Business Ideas

The Too Slow Edition

When I start writing up a wacky business idea, one of the things I do is a quick search to see if someone has already done something similar.  I don’t spend hours on it, but I’ll look for 5 or 10 minutes.  In many ways it’s surprisingly rare to find someone is already doing what I’d thought of (I gues word spreads fast these days).

Presented, for your consideration, are three ideas that I had which turned out had already been thought up by other people when I went looking for them.

Electric Hookahs

Hookahs are pipes for smoking tobacco (a special variety called “shisha”) which involves filtering the smoke through water:  remember the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland?  It’s really bad for you (smoking a hookah for 1 hour is about the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes), but it’s also quite nice :-).  When you set up a hookah, you typically use charchol to heat the tobacco.  There’s a whole ritual to it, where you load a special bowl with the shisha, cover it with foil (with as small as possible holes placed it in), and put the burning coals on top of the foil.  By inhaling on the pipe, you pull air in, past the tabocco being burned by the coal, and into the pipe (through the water and into your lungs).

The idea for this is to remove the charcoal by adding a fine element that rests above the shisha and burns it in the same way the coal does (but without getting ash everywhere and having to deal with hot coals).  Some may argue that this isn’t proper, while others may say this is taking the hookah into the 20th century.

Either way, it’s been done.  I even found a student at my university who has designed one.

An Academic Proofreading Marketplace

English is the language of academic discourse.  In the past, French and Latin have been used, but now it’s English.  If you want to have your ideas noticed, the top venues (conferences and journals) operate in English.  Increasingly, strong universities will teach in English, even if it isn’t the native language of the country the school is located in.

This obviously puts non-native English speakers at a disadvantage.  I’ve read a number of papers (published and unpublished) where the ideas were hidden by the awkward choices of spelling and grammar.

There are student “proof reading” services, which either help students who aren’t native English speakers or do the homework for lazy students everywhere, but this idea is to focus on academics, and provide a writing service catering to professors.  They’d be connected with native speakers working in the same area as them (so they can accurately express the ideas).  I did this (face-to-face) when I was abroad for computer science professors and found there was a lot of interest in it.

It’s already being done in the way I envisioned (at places like this) .  I still think extensions on this idea are possible (like a site that places a premium on reliability and the pedigree of it’s proofreaders or a service that would send an in-person proof-reader to a foreign department on an on-going basis).

Zero Calorie Foods

It always seemed weird to me that there’s SO many choices for diet beverages, but no options for “diet food” (e.g. 0 calorie food).  I get that food has to be made out of SOMETHING, and typically this something has calories.  I’m not talking about so-called “negative calorie foods” (which are incorrectly believed to require more calories to digest than they possess) but instead something like diet soda, with ZERO calories.  It may not be the most appetizing idea, but imagine taking some diet drink, then thickening it with an inorganic agent like melamine (the ingredient that Chinese company added to the baby milk that killed a bunch of infants).  Except, you know, make sure whatever you use doesn’t kill people…

Even if the first version was basically zero-calorie Jello people would eat it.  Over time more appetizing versions could be developed.  There are people who would worry about the long term health consequences (just like some people worry about with diet drinks) and there are people who would refuse to eat something so unnatural (just as there are people who refuse to drink diet drinks), but I think there’d be a massive market that would be willing to give it a try.

A friend told me they saw “zero calorie jam” at the grocery store which intrigued me.  I went looking, but didn’t find it (in any grocery stores or on-line).  I’m assuming they saw “no sugar added” jam and misremembered.  Unfortunately (for me), even if there isn’t zero-calorie jam on our shelves  it already exists in Japan and some Kansas state researchers were working on it 7 years ago (so I’m sure if there’s any way to do it they’ve figured it out by now).

5 replies on “The Too Slow Edition”

For proof-reading services there’s also Brainmass…

For zero-calorie food, the problem is that while we have a number of artificial sweeteners, there are no complex carbohydrate/protein/fat replacements (well, there’s Olestra, but who needs the anal leakage?). So you’re basically left trying to build something out of cellulose and a sweet taste.

And there is diet Jell-O available (the gelatin has some calories, so the package says it’s 10, but that’s close enough to zero for me).

Potato: Yeah, gelatin is the problem. 10 calories *IS* pretty c lose to zero, but I love the idea of something I can eat disgusting quantities of (and keep my self-hatred to a minimum :-). Anal leakage is to be avoided for sure. Cellulose and sweet taste is exactly what I was thinking off (yum).

Brainmass seems to target students… Thanks for the link though, interesting to check them out. Would you ever be tempted to sign up as an online TA?

I actually was (technically, still am, though I haven’t taken an assignment in years) a Brainmass TA, but after a year or two I became disillusioned with it. It does work fairly well for what it was designed for: a help and proof-reading service. Officially it is not a homework solving service — the TAs are expected to help with explanations, but not just give the final answer; and students are expected to explain where they’re having difficultly, and not just ask for the answer. Unfortunately the students don’t seem to care about the policy, and I got tired of reading through a hundred postings of students just wanting answers to find the one where a student actually wanted an explanation and some back-and-forth.

You’re spot on with the proofreading idea. For better or for worse, English is the modern learned language. Students and professional academics alike need proofreading services in order to communicate their work with more clarity and concision.

At, this is exactly what we try to do. Our proofreaders not only suggest helpful emendations to the text, they point out the author’s common mistakes and bad habits so that the author can actually improve their own skills. It’s fascinating for us to see what kinds of errors writers of different native languages are most prone to.

Granted, our marketing is aimed at graduate and undergraduate students. The editorial specialization needed to properly serve professional academics writing on niche topics is an area we hope to grow into. Nonetheless, we think that helping students improve their writing skills ultimately leads to professional academics with improved writing skills.

(Long-time lurker, first-time poster. Thanks for your excellent blog!)

Mr Cheap,

Very interesting comments re: academic proofreading.

There are a couple other services that are doing it in the way you describe. I think American Journal Experts and Editage probably fall into this bracket.

I run my own proofreading website targeted at ESL students. The challenge is to make it affordable yet profitable. A tough task if you consider it is a highly skilled, technical task that takes a lot of time!


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