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Launch. Hack. Meow.

And other lessons from the brand builders of the post-Lehman economy.

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When Lehman Brothers collapsed five years ago and the floor fell out of the economy, first on Wall Street and then quickly everywhere else, all but the most dire pessimists knew that somehow we would recover—as the country has, in fits and starts. We knew that the dozens of storefronts suddenly shuttered around town would find new tenants; that at least some of the stalled development projects would pick back up again, though perhaps with different business plans and different owners; that shopping online would probably get easier (and more irresistible). READ MORE [+]

What was harder to predict, as always, was which kind of businesses might seize the economic moment. In this issue, we look at 22 companies whose founders were able to see beyond the pessimism of the crash. Like the man who thought Americans were ready for thick Greek yogurt. Or the woman who believed women just wanted a terrific blowout. Or the invention-funder whose best idea was to profit off other people's brainstorms. Some of these entrepreneurs were incredibly clever; a few were incredibly lucky. And one smartly hitched himself to a small herd of viral cats.

Taken together, their businesses do not necessarily represent the new American economy any more than MySpace or Vitaminwater did the last one. But if the real economy is the one that still makes industrial parts in the Midwest and populates the office parks of the American landscape, there is also the experiential economy: the one that alters the American appetite and invents new brands that lodge themselves into our psyches. It's hard to imagine the seventies without Kodak or the nineties without Nike or even the past decade without Magnolia cupcakes. Brands don't need to be massive to become suddenly ubiquitous.

And if the individuals on the following pages haven't all made a killing off the post-crash rebound, they have helped to define what this current economic moment feels like. Perhaps it's not surprising that many of them are young, very young—so young they were still in school during the last downturn. What follows are contemporary case studies of success, whether from a 27-year-old who figured out how to extract a billion dollars from Silicon Valley or a man two years his junior who looked at his father's noodle joint in Flushing and understood this was exactly what New Yorkers were going to want to eat.
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