|| Big Ideas
Stay Free! asked our readers to tell us about their get-rich quick schemes and entrepreneurial experiences. Here's what they said
Inspired by Lucy's advice stand in Peanuts, I set up a cardboard box on the curb bearing the message "The Doctor Is In." I was 8 and living in Chicago. I charged ten cents a session. A few kids from the neighborhood came by and heckled me: "What's wrong with me?" "Why do I hate school?" "Why are you such a loser?" etc. Their skepticism was well-developed, considering the 7--12 age range. None of them paid for the service, such as it was. I don't remember the advice I gave; I probably answered questions with questions. I earned twenty or thirty cents from amused grown-ups who did not ask for counseling. This venture lasted about two hours and was not repeated. Maybe it was the lack of privacy that doomed the effort? I didn't take up therapy as a profession, but the experience didn't stop me from becoming a client of various professionals with higher fees and nice indoor offices.
My husband is an incorrigible blanket stealer at night. One way to combat this would be to have a blanket that is sewn together in a loop so that it formed something like a giant sleeve around the bed. That way, no matter how much he pulled on the blanket, I would still be covered.
Two friends of mine came up with a plan to keep baseball caps smelling fresh--something to do with inserting dryer sheets into a specially designed cubby inside the cap. They really thought this idea would take off, and actually spent time trying to construct a cap freshener as well as a fresh cap. Every time they brought up their invention, they wouldn't let it go. They argued that things like fresh caps are what sell.
When I was in elementary school, I wanted to pull off something more ambitious than a lemonade stand. I started with hot dogs and Coke, then hunted around in our kitchen for other stuff to sell on the sidewalk. Without having to pay any costs of my own, I figured I could make a ton by undercutting the grocer's prices. My mom put a stop to this pretty quickly, though.
Later, in middle school, I started selling candy to my classmates. I'd go to the store every day and load up on gum, Twizzlers, Starbursts, and Smarties, then sell it in school at a 100 percent markup--a surprisingly lucrative scheme considering the store was across the street. Business got so good that I even hired a dealer, a girl who wanted to be my friend and was willing to carry a garbage bag around to class for a small portion of the profits. The plan lasted for several weeks, until the guidance counselor threatened me for a second time with suspension. By then, I'd already pulled in enough money to buy karate equipment, nunchucks, a boxing bag for the garage, and a fake antique gumball machine.
Around about May of 2002, I reached a breaking point of anger and frustration with Bush II's administration. While watching one of my cats deal deliberately, focusedly, ruthlessly with the sisal side of her scratching unit, I thought, That is what I would like to do to our president's face. I meditated on that for a moment. Then I wondered whether Mimi Rosé and Francis might somehow take to annihilating an effigy of W if it were presented in an attractive, satisfying format. (If not, I could joke that my cats were Republicans.)
And so this project, conceived in a moment of passion, turned briefly scientific and then almost immediately commercial: How much would someone pay for a handpainted cardboard cat scratcher with George W. Bush's face on it? If it were somewhat arty and hand-made, maybe a lot. A hundred dollars? A potential one hundred dollars was enough to get me out to my local NYCPets to purchase various types of cardboard cat scratchers and to create a template, should I produce more than one. I would use simple, bold, irritating colors in (presumably) cat-safe children's school tempera. When I told my dad and my boyfriend about the idea, they instantly had plans for how to expand the franchise: the Osama, the Saddam, the Hitler; the standard pantheon of the reviled. But I thought this strayed a bit from my original vision. Let's keep it simple, I thought.
In terms of marketing, I didn't do much. I mentally picked out a few boutiques in Brooklyn but never got around to actually hitting the pavement. I looked into some cardboard and cat-product manufacturers online, thinking of the possibilities of economy of scale. With Smurfit-Stone, 3M, or Petco handling manufacturing and marketing, we could charge fifteen or twenty bucks per unit and I could sit back and watch the money roll in. But what if someone stole my idea and used it for evil? What if all of the sudden Ralph Nader or George Soros was having a grisly encounter with some neocon's cat Peaches? Suddenly, as my dad pointed out rather too enthusiastically, I'm a capitalist. So instead of going the mass-market route, I posted an image of the ur-Cat Caucus Cat Scratcher George W. Bush on my blog, under the newly created "Shopping" section, charging $100 for a handcrafted, small-scale, nontoxic, and utterly unprofitable item.
So far no paying orders have come in. I've produced three nearly identical CCCSGWB prototypes. I gave one to my dad for Father's Day, one to my ex-roommate for his birthday, and I have the third. Francis will touch it only if it's covered with catnip, and even then he won't so much scratch W's face as sit on it and lick it. Mimi does use it on occasion, but never very vigorously; she prefers to go at the IKEA Tullsta. I can only conclude that my cats reflect the attitudes of many other cats in their demographic.
When I was in sixth grade, my friends and I invented a board game called Urban Development. The object was to build a downtown area. My friend George made actual scale-model cardboard buildings to place on the board as the game progressed. Eventually we created a futuristic version, 21st Century Urban Development, complete with space-age monorails and Jetsons-esque building design. At this point, we contacted game companies to see if they were interested. Our pitch consisted of a two-page handwritten summary of the game and some fuzzy Instamatic photos of the prototype. In the end, Parker Bros. sent us a form letter letting us know that they don't accept unsolicited submissions. Selchow & Righter never responded at all.
It seems to me that somebody could make billions selling genetically modified grass that would not grow more than, say, an inch tall. You could sell it for use on golf courses and lawn mowers would become a thing of the past.
J. M. Tyree
I wrote a book called Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks, and it gave me the idea for a "bag of tricks" series. For example: Plumbing: A Bag of Tricks or Coaching Football: A Bag of Tricks. Unlike the For Dummies books, this series would focus on selected useful tricks rather than giving a shallow overview. I never followed up on this, but I still think it would be a good idea!
In my mid-1980s junior high years, I adhered to the Madonna school of fashion. A key accessory was the black rubber bracelet, replicated dozens of times on the diva's arms in her Desperately Seeking phase. My father, a physicist, recognized the bangles, sold in clothing stores for several dollars apiece, as O-rings--cheap sealing devices used in plumbing and available in hardware stores for about a nickel. Better yet, he was able to obtain a set for me in an exotic electric blue! I set off to school with my covert bag of plumbing supplies, selling them for more than twenty times the purchase price. The effort didn't last long (my entrepreneurial skills are vestigial at best) but the '80s lesson--buy cheap, sell dear, corner the market--helped me to grok the go-go '90s.
The Nose Warmer was the bane of my existence in 1999--and, frankly, the memory of it still serves to rankle. I'd come up with the idea in February of that year in one of my "brilliant" middle-of-the-night epiphanies.
The concept was simple: we bundle up our bodies every winter, but usually leave our faces wholly unprotected. Wouldn't it be great to have something to cover the nose? I was so convinced that this was a surefire moneymaker that, in a departure from my previous epiphanies, I actually tried to make it happen. Unfortunately, the execution was more complicated: I don't know a thing about actually making anything. Materials? Design? Huh?
The only person I knew with any skills in these areas was an ex-boyfriend, who designed toys. I convinced him to join me, but before long our own tangled history reared its ugly head: he accused me of expecting him to do all the difficult work (which was true--I was the Idea Person!) and we stopped speaking. Not knowing what else to do, I accepted defeat, and the nose warmer never came to fruition. But don't think I'm not still tempted whenever I see those late night infomercials about "Inventor's Kits." Hey, now there's a good idea . . .
When I was 8, I came up with a plan to cash in on the Rubik's Cube mania that had swept my fourth grade class. The idea was simple: we'd take your plastic polygon and return it to you the next day, solved. You'd pay us somewhere between five and fifty cents, depending on the difficulty of the assign-ment. The only problem: our puzzle-solving skills weren't so hot. Neither my partners nor I had ever managed to line up more than two sides of a Rubik's Cube. I bought a pocket-size book that explained the mysteries of the cube but accidentally dropped it behind a school staircase. It didn't matter. No one ever hired us to solve anything, and within a couple of weeks our business was kaput. By then, everyone had figured out the one surefire way to beat the Rubik's Cube: pry off each of the blocks one by one and then put them back together in order.
When I was 7, my friend Patrick and I over-heard someone saying that the soil in our town was "very rich." To us, that meant that we could get rich if we just dug up the right soil. So we took a little garden spade and one of my Tonka front-end loaders and began digging up my side lawn, concentrating on dirt that looked more yellowish, which we figured meant that it had a high gold content. Within fifteen minutes, we were sure we were gonna be rich from all this rich soil; after an hour or so, we figured we had enough to bankroll us for the rest of our lives. As I recall, my mom was rather amused by the whole thing and didn't mind that we'd dug up the yard.
My friend and I decided we were tired of working nine to five and were gonna strike it rich selling our dirty panties on eBay. What could be easier? I mean, it saves doing laundry. Our friend, a gay man and online auction enthusiast, told us tales from the front: apparently, men were entering fierce bidding wars with each other for the used underwear of hung studs. There were some tricks to it: you can't sell anything of an overtly sexual nature, so it all had to be in code, and some descriptions were more desirable than others. "18-yr-old football player, been playing hard all day, will send you my briefs fresh from the locker room," etc. We figured girls' panties would also be hot items. We looked into the best way to do it, and we were about to buy a gross of underwear in bulk from a Hasidic dealer in Williamsburg when we found, to our total dismay, that straight guys don't want the stuff. Not on eBay, anyway. We considered marketing ourselves as hung studs, but feared that something biological might give us away. Fortunately, we didn't quit our day jobs.
I always have thought it would be super cool if the city had an art gallery that was open 24 hours a day. Like the park, it would have no security guards or locks, but would be indoors, where anyone could exhibit art simply by donating it.
Inspired by the hundreds of decoupaged candle and soda-bottle lanterns I made for the annual lantern parade in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, I decided to make something more permanent: luminary-style lamps and lampshades. I've since sold about 150 lamps via craft shows, galleries, and custom orders.