Business Ideas

Virtual Mail Drop

This is one idea I was a little hesitant to post, just because I’m positive *someone* is already doing it. My, admittedly shallow, search hasn’t turned them up (although I’ve found very similar things), so I’m going to call it fair game as a wacky business entry.

A mail drop is just a business that you get mail sent to their address, they package it up and forward it on to you. Because I’m always moving, I use my parents’ address for anything important, and they forward me all my mail when it builds up or when something that looks important arrives. I do the same thing with a friend in the US (which is what let me open a Prosper account, build credit in the US, maintain a US bank account, etc).

My “twist” on this concept is that you could allow a completely virtual connection to the end user by providing an address for them, and as mail arrives open and scan it, send them the resulting documents (in a convenient choice of formats), and allow them to e-mail you documents which you’ll then print and mail. This would give the person / business the perfect appearance of operating out of a fixed location, when they could actually be based anywhere in the world.

The processes to send and receive mail would be the core of the business, however you could grow these organically. If you wanted to started with just a PC and a multi-functional printer you could manage a number of clients. Eventually you’d probably want to have industrial scanners, and a fairly sophisticated web portal to let customers view and track their mail.

You might get your postman scratching his head when letters start arriving for “Unit #203” at your house. I’m not totally sure what the laws are surrounding handling other people’s mail, but since companies operate mail drops, there must be a way to do it.

Combine this with a VOIP with a local number, and customers could have a roving office that will seem to be an established brick and mortar.

For this post, or any other of the wacky business ideas I post, obviously I’m releasing any ownership claims I may have over these ideas. If you like something I post and feel like you can make money from it, please feel free to do so! Let me know when you’re opening and we’ll do a post on it to give you some free advertising.

Business Ideas

Gated Community Websites

One of the natural tendencies of anonymous (or semi-anonymous) communication is that people act like jerks (“Trolls” is what the kids call them). I was a SysOp on a BBS (think mini, proto-internets) years ago. There would be message boards (forerunners of the forums we see today) and without fail they would degenerate into a flame war, drive people off, then run smoothly for a while until the next one occurred.

I see the same thing happening with forums and sites that allow comments today. When its small, you get a community of smart people having great discussions (“think Four Pillars” he modestly suggested). When it gets too large, the trolls drive off the decent people and you’re left with Slashdot (I love the posts, can’t stand the comments – I don’t think the people who run it even read them).

This business would be an infrastructure for creating private versions of public websites. Say you like Slashdot, and would like to talk about the articles, but can’t stand the comments on the main site. A mirror of the site would be set up, that would either post the articles in a simple form (strip all the style away from it – you could just format their RSS feed), or would automatically duplicate the look of the site (which wouldn’t be too great of a technical challenge, see below). The comment area would be replaced with a private comment area (on this business’ server). You invite people you like, kick off the idiots, and maintain the community you want to interact with.

Companies could do this to allow them an area to privately and confidentially exchange ideas on topics relevant to the company. Perhaps Microsoft would like to have discussions about articles posted on Slashdot, but don’t want the world at large to be able to view them or participate. Perhaps Investors Group would like to have their own private versions of top personal finance blogs to discuss how to use the ideas presented to market their products, perhaps a research group would like to talk about way to extend research other groups are working on and discussing.

I am not a lawyer (although I play one on the Internet), but my understand is that there’s ways to re-mix websites in this manner that are legal (one option is to have the USER load the content from the original site, then make modifications on his computer. Greasemonkey is an example of something along these lines.

If you were targeting companies, this could be sold as enterprise software. If you were targeting consumers, you could slip your own ads into the pages you were generating, or charge the “host” (the guy who originally sets it up and moderates it) of the private site.

For this post, or any other of the wacky business ideas I post, obviously I’m releasing any ownership claims I may have over these ideas. If you like something I post and feel like you can make money from it, please feel free to do so! Let me know when you’re opening and we’ll do a post on it to give you some free advertising.

Business Ideas

A New Form of Dating Site

I’ve used dating sites a fair bit over the last 8 years. was the big site for a long time, then got big (a buddy of mine is gearing up to marry a woman he met on there). The two I recommend to friends are and (both are free, of course).

For a while I thought collaborative filtering (where things you like help match you up to things people who are similar to you like: think Amazon’s recommendation system) would be an interesting idea for a dating site, but someone beat me to it.

The other idea I’ve had comes from what I think is a massive problem with on-line dating. Dating sites CLEARLY came from a techie’s mind. They aren’t much more than than a web interface slapped on a database. You choose the characteristics you want (red hair, not religious, no kids) hit search and start working through the list of results. This is a great way to order stereo equipment, but is it really the best way to find romance and/or a life partner?

Ok Cupid gets around this by having all users answer questions, rate how important each question is, then match people up algorithmically this way. Better, but it still involves a lot of shifting through people pictures, scanning their profiles and writing lots of messages for every response you get.

The joke of it is, women on these sites often get big egos because so many guys are contacting them, but then they don’t like the guys that they’re meeting. Some try to deal with this by putting a list of “requirements” on their profile for any guy who expects a response to them, and often come off as prima donnas. Guys realize these sites are a numbers game, and start spamming the women. There’s a very low signal to noise ratio for the whole experience.

The dating site *I* would design would be a radical departure from this model. Instead of wrapping a website around a database, the site would be like cocktail party with a VERY attentive host. When you first logged on, there would be minimal information to enter (for some reason people hate filling out profiles, about 1/4 of them whine about not knowing what to write). Say you get started with an e-mail address and password. You’re assigned 3 people to “talk to”. You can enter VERY, VERY minimal filtering criteria (perhaps just sexual orientation and geographic location). You and the three people you’re chatting with are given a question with a very limited space to answer a general question (perhaps “what was the last good movie you saw?”).

The next day you log in and see the responses from the people you’re currently interacting with. You pick the ones you want to keep talking to and reject the ones you’re not interested in. The ones you want to keep talking to and you are then given a more detailed question (or are asked more personal information which is exchanged, such as “how many children do you have?”). The ones you reject are replaced with other people you then exchange a short question with again.

If you get a question you’ve already answered, it resends your previous answer (you can update these if you want), so then you just accept or reject the response you get. Eventually you have chosen to interact with someone enough that the system suggests you exchange e-mail addresses, phone number or meet “off-line”.

Collaborative filtering could be applied to pick the people for you to interact with from the general pool of people.

The big advantage of this system is that I think people don’t really know what they want and are attracted to. With the database search we filter out people we may have taken a real liking to. Perhaps a woman refuses to date men younger than herself, until she starts interacting with a guy who loves the same music she does, has a wicked sense of humour and looks like her favourite contestant on “Survivor”. Perhaps a guy normally would have rejected dating outside his race until he gets into deep exchanges with a woman who shares his values and spiritual outlook. Perhaps two people who are 20 years apart in age find out they’re more compatible with each other than the people they’ve each been dating in their own age range.

This site would obviously be the complete opposite of a meat market. People who can’t write worth a damn and get by on their photo on other sites would be at a disadvantage on this one. It doesn’t seem to me to be the worst thing in the world if the site distilled off the flaky, beautiful people and built itself on a core of people who were serious about finding a partner and willing to put some work into connecting with like-minded people (maybe this would be too small of a niche). There are tons of “meat market” sites for people looking for that.

Dating sites are DIRT cheap to create and run (Plenty of Fish is arguably the number one site and is run by a guy out of his apartment), so the financial risk of starting such a site is pretty low (no need for venture capital or anything). Its a HIGHLY competitive area, so if this approach worked you’d quickly get lots of competition. There definitely is a benefit to being established (more users lead to more matches, which leads to more users -> its winner take all). Like the free sites, I’d be tempted to monetize it via advertising in order to maximize the user base. You could do other things like allow more conversations at higher (paid) membership levels and not canabalize your membership when you started charging.

For this post, or any other of the wacky business ideas I post, obviously I’m releasing any ownership claims I may have over these ideas. If you like something I post and feel like you can make money from it, please feel free to do so! Let me know when you’re opening and we’ll do a post on it to give you some free advertising.

Business Ideas

Micro Classified Ads Websites

Years ago I lived and worked in the Bay area (I was there for the dot com boom and bust). While I was there I discovered the wonder that is Craigslist. When I was heading back to Canada for my Masters, I had the idea of making a Canadian version. I actually went so far as registering a domain and e-mailing the Craigslist staff asking them if there would be any possibility of a partnership. They blew me off and I dropped the idea, but now that everyone in Canada is using Craigslist, I kick myself for not duplicating their website (which would be easy, the beauty of Craigslist isn’t the technical sophistication of their site, its the community they build and maintain) and beating them to Canada.

Nowadays I think people are idiots who consider competing with Craigslist or E-Bay. These are pretty well the definition of “winner takes all” businesses. You could only really compete with them by starting in a market they hadn’t entered yet.

Along a similar line, another business idea I’ve had is to create classified sites for small communities. This could either be small towns, apartment buildings, schools or areas in a town. The site would let someone set up a new classified site, which would be along the same lines as Craigslist (although with fewer categories since there’d be a smaller user base): buy and sell, jobs, housing and personals. There would be discussion forums that would help build the community and keep people coming back, especially in the early days. There would be a moderator who could do various things to control the site (perhaps breaking up categories, add some of their own advertisements, that sort of thing). The database behind the site would be managed by the company creating the service (think Geocities). The moderator would build the community and advertise the site.

Certain places on the page would be “reserved areas”. When and if a community grew to a certain size, the company would then use them as an ad network (this is how it’d be monetized). Ads could be sold broadly (e.g. this goes in rotation on all sites throughout the network), or targeted (these only go out to sites in Toronto, or apartment buildings in Toronto, or sites within 5 km of the restaurant). Alternatively, if the moderator or community objected to ads, they could pay a hosting fee and get an ads free version (the price would increase with their usage). If there wasn’t any interest in building a sales force, ad space could just be used with Ad Words or sold to some ad network.

The downside is there’d probably be tons of sites with little or no activity. The upside would be that the creation and maintenance of this would be VERY cheap, and would scale with the user base. As there was more demand placed on the system (perhaps leading to higher bandwidth costs or more powerful servers), this would translate directly into more page views, which would translate directly into more revenue. The first version would take nothing more than a bit of developer time and a computer hooked up to the internet 24/7 (I host servers from my home connection when its nothing mission critical).

The actual demand (processing, bandwidth, and hard drive space) on the system should be quite minimal for a classified ads type site.

For this post, or any other of the wacky business ideas I post, obviously I’m releasing any ownership claims I may have over these ideas. If you like something I post and feel like you can make money from it, please feel free to do so! Let me know when you’re opening and we’ll do a post on it to give you some free advertising.

Business Ideas

Healthy Fast Food

The core of the idea is a fast food chain that sells exclusively healthy food. Whereas most fast food focuses on: fast, cheap, tasty the focus would instead be on: fast, cheap, healthy. The primary consideration for “healthy” will be low calorie, although balanced nutrition and all that good stuff won’t be avoided. Rights to use the brand and formulas for most major weight loss programs will be purchased, so the menu can have weight watcher points, a south beach diet section and things along those lines.

One obvious objection is that fast food places have tried healthy menus and they flop. I’d speculate that the two problems are that people get tempted by the unhealthy food, and that they aren’t sure if they can trust them (one of McDonald’s salads had more fat than the Big Mac). The chain would make all nutritional information about all menu option readily available in easy to understand formats.

Another objection would be that Subway is already doing this. I agree, and the approach would be somewhat like Subway’s “eat here every day until you’re thin” Jared idea. The thing is that there’d be more variety than Subway (not just subs) and Subway again has the unhealthy menu options as well (such as their meatball, tuna melt or pizza subs).

A friend of mine is a vegetarian, and he can usually find something at most restaurants that he can eat, but when we go to a vegetarian restaurant, he loves it because he suddenly has a full menu to choose from. That would be the idea behind this restaurant, instead of just serving “Diet Coke” along with the other pops (or soda for the Americans), it would be a choice of 6 different kinds of diet pop. Instead of 6 styles of healthy subs, it would be 25 different options of all different kinds of food, some appropriate for different meals (such as breakfast), all in different styles. There’s value in offering a wide assortment of fringe options.

Where possible, if it could be healthy and tasty that’d obviously be ideal. Some things like hot sauce or salsa are yummy and low calorie.

Menu plans could be offered, showing different different meal options and how many calories they’d add up to daily (and perhaps even suggesting late night snacks that could complement them).

Beyond the menu, the store could offer a “lifestyle”. Perhaps have pictures on the wall of regulars who have met some weight loss goals. Perhaps make space available for Weight Watchers meetings or other groups. Perhaps have invited speakers come and talk about diet, exercise and nutrition.

For this post, or any other of the wacky business ideas I post, obviously I’m releasing any ownership claims I may have over these ideas. If you like something I post and feel like you can make money from it, please feel free to do so! Let me know when you’re opening and we’ll do a post on it to give you some free advertising.

Business Ideas

How To Start a Business

The Baglady recently mused about setting her blog up as a business and earning income from it. A number of bloggers who have typically been employees and are thinking about trying to earn some cash running a business probably go through this thought process and don’t know what to do.

When I was starting a business years ago, I kept thinking “I’ve got to make sure I do the paperwork right or the business police are going to come and throw me in jail”. Or charge me outrageous late fees. Or something else bad that I hadn’t thought of yet.

Often you can see the strength of an economy by how much the government keeps its nose OUT of private business. The easier it is to start a business, the stronger the economy. Countries that limp along economically often have convoluted, bureaucratic processes required to “hang your shingle” on your door and start running a business (and they suffer, in part, because of this).

In Canada (and most Western countries), all you have to do to “start” a business is start making money. You report this on your tax return in the appropriate place. Say you have a garage sale and sell $200 of your old junk, congratulations, you’re in business! Its considered a “sole proprietorship” and from a legal perspective you are the business. Revenue Canada couldn’t care less as long as you report (and pay taxes on) what you earn.

No one will show up in the middle of the night and beat you up. Isn’t it great to be a Canadian?

The “threshold” when you have to do more is once you are forced to start collecting GST. Until you earn $30,000 in a year, you’re considered a “small provider” and you don’t have to collect or charge GST unless you want to. Once you earn $30K over the previous 4 quarters (or immediately if you earn $30k in a single quarter), you are required to get a GST number and begin charging and passing along tax collected to the government. This is a very easy process, requiring about 15 minutes at this website.

There are obviously reasons why you might consider incorporating, forming a partnership, or other business structures. However, if you’re just starting out and testing the waters with a new venture all you have to do is keep track of your revenue (and pay taxes on it), and drink a toast to capitalism!

What has your experience, if any, been starting a business in Canada or other countries?

Business Ideas Frugal Investing

Recession Investing

Apparently Alan Greenspan has gone on record saying a recession may be coming.  He doesn’t think its likely (less then 50% chance), but its a possibility.  Others (also mentioned in the article) think a recession is far more likely to hit other economies/markets.  This got me thinking, if a recession is coming or has hit, what are the best places to put your money in such an environment?

A recession, according to the first line in Wikipedia, “is a decline in any country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or negative real economic growth, for two or more successive quarters of a year.”

Following some Googling, it seems that stock prices are hit just about immediately at the beginning of a recession, so having cash on hand to buy would seem to be a prudent move.  Also, since unemployment often skyrockets, having some sort of emergency, easily accessed funds for living would be worthwhile (either in a high yield savings account or with a unsecured LOC set up if you live in Canada).  Supposedly 3-6 months is the recommended level of funds.  This assumes you’re a wage-slave, if you’re not, congrats – no worries on this front.

Clearly if we’re buying stocks at a discount, we want companies that are going to weather the down-turn, so “blue chips” are probably even more appealing in this environment.

Luxury spending will decrease, so focusing on businesses that supply the necessities of life would probably be preferably to companies that supply luxury or optional goods (Loblaws might be a better buy then Leons).

Moving beyond stocks, with everyone afraid to spend money, what might be some other opportunities for good deals?  Real estate will probably be offering good prices (since anyone who needs to sell will have trouble finding buyers).  Connected to this, REITs might be on sale (since their inventory will be undervalued, but their future prospects should be good after the recession ends – they provide a necessity, shelter, so they’d probably be worth considering).

As much as interest rates sometimes go up during a recession, I don’t think GICs or bonds are the best purchase (as you’ll be heavily taxed on these high rates while inflation will be rampant if the rates skyrocket).  These *MIGHT* do ok in a RRSP account, but I still wouldn’t like the bite inflation always seems to take out of them.

While buying companies that supply luxury goods is a bad idea, it might actually be a good time to buy luxury goods if you’re able to accurately appraise them, since there won’t be many buyers.  If you know how to value artwork, comic books or vintage cars, a recession *may* be a good time to hunt for bargains.  Liquidation sales from failing businesses might be another lucrative (if depressing) strategy.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, a recession MIGHT actually be a good time to start a business (assuming you had lots of capital and could keep costs low).  You should be able to get a cheap lease at a good location (no competition and lots of sites available), easily hire skilled, motivated employees (high unemployement), cheap supplies (again, low demand), etc, etc.  This could be a bit of a dangerous gambit (you’re counting on the recession ending before you run out of money).  If you’re *already* a business owner and you have a pair of steel ones, this could be a great time to expand on the cheap.

Investing in education, while always a good idea, is even more appealing when the job market is tight.  I said to myself that I’d go get my Masters when it became hard to find a job, and that’s exactly what I did when the dot-com boom went bust.  16 months later, when I was coming out of the program, things were starting to pick up again.

Some people talk about gold being a great inflation hedge (and maybe its good during recessions too, I don’t know).  I don’t like gold.  I’m too worried about a cheap method of converting lead to gold being developed and immediately devaluing it.

Travel (and other luxury goods for your own consumption – not investments) are also bargain priced during recessions and “states of emergency”.  Supposedly you could go to Thailand super cheap during the SARS epidemic.  You’re worried about catching SARS if you go?  During the height of the “crisis”, people were three times more likely to die of pneumonia than SARS, and even the people who contracted it had an 80% survival rate. SARS was devastating for Toronto tourism, but was basically a non-issue from a health standpoint (far more people died from car accidents than SARS during the “epidemic”).  You could have had a very nice trip here during that time (short lines and cheap rates).

Business Ideas Frugal

I can be frugal too

I’ve read a lot of posts on various blogs about being frugal. I’ve never been one to worry about my spending until about a decade ago when I decided to stop spending more money than I made. Since then I’ve been a lot better with money but it’s only been the last year or so when I’ve really started to think of myself as being more frugal than I used to be. I’m still not very frugal by a long shot but I thought I would share an example of where I wanted to buy something pretty expensive but in the last year or so I changed my mind and choose something much cheaper.

When we bought our new house I had my heart set on getting a natural gas line run to the back of the house and buying a natural gas bbq. The main benefit of natural gas over the normal propane is that you will never run out so you don’t have to go and get the tank filled up every so often. We did get the gas line run but I didn’t buy the bbq because we were too short of money. I never did price out the natural gas bbqs but I’ve heard they are at least $500 which is a lot of cash.

This year the “new me” decided that it wasn’t worth it to buy the more expensive bbq and I would get a cheaper propane one instead. A couple of months ago Loblaws (local grocery store) had bbqs for $100 so I grabbed one. I have to say that this bbq is one of my best purchases ever. It was relatively easy to assemble and works great. My old bbq was not that safe anymore, was much hotter on one side than the other and it used to shoot a lot of flames at me while I was trying to cook which I didn’t much like! The new bbq is the same size as the old one, very hot, perfectly even temperature and although the food doesn’t taste any better, it’s a lot easier to cook without burning everything. I still have to fill up the tank once in a while but there is a gas station just around the corner from where I live so it’s no big deal.

I have to conclude that I’m happier with the cheap propane bbq than I would have been with the expensive natural gas version.