Twelve months ago I came the closest I’ve yet been to leaving my career in teaching. A misunderstanding with a good parent got blown out of proportion and caused me anxiety I knew I didn’t deserve. I researched some retail ideas, jotted down the contact information for leasing a space in a new strip mall, and went to a convention of like-minded small business owners, even probing some for training in conversation and emails. After flirting with the plan for a few weeks, I abandoned it: a start up would just require too much capital, overtime, and risk. After the tension at work settled down, I got back into a comfortably productive routine.
It’s just as well. I don’t know enough about business. Sadly, I’ve learned the hard way over time not to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous “entrepreneurs:” one family I knew several years ago invited me to a “financial seminar” that turned out to be a recruiting pitch for their online inventory company–when I said I wasn’t interested, their faces dropped in heartbroken disgust. I guess their profit would have come out of my investment. Another popular “business” that bugs me is that whole strata of “parties” that women have which, instead of a baby shower or a slumber party or a housewarming party, might best be called a Women Selling Each Other Yuppie Crap Out Of A Catalogue party.
However, I have a lot of respect for innovative self-starters, and in the last several years some new things on the scene have made me wish I had more of a flair for it. There’s still a part of me that would love to take some inspiration from these trends and make a name (and some supplementary income) for myself. Here are some of the ones that have most impressed me and why:
Redbox. What I notice in new business models is simplicity, and this one has it in spades. (Simplicity in spades? Is that an oxymoron? Oh well.) I was recently flipping through Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which says that you shouldn’t work at a company you own because, if you do, then it’s not an investment, it’s just a job. Whoever thought of Redbox is brilliant. A Redbox kiosk requires no attendant and very little maintenance; I’m sure that the most labor intensive part is stocking the new movies! After the initial cost of manufacturing (and leasing?) the machines, as well as the cost of new discs (and, I suppose, electricity), it’s all profit. It’s clean, it’s simple…and I wish I’d thought of it.
Mobile Billboards. When I first saw these starting to appear earlier this decade, I thought they were dumb: trucks just driving around with tacky giant posters on a trailer? Who would care about that? Turns out, plenty of people. I guess a good way to measure the success of an idea is how well it proliferates over time, and these things have multiplied like rabbits and wire coat hangers combined. True, in Las Vegas, most of these signs are of the kind that make you cringe even more when you have to drive your kids across the Strip, but I see these ads for cars and real estate all over town. Clearly, the advertising works, or these guys would have been out of business by now. Even with the cost of gas, once the signs and drivers are in place, this seems like another relatively easy deal.
Self Storage. These aren’t new, but if mobile billboards have grown quickly in recent years, then self storage units have sprawled exponentially, like the grains of wheat in the “wheat and chessboard” problem. This may be the most utilitarian idea yet: all this really takes is construction of the units, and only a little bit of management and maintenance. After dumping some capital into it, overhead seems relatively low.
With people’s discretionary income hurting right now, will Americans get rid of their storage units and the things in them? I actually think it’s unlikely. People may cut back on some frivolous expenses, but not many of them, and I certainly don’t see hordes of people unloading the lifetime’s worth of junk they already have. Let’s put it this way: I’ve never seen a self-storage place go out of business. Have you?
Bounce Houses. Like the mobile billboards, when these went big a few years ago, I was flabbergasted. What a conspicuous, spoiled waste of money, I thought. Which is true, so of course, these became a big hit. Again, the features that impress me are consistent. After manufacture (and a bit of maintenance and advertising), aren’t people just lining up to give you their money? The customers might even provide the transportation and setup for the product!
These four ideas say something about our society: the best new businesses generally aren’t physical stores, they’re more like a loose collection of satellites, and instead of selling a product, they sell support for existing, unrelated things, as in guerrilla advertising (mobile billboards), providing more space (self storage), or supplementing our entertainment heavy lifestyle (Redbox and bounce houses). The last three of these four explicitly place most of the physical work on the customer.
Now, with that in mind, what new idea can I come up with…?