The most controversial startups ever

Anna King
04 May 2017
3 minute read

Some entrepreneurs love to shock. And it's certainly one way of getting attention — at least in the short-term anyway. Whether it makes for a sustainable business model is another matter! Here's our pick of the most controversial — and in some cases, downright scary — start-ups ever:

Death Cigarettes

The most controversial start-ups ever

This cigarette challenger brand was never going to go unnoticed, attracting plenty of attention when it launched back in 1991. Founded by entrepreneur, BJ Cunningham, the brand confronted the health dangers of cigarettes head on, even printing a skull and crossbones on its packaging. While its subversive message gained cult status amongst the young, underground punk rock market, unsurprisingly its branding wasn't to everyone's taste. Cunningham's plan to sponsor the Pacific Racing F1 in 1994 fell through catastrophically after Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna were killed at the San Marino Grand Prix. Its trademark rights were then successfully challenged by an equally subtly named alcohol company called Black Death and, unable to continue selling, the company closed in 1999.


The most controversial start-ups ever

For any fans of the Netflix hit Black Mirror, Peeple will sound ominously familiar. Described by its founders, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, as "Yelp for people", it's a review app that allows anybody to rate anybody else, based on professional, personal or romantic relationships. Originally announced in September 2015, predictably the idea received an enormous backlash, with concerns it would encourage cyber bullying and harassment. The founders took some of the criticism on board ahead of the launch in March 2016, but the concept has remained pretty much the same. So, while you can now choose which reviews appear on your profile, other users can still pay for a "Truth License" to read any negative ones. Let's just say, we won't be signing up any time soon!

Cereal Killer Café

The most controversial start-ups ever

We actually love this idea, but this cereal café caused quite a stir when it first opened in 2015. Co-founders and identical twins, Alan and Gary Keery, came up with the concept while hungover and craving cereal (we've all been there!) Like any aspiring entrepreneurs, they did their market research, discovered there was demand and took out a bank loan to get started. Little did they realise that a few months later they would become the poster boys for gentrification, branded "out of touch hipsters" and have their shop attacked by angry protesters. But, not to be dissuaded, an outpouring of support, not least from then London Mayor Boris Johnson, mean the brothers have brushed themselves off, opened two more shops in the UK and expanded internationally.



We're spoilt for choice when it comes to dubious dating sites and apps to focus on — step forward Ashley Madson, Beautiful People and various others. But the winner of the most shocking idea for a dating startup has to go to WhereWhitePeopleMeet, which promises to help only the fairer skinned find love. Despite a huge public outcry, the founder Sam Russell defended the site, saying it promotes "equal opportunities", "is not racially motivated in any way," and that he "dated a black woman once". But, despite his attempt to feign innocence, it's hard to believe he was genuinely surprised by the reaction. And we're pleased to report that at the time of writing, the site appeared to be unavailable.

While, we wouldn't recommend shock tactics as the route to long-term business success, there's nothing wrong with an eye-catching PR stunt here and there to get your brand noticed. Have a read of our blog on the craziest entrepreneurial PR stunts ever, for some ideas.

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