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Humble Beginnings

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From a fledgling animation studio, to one of the world's biggest media conglomerates.

"In a world... where a bankrupt comic book company sold the film rights of its best characters for peanuts, because they thought movies would be a good way to sell more comics, a young executive will do what he can with the rejects no one wanted, and do so well they get bought out by Disney... before it was cool."

Works where the original was some gag idly doodled on cocktail napkins, and the "sequel" was a multi-million dollar Hollywood project.

These may be considered a Spiritual Successor, Surprisingly Improved Sequel, Adaptation Expansion or More Popular Spin-Off, and cause Adaptation Displacement or Sequel Displacement, depending on what you consider a sequel, successor, adaptation, and original. A lot of people tend to assume that It Will Never Catch On before becoming a Sleeper Hit.

See also Ascended Fan Fic.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • The Love Live! series began as a massive financial failure when their first single, "Bokura no LIVE, Kimi to no LIFE", sold a whole 434 copies on release, with most of the copies being bought by the voice actresses and their relatives to show support. After the first anime took off, it gradually became a Cash-Cow Franchise.
  • The Lyrical Nanoha franchise, which began as a mini-scenario included in the Lyrical Toy Box merchandise CD of Triangle Heart 3: Sweet Songs Forever.
  • That's very much how Yu-Gi-Oh! became associated with "Duel Monsters", which originally was only one of many games in the manga ("Yu Gi Oh" means "King of Games"). Then Defictionalization of said card game steadily happened, creating a globally known franchise worth billions of dollars in the process.


    Comic Books 

    Films — Animated 
  • Lilo & Stitch started out around 1985 when Chris Sanders drew a picture of a grotesque alien creature for a failed children's book pitch. He kept the creature, called "Stitch", in his mind as he worked on several Disney animated films during the Disney Renaissance for years up to the mid-90s when Disney, who was looking to produce an animated film with a smaller budget than their big blockbusters, approached him to come up with a pitch for a new original film. After some tweaking to the story and character design, Sanders got to use his character for an animated film that would become Disney animation's one combined critical and commercial saving grace during their low period in the first half of the 2000s, even spawning a successful franchise shortly thereafter.
  • Toy Story had its roots in Tin Toy, a 5-minute short film about toys hiding from, and then wanting to be played with, a baby named Billy. A half-hour Tin Toy Christmas special was in the works as a testing ground to see if Pixar could manage a production that was closer to that of a feature-length film. In it, Tinny would have accidentally been sold to a toy store where he would discover he was part of a set of toy musicians that sold poorly. Another version of the story involved him being left behind on a family road trip where he'd team up with an abandoned ventriloquist dummy, and the two of them would make their way to a daycare center, where they'd be loved and played with forever. Disney wasn't interested and the studio couldn't afford to produce it independently, so Disney did the next best thing: they told the studio to start work on an honest-to-goodness feature film, which eventually became Toy Story.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Robert Rodriguez's Desperado, which was the remake/sequel of El Mariachi which he made on a budget.
  • Shredder Orpheus started as a short 13-minute movie called Orpheus and Eurydice in 1983, was expanded into a 27-minute film in 1987 under the current title, and finally became a full-length feature in 1989.

    Live-Action TV 

  • "Get Happy" began as a short vamp that Harold Arlen improvised while substituting for Fletcher Henderson as rehearsal pianist on the 1929 Broadway musical flop Great Day!. The chorus director, Will Marion Cook, told Arlen to turn it into a popular song, and it indeed became the Breakthrough Hit of his songwriting career.
  • Hypnosis Mic began with an empty mall performance of "Division Rap Battle" before expanding into the elaborate stage shows and concerts it's now known for.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Dilbert started out as an unnamed recurring character drawn on the whiteboard of Scott Adams' cubicle while working as an engineer at Pacific Bell.
  • Garfield Minus Garfield, which started as a riff of a Memetic Mutation of Garfield (inspired in a thread on the Truth and Beauty Bombs forum about the Garfield Randomizer), and eventually got its own published book by the syndicate, with a commentary essay by Jim Davis.

  • The Reduced Shakespeare Company began as a Renaissance Faire act doing a twenty-minute abridgement of Hamlet. Over the better part of a decade, this developed into a full-length theatrical work, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).
  • Forbidden Broadway began as a cabaret act with a cast of only three, including both Gerard Alessandrini and the pianist (who had to be replaced at the last minute, causing some worry since no piano part had been written out). They could hardly keep up with the costume changes.
  • Hamilton began as a single rap (which eventually became the opening number, Alexander Hamilton) performed at the White House by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had been invited to perform something from In the Heights (which was on Broadway at the time). To make matters worse, when he announced what he was about to perform, Barack and Michelle Obama laughed at him.

  • UglyDolls started with David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim, two university students, separated from each other due to Sun-Min's student visa expiring and her having to move back to Korea before a franchise could start. David wrote her a letter of support with a drawing of the character that would become Wage on it, and she sewed a doll of him as a gift in return. Through an incident that made it seem like they were pitching a toy, more dolls were sewn, more characters were added, and the toy-line was born.

    Video Games 
  • Nintendo:
    • Perhaps most famously, Nintendo started as a card company in the 19th century. Later they moved onto toys and novelties, before eventually getting into Video Games, which made them an international name.
    • The first Super Smash Bros. game started out as a side-project that Masahiro Sakurai and other staff at HAL Laboratory worked on during weekends in an attempt to create an easy-to-pick-up fighting game. The game wasn't even conceived as a crossover at first; Sakurai introduced the idea of using pre-established Nintendo characters midway through development due to his fears that the game wouldn't stand out in the crowded fighting game market without an already familiar cast of characters. The combination of the recognizable characters and accessible gameplay turned the game into a Sleeper Hit in spite of its lack of budget. Thanks to better hardware and proper budgets, subsequent Smash games would go on to achieve even greater success, becoming Killer Apps for future Nintendo systems and giving rise to yet another Cash-Cow Franchise for Nintendo.
  • Madballs In Babo Invasion was the sequel to the one-man freeware program Babo Violent 2, which was itself the formalized version of a networking test.
  • Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, which was the Xbox Live Arcade version of an Easter Egg Mini-Game from Project Gotham Racing originally created for testing the input system, and has since become a lucrative franchise in its own right.
  • Alien Hominid and Meat Boy, originally just random Flash games on Newgrounds.
  • Line Rider, a Flash toy with nothing more than drawing a line for a sled to ride on, which later got a full-fledged sequel and social networking website.
  • Team Fortress 2, technically the sequel to a 2-or-3 man mod for Quake.
  • The games Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat, which were both Half-Life mods whose small dev teams were bought out by Valve, split into commercial packages, and followed with "Source" versions with a much-improved engine.
  • The initial development idea for Left 4 Dead came during the development of bots for Counter-Strike, where the developers found themselves having more fun by arming a legion of bots with only knives and then fighting them off like a zombie horde.
  • Garry's Mod, the ten-dollar commercial version 10 of which has made Garry effectively a millionaire, was originally a quick hack to the leaked Half-Life 2 source code to allow arbitrary rope creation posted on the Something Awful Forums.
  • The game that preceded Portal, Narbacular Drop, was a school project at DigiPen.
  • Defense of the Ancients, a WarCraft III map with its own work page, has inspired a top ten single charting theme song, quite a few popular games, among them Demigod, Heroes of Newerth, and League of Legends, and arguably its own genre, and scored its developer a position at Valve Software (they seem to have a thing for Ascended Fanboy developers).
  • The idea for Katawa Shoujo began as a one-off joke on an omake page of a manga. Later, some people saw it on 4chan and decided to take a serious crack at making a Visual Novel featuring girls with disabilities.
  • Kind of a borderline example, but Kerbal Space Program is named after the backstory a couple of the developers made up for a series of model rockets they built and launched together when they were kids.
  • Rare's Mr. Pants made his first appearance on their website's Survey page as a hastily doodled placeholder character. He eventually starred in his own Game Boy Advance game.
  • Parodius became the most popular of the Gradius series' various spinoffs, but the inspiration for the cheaply-produced MSX game, which preceded the flashier, more popular arcade and console games, seems to have been the joke option of playing as Twinbee in Gradius by plugging cartridges for both games into one MSX.
  • Freedom Planet started as a Fan Game of Sonic The Hedgehog with original characters that took inspiration from the frantic and over the top action games by Treasure. When the team realized how much work was being put into the original characters and unique mechanics, they decided to remake the project as its own IP that was a celebration of the Sega Genesis library with a Sonic-influenced art style that became a successful franchise in its own right with a sequel, widely praised as a unique series that does what Shovel Knight did for 8-bit games that FP did for Sega platformers.
  • Shining in the Darkness was developed on No Budget (as the developer admitted in a 2009 interview; despite being a first-party in-house title they were only given the bare minimum budget offered to 3rd-party developers) solely to pad out the Sega Genesis' then-threadbare library of JRPGs. When Sega decided they wanted to create their own strategy RPG series to rival Nintendo's Fire Emblem, they chose to revisit the world of Shining in the Darkness and the rest was history.

    Web Animation 
  • Alan Becker was a financially struggling Junior High student when he made a two-minute short called Animator vs. Animation in his spare time, never expecting it to dominate the Web 2.0 scene, become the subject of Internet controversy, and eventually form the basis of his animation career. Here's the full story.
  • Glitch Productions:
    • SMG4 began in 2011 as any other Super Mario 64 Bloopers series on YouTube, starting with a two-and-a-half minute video made by teenager Luke Lerdwichagul about Mario getting invited for cake and hearing the cake is a lie. By 2017, Luke and his brother, Kevin, had improved their animation and storytelling skills so much that SMG4 became a YouTube staple, raking in millions of views per weekly episode, and inspiring the brothers to start Glitch as their own successful indie animation studio.
    • Meta Runner, Glitch's first original IP, stems from a drawing of a new character Kevin and Luke asked their younger sister to make for SMG4. That character was Tari, Meta Runner's eventual protagonist, whom the brothers decided to make the focus of her very own show before working her back into SMG4 as a bit of Production Foreshadowing.
  • Homestar Runner, which now has its own professional video game series and cameos ranging from songs in Guitar Hero to an Easter Egg cartoon in a Macromedia program, started as a children's book made in a college afternoon and put together at Kinko's. Watch it here.
  • Red vs. Blue was a one-off trailer a bunch of drunk college friends put together inspired by early Quake Machinima and their obsession with a new game they were playing called Halo: Combat Evolved. When some fans on the very early internet liked it, demand grew for a proper series, which they eventually started in 2003 using rough capture footage from their consoles filming the popular multi-player game of capture the flag. What started as a nonsensical sitcom with Halo characters swearing and lampshading the video game logic eventually grew into a surprisingly complex and ever-growing plot with dozens of developed characters, semi-professional and professional actors, custom CGI animated sequences, an indie rock band to perform the background music, and interconnected epic of war, betrayal, the ethics and morality of artificial intelligence, and comrades in battle while maintaining the witty humor and hilarious banter between Halo characters.

  • The Adventures of Dr. McNinja started as Chris Hastings' user name on the Something Awful Forums, which he decided at the last moment to change from Dr. McNugget. He then drew a panel of what said doctor would look like, then used the doctor as the premise of a comic he drew for his art degree.
  • The Nuzlocke Comics originally started out as the sketchings of a Self-Imposed Challenge on a Pokémon run. It utilised stick figures with a storyline that didn't really deviate from the original game for the first season, but, come the next season, there's a noticeable improvement in the artwork and formatting, the story-line becomes much more substantial, and the Pokémon themselves were much better characterized. The challenge itself has also become extremely popular among others, inspiring many other Nuzlocke comics, prose and further creative pursuits in turn.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court began as a picture Tom Siddell drew of a pink-haired girl in a drab school uniform. He only chose that subject for his picture because it fit the marker colors he had on hand. These days, Gunnerkrigg Court is Tom's sole source of income.
  • Gigi DG publicized Cucumber Quest's humble origins as part of an April Fools' Day gag in 2014. For the day, they revamped the site as Kukobu Quest, featuring their own art and writing from ten years prior.
  • morphE began as a weekly World of Darkness game between the four creators. The game spanned for two and a half years and spawned the plot of the comic. The weekly game itself was spawned from a one-shot test game the lead creator ran with a larger pool of friends. There was no intent to expand the one-shot to a full campaign, nor to adapt the outcome. The story just kept growing.
  • The first xkcd strips were doodles from Randall Munroe's notebooks.
  • Brawl in the Family started out as silly doodles on Smashboards, and since gained its author the notoriety to launch several highly successful Kickstarter campaigns (including one for his own Indie Game, Tadpole Treble) and land a position in the Nintendo Force fan-magazine.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons, originally a crudely-drawn series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, has gone on for more than 30 seasons and has spawned a merchandising empire, several video games, a movie and ride. The characters themselves were knocked out in the waiting room where Matt Groening was going to meet with executives. Originally, he was going to pitch a show based upon his comic Life in Hell, but he realized at the last minute that he might lose the rights to his own characters, so he quickly sketched a Nuclear Family based upon his own family.
  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone's first short "Jesus Vs. Frosty" was done as a student film. Their second short was made on a budget for a Fox network executive... so he could use it as a video Christmas card to send to his friends. After months of underground circulation via bootleg tapes and the Internet, Comedy Central decided to hire them to expand this into South Park.
  • The genesis for Phineas and Ferb came one night when Dan Povenmire was at a restaurant and drew a triangle-headed boy and decided to build a show around him. It was sixteen years before the show actually got picked up. The show's villain, now known as Dr. Doofenshmirtz, first appeared in an ad for Middlefield Cheese, an Ohio Amish cheese company in 2004.
  • Beavis and Butt-Head was originally just a short on Liquid Television, likewise Ĉon Flux. Celebrity Deathmatch appeared on the show's Spiritual Successor Cartoon Sushi.
  • Mike, Lu & Og grew out of a Russian animated short by Mikhail Aldashin about island natives being introduced to modern conveniences. The execs at Cartoon Network thought it would be a good premise for a series and hired Chuck Swenson (fresh from Klasky-Csupo) as head writer and Mikhail Shindel as producer to develop the series in collaboration with Pilot Studio in Moscow, with Swenson creating the redheaded tomboy to serve as the central character.
  • The Boondocks started out as a college newspaper strip before being nationally syndicated and eventually getting a popular television series.
  • Before becoming the massive franchise that earned millions of dollars for Nickelodeon, SpongeBob SquarePants started life as Bob the Sponge in a pamphlet comic made by Steven Hillenburg called The Intertidal Zone for children visiting the Orange County Marine Institute where he worked at. About a decade later, he revamped the concept to make a pitch for Nickelodeon, and the rest was history.
  • Long before Thomas & Friends was a global sensation, it was a series of bedtime stories told by an English clergyman named Wilbert Awdry as a way to entertain his very young son Christopher when he was ill with the measles. These bedtime stories came to be compiled in the first books of The Railway Series.

  • Adobe Flash, originally a small vector animation system based off a tablet computer drawing program by an Aldus spinoff later acquired by Macromedia. With its browser-embeddable Flash (originally FutureSplash) player, the introduction of ActionScript (Javascript with the Serial Numbers Filed Off,) and especially its late addition of bitmapped video, by the time Macromedia was acquired for Adobe, Flash had become the most popular browser-based content delivery medium.
  • Yahoo!, which began in 1994 as a student project on the Stanford University site. As did Google.
  • IMDb started as a list of actresses with pretty eyes.
  • This Very Wiki started out on, a Buffyverse fan-site.
  • eBay began because the creator's girlfriend had some Pez dispensers she wanted to sell.
  • Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie began developing the UNIX operating system on the PDP-7, an under-powered minicomputer. Before development moved to the PDP-11 and added text-processing applications that made Bell Labs take more than an experimental interest in UNIX, it was little more than a set of utility programs supporting a port of Space Travel, a game Thompson had originally written for a more powerful mainframe while working on MULTICS.
  • The Linux kernel started out, in the words of its creator Linus Torvalds, as "just a hobby" that he didn't think would ever become "big and professional" or ported to any other system besides his own 386 PC. Today, Linux has become ubiquitous on a multitude of different devices and platforms, including servers, embedded devices, as well as smartphones thanks to Android using it as its kernel.