBay has maintained its influence by adapting to e-commerce changes while continuing to support small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Founded in 1998
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google at Stanford University, they probably didn’t realize their online search engine would become an empire that completely determines the way we find information and communicate with others.
Google enabled free searches of words or terms, making all manner of information instantly retrievable. It now processes 35 million queries per hour. That’s more than 8 billion each day and 92% of online search market share. Along the way, Google created digital advertising and search-based sales strategy as we know it, while simultaneously altering the newspaper and publishing industries forever.
On a more basic level, Google changed our brains. Recent research has confirmed suspicions that 24/7 access to near-limitless information is not only bad for human discourse – it’s also making us worse at remembering things.
Google has tamed the once-wild World Wide Web, built a computer that fits in your pocket, photographed all of Earth to create comprehensive maps, and manufactured a polyglot translator. From self-driving cars to wearable computers to contemporary AI breakthroughs, Google has been at the forefront of technological innovation for 25 years.
Founded in 1998
The introduction of PayPal at the end of the 20th century coincided with an explosion in online shopping. The web had become easier to use and more people were gaining access to it all the time. Yet, one vital element was missing; a secure way of paying directly on a website.
As incredible as it seems now, paper checks sent by mail were still the most common payment method at that time. Once PayPal became an option, the whole process became much more speedy and secure. It now has plenty of competitors like Apple Pay, Venmo, Stripe, and Zelle, but PayPal still commands a more than 40% e-commerce market share.
As it changed the e-commerce world, the company gave rise to four influential Silicon Valley billionaires, including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and Reid Hoffman. In more ways than one, PayPal was a catalyst for the entire financial tech industry.
Founded in 1999
Alibaba today is more than just an online commerce company. It is what you get if you take all functions associated with retail and coordinate them into one sprawling, data-driven network of sellers, marketers, service providers, logistics companies, and manufacturers. Essentially, it’s Google, Amazon, FedEx, and PayPal all rolled into one.
While Alibaba has its hands in a bit of everything, it excels at connecting businesses to manufacturers as the leading B2B platform for global trade. Its expert network coordination and superior data intelligence have transformed the all-encompassing e-commerce platform into a global giant whose reach expands far beyond China.
Founded in 1999
Innovative companies change the way the world works. Marc Benioff built Salesforce around one main idea: that software should be delivered 24/7 to people over the cloud.
In the late 1990s, companies like Oracle and SAP were selling software to businesses that had to be installed and updated on-premise. Now, those companies are belatedly building cloud products, trying to catch on to the movement that Salesforce started.
Salesforce is the global leader in customer relationship management (CRM) software that enables companies of every size and industry to digitally transform around their customers by harnessing the power of automation, artificial intelligence, and real-time data.
More recently, it developed Einstein, the world’s first generative AI for CRM, which utilizes a generative model for developing natural language-based responses to a huge variety of questions and requests of customers.
Founded in 2004
Social networking has existed for as long as humans have been on Earth, but Facebook catapulted it into the digital age. The company was launched in 2004 as an internal social network for Harvard University. Two years later, after multiple investments and lawsuits, the platform opened to everyone.
The landscape of digital marketing would never be the same. The amount of customer data accumulated by Facebook was unprecedented. Suddenly, whole new ways of generating leads and developing personalized customer relationships had become available.
By 2012, Facebook was the first social network to surpass 1 billion people, and today the platform has over 2.3 billion monthly users. There are 7.7 billion people on the planet, which means that almost a third of the world is on Facebook. Its user base is larger than any single nation.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than a third of Americans now use Facebook as their primary news source. Unfortunately, Facebook’s “social revolution” has led to the spread of online misinformation.
Its algorithm-fueled echo chamber has increased political polarization and fueled uprisings like the Arab Spring and atrocities like the Rohingya genocide in Burma. Social media’s negative mental health effects on children have also come to light. Still, this social media platform continues to be irresistible to its users.
Meanwhile, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and the rest expanded on the original concept to become social media behemoths in their own right. Facebook rebranded as Meta in 2021 and continues to push the frontier in virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
Founded in 2005
Jawed Karim, Steve Chen, and Chad Hurley originally started YouTube as a dating website. They took out ads offering to pay people $20 a pop to post videos of themselves. The approach failed, but as users of the site began to post whatever videos they felt like uploading, the founders embraced the idea.
They revamped the website to make it easier for people to upload nearly anything. Google purchased the site in 2006 for $1.6 billion in stock. It is now among the most visited websites globally, with billions of videos being consumed there daily.
Along the way, YouTube has created its own economic ecosystem of influencers, salespeople, and international marketplaces that are open and available to everyone. The subsidiary now brings in nearly $30 billion in revenue each year.
Founded in 2006
Fifteen years ago, a New York University dropout named Jack Dorsey shared a cryptic message online: “just setting up my twttr.”
Very few could have predicted when it launched in 2006 that Twitter would go on to alter the media landscape, political discourse, and society in permanent and profound ways. All in 140 words or less.
By amplifying previously marginalized voices, Twitter propelled political movements and societal reckonings hashtag by hashtag, from #MeToo to #MAGA to #BlackLivesMatter. It also contributed to the instantaneity of information – both from traditional news media and citizen journalists – giving anyone, anywhere, an immediate window into history as it unfolded.
From politics to breaking news to customer service to market research, Twitter changed the landscape of real-time marketing and customer engagement forever. Purchased by Elon Musk in 2022, it was renamed to be known as “X” in July of 2023.
Founded in 2006
As graduate students at MIT, Brian and Dharmesh noticed a shift in the way people shop and buy. Consumers were no longer tolerating pop-up bids for their attention — in fact, they’d gotten really good at ignoring them.
From this observation, an ingenious company was born. Hubspot created “inbound marketing,” the notion that people don’t want to be interrupted by marketers or harassed by sales reps. Instead, they want to be helped and companies that can do that will make more sales.
A now $70 billion industry emerged around content marketing, a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience. Instead of pitching products or services, content marketing provides personalized, relevant, and useful content to your prospects and customers to help them solve issues in their work or personal lives.
Compared to traditional outbound marketing programs, content marketing costs 62% less and generates approximately three times the volume of leads. Today, the inbound marketing movement continues to empower the business world to stop interrupting, start helping, and return their focus to the customer.
30. Zoom Video Communications
Founded in 2011
Before COVID-19, the video conferencing app, Zoom, was not a household name. But, as the world went into lockdown and quarantines in 2020, it became synonymous with communication.
In the early days of the pandemic, Zoom’s daily meeting participants grew 30 times — from 10 million participants to more than 300 million. Meanwhile, the share of Americans working exclusively from home rose from 4% in 2019 to 54% in 2022.
Zoom and other video conferencing services like Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams have revolutionized communication infrastructure. From logistical lifestyle changes such as your school or office desk moving into your home, to life-saving medical consultations coming from a screen, Zoom has redefined how we live.
At the same time, brick-and-mortar businesses and the rural housing market have suffered as people have stopped commuting and relocated away from urban centers. Maybe Zoom was just in the right place at the right time, but good luck finding a single salesperson who doesn’t use it today.
Through innovations in global trade, communication, mass production, branding and marketing, sales management, financial processes, and more, these companies have left a permanent mark on history. Rather than cater to the latest trends, they were visionaries who forged their own path, and humanity followed.
Who will be the next groundbreaking company that changes the world forever? Without a doubt, the future is going to be different than today. So, if you find a way to get ahead of the curve, inspire your audience, and develop a revolutionary way of doing things, it could be you.
Companies change the world through innovation by introducing new products, services, or business practices that solve problems, meet needs, and transform industries, ultimately improving the quality of life for their customers.
Companies with a global impact often exhibit characteristics such as visionary leadership, a culture of creativity and risk-taking, a focus on customer needs, and adaptability to changing market dynamics.
Innovation can come from companies of all sizes, including startups and small businesses. Smaller companies can disrupt industries and contribute to innovation as well, and many go on to become industry leaders.
Innovative companies foster a culture of innovation by encouraging open communication, rewarding creativity, and providing resources for research and development. They often create cross-functional teams and celebrate experimentation as part of their culture.
Many believe that innovative companies have a moral responsibility to address global challenges. Their reach, resources, and ability to innovate uniquely position them to contribute to solutions for pressing global issues. The actual commitment to social responsibility varies by company.
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