Five years ago, I launched my first iPhone app…
Negotiate It was a personal finance/productivity app that helped people save money. It showed you exactly what to say to operators in order to lower your cable and cell phone bills, or get your overdraft and credit card fees waived.
The app also gave you a list of company phone numbers, a call log to keep track of your savings, and reminders for when to re-negotiate.
Pretty cool, right?
It was a failure.
Even though the app got featured in O Magazine, CBS New York, and a bunch of other places…
And even though we later re-branded to a much better name later on (Saving Money)…
The app was still a failure.
In this article, I’m going to share the dozens of ideas and failures I’ve experienced over the years as a fledgling entrepreneur.
Be warned: You can steal any of these ideas, but many are stupid.
32 Ideas I’ve Abandoned
Pop Rock Gum.
My friend and I wondered why Pop Rocks didn’t make their own gum, so we experimented with mixing Bubblicious and Pop Rocks together. Our first few batches felt like chewing broken glass, but we eventually nailed a winning recipe.
We started selling it for $0.50 a piece to classmates, and were making $30 per day at one point. I wrote in to Bubblicious and Pop Rocks headquarters about our results… and never heard back from either of them.
A few years later, Pop Rocks started making their own gum (not as good as ours was!)
Flashing brake lights.
We’re taught to pump the brakes to warn the cars behind us if we’ll be making a sudden stop. This is stupid in most cases, because you’re compromising your ability to stop in hopes of not getting rear-ended; the likelihood of a crash is high either way.
I met with InventHelp — a pretty shady company, from what I’ve read — to discuss how to patent a brake light that flashes when the driver pushes the brakes with great force (the rep I spoke with was exceptionally proud that he’d helped bring the spinning lollipop concept to market).
I was forced to retreat when I saw the patent price tag, plus I had no clue how to actually strike a deal with a major car company. The idea’s been done but clearly never went mainstream.
Sports reels and family reunion videos.
I made a bunch of videos for high school sports teams, families, organizations, etc., and ended up selling the videos on DVD. Customers loved them, but the amount of money made did not justify the insane amount of work required.
There’s a reason videographers charge a lot, and why they stick to weddings for their bread and butter.
Connect Four for TI-83 Plus.
I created a working version of Connect Four on my calculator and tried selling it to classmates in high school. No one was willing to pay, so I gave it away. Everyone already had easy access to free games that were even better than mine.
Long Island Iced Tea, Single Serving Drink.
“LIT” served in a Red Bull-sized can (here’s the sell sheet). I had this idea while I was in New Zealand, after seeing how well the Jack Daniels and Coke drinks sold in bars. Long Islands sold really well in Fort Collins, but if you wanted to make one yourself, it cost at least $100 for all the ingredients.
There wasn’t much on the market: Salvador’s made a cheap (and gross) pre-mixed Long Island that came in 4-pack of mini-plastic bottles, and there were 750 mL bottles that bartenders used (minus the sweetening ingredients).
I remember waking up early to call distilleries on the East Coast to see if it was possible to license the idea (it’s not), and my friend and I arranged a meeting with a former Mike’s Hard Lemonade exec. He warned us that as soon as we had traction with the brand, one of the bigger alcohol companies would come in, make a cheaper product, and dominate the market first.
Training Week Meals.
Subscription recipe service for high school and college athletes. The athlete selects their health goals, and the site provides a weekly grocery list and recipes – compiled by professional athletes, expert nutritionists, or their coaches – along with detailed nutrition facts for each meal. Potential to partner with supplement and vitamin companies, local grocery stores, catering companies, etc.
Online Artist community.
Artists upload photos and videos of their art (furniture, paintings, etc.). Fans get to vote on ideas for things to create, and those items are put on sale exclusively to the fans – for bidding or flat-rate.
Customizable homepage with drag-and-drop widgets. My friend and I started designing this idea, and hired a local coder to assemble the site.
Unfortunately, the result was underwhelming, and – like so many other naïve college students – we assumed ads would eventually fund our endeavor. Then NetVibes and iGoogle came out, so we abandoned ship.
Been Here, Do This.
Fun activity ideas for tourists and study abroad students. Users could mark areas of the map, describe activity, and post photos. Basically a niche version of Yelp. I tried creating this myself in Dreamweaver and quickly learned what a nightmare it was to make websites.
Custom beer pong tables.
After making one with my roommates and getting positive feedback, we considered creating others and selling them… except none of our friends were willing to pay. (Sidenote: I also wanted to do beer branding for soldiers — Brewjitsu, Nicolas Rage, and Ale Qaeda)
We were able to recruit a few really talented people from Hollywood to be members, then we sat by idly, waiting for them to create content for us. What a horribly deranged assumption!
Communities take a ton of work to get up and running, and they depend on compelling content, strong ties, and leadership. We had none of those elements.
‘Think and Grow Rich’ of Parenting Books.
Interviews with successful parents of society’s biggest contributors, finding common factors in how their children were raised, what values were instilled, etc. This would probably do pretty well, but I’m not the target market.
Subscription service for smart drug supplements which allows you to adjust quantities for each ingredient. You can save your favorite formulas, see which ingredients synthesize properly, etc.
Too many health and legal issues to deal with here. Not worth the hassle, and I’m not a big fan of nootropics anyways.
A carry-on bag that ejects your laptop at the press of a button. I hate having to whip out my laptop at airport security, but this idea is too gimmicky and not that practical.
There are already so many laptop-friendly bags on the market. I also don’t travel enough to justify caring about this too much.
Homeless people are EVERYWHERE in San Francisco, and the disparity between them and the brilliant minds walking by to go work at their tech startups seemed particularly crazy one day.
I thought I had something that might improve the issue (which you can read about here), but after doing more research and talking with friends who’d spent a lot of time in homeless shelters, I saw that tech alone will never come close to repairing this problem.
The systems that truly help the homeless are holistic, and require an incredible amount of resources.
I made a site where users could submit screenshots of their friends posting funny things on Facebook. I lost enthusiasm for the concept after about ten minutes. Two weeks after I killed the site, Lamebook (much better name) was born.
Standing desk kits.
I drew up a bunch of concepts for this, but couldn’t come up with anything compelling. Wiring and the need for desk drawers makes this somewhat difficult. And while the market is growing, the demand still isn’t really there. I also thought about just making an e-book with stretches and exercises that focus on alleviating prolonged sitting.
Frozen Paleo foods.
At the time, I couldn’t find any frozen Paleo dinners in Whole Foods, and my roommates and I were lazy when it came to cooking. I’m not sure there are enough Paleo enthusiasts at this point…
Nevertheless, Amy’s Organic is on pace to become a billion dollar company, and they started with a frozen potpie.
Similar to Trunk Club — monthly package for early adopter males, giving them access to the latest gadgets. Amazon basically does this with their Vine program. Could also do this for jewelry, books, movies, etc.
Natural cures e-books for niche pain points.
Tooth pains, acne, etc. This would be profitable because you’re targeting desperate buyers and could show before/after photos, but it would require a lot of work and SEO. No enthusiasm for this project at all.
Daily deals site for college students.
You could offer: concert tickets, munchies, health foods, video games, gadgets, beer making kits, Halloween costumes, pizza coupons, discounts at local restaurants, posters, and a delivery service. This could do really well, especially if you start small (focus on dorms, figure out most wanted items, get people on subscription, etc.)
You know those shots in ‘Requiem for a Dream’ where the camera has a steady close-up on the person’s face while they’re moving around? The device that makes that shot possible is called the Snorricam, and you can’t buy them – you have to make your own.
Aaaand then Go Pros and selfie sticks came along.
Medical tourism site.
Connect uninsured people with reputable doctors and surgeons overseas, handle their itinerary, and earn a commission. This reeks of complications, plus most people aren’t even aware of the concept of medical tourism. Way too much hassle.
CDBaby for film.
Monthly subscription to high-quality independent films. I still like this concept and hope someone pulls it off.
Oh wait, it’s called Netflix!
Best Man Online Crash Course.
Videos and checklists to throw a great bachelor party and dominate your best man speech. Could easily charge $50-200 for this.
DIY Bamboo Bike DVD.
My friend and I tested this concept on eBay (before creating the product) to see if anyone would buy it. Two people did over the course of a couple weeks, which wasn’t enough demand.
Delicious bookmarks for learning.
You bookmark an article, and gain points when other people click your bookmark and save it to their account (i.e. you’re rewarded for directing others to valuable content).
Escrow system that automates payments for startup equity splits. Each founder/employee/advisor enters in their banking information, and the site pays proper percentages quarterly or after specific milestones.
Envato for iPhone/iPad.
Marketplace of creative assets for mobile app developers.
Mobile app that lists all of your frequent flier miles, displaying the number of points you have next to each program. When you hit a threshold, the app notifies you that you’ve earned a free flight. Plenty of partnership and advertising opportunities here. This idea was executed brilliantly by MileWise, which was awesome until Yahoo killed it.
Astrology compatibility app.
Compatibility sites are always popular and result in fun conversations, and Facebook allows you to instantly extract a complete list of your friends’ birthdays. This app would allow you to see your match level with your friends based on your sign.
Celebrities can send 30-second voicemails and videos straight to their fans. Enable localized targeting so they can personalize messages to different cities while touring (e.g. Send a message for people to buy tickets to tomorrow night’s concert, or send a thank you message for attending). This could be white-labeled and made into an app for individual bands and celebrities.
# # #
When I was younger, I had the energy to try almost anything that popped into my head. My efforts were solid, but I had no idea what I was doing.
I didn’t know any successful entrepreneurs, so I had to rely on books and the web while I tried to piece things together.
I failed over and over and over.
I’m now intimately familiar with how much effort it takes to execute a lucrative idea. The elation of pursuit is healthily balanced with the length of the road ahead.
The lesson I had to learn over and over:
You have to truly care about something in order to see it through, because you can’t do great work when your sole motivation is a pot of gold.
You have to love it.