Free Startup Ideas

Ideas that will make you wonder how I was ever able to raise millions of dollars in venture capital.

This week: some of my old startup ideas, yours for the taking. Feel free to run with any of these: even great ideas are worthless without execution, and it’d be a stretch to call most of these “great ideas”—in fact, after each one, I’ve outlined why it might be terrible.

I’ve flirted with the idea of starting most of these companies at one point or another, so they’re basically my startup sloppy seconds. If you haven’t been scared away already, read on for a collection of ideas that will make you wonder how I was ever able to raise millions of dollars in venture capital.

A corporate meeting scheduler with built-in market economics

At a typical company, employees have to get approval before spending $1,000, but almost anyone can schedule a meeting that wastes well over $1,000 of people’s time. The solution: impose a cost for bad meetings. Thus, a meeting-scheduling app where to book a meeting you have to pay using an in-app virtual currency, with costs that scale based on meeting length and number of attendees. Every employee receives some amount of this currency monthly (the UBI fans will love it), and you can earn additional currency if your attendees report that your meeting was necessary and well-run.

Why this might be a bad idea: if a company doesn’t have a culture of avoiding wasteful meetings, no amount of externally-imposed systems and rules is likely to fix the underlying problem. Plus, selling this product would require convincing people that they even have a problem in the first place, which is much harder than the usual approach of offering a solution to a problem people already know they have.

This idea reminds me a lot of Holocracy or other forms of management “innovation,” most of which have their bad reputations for a reason. Still, I’d like to work at a company that used this system.

A wheelchair that looks really cool

Where is the Tesla of wheelchairs? If I were in a wheelchair, I’d want one that was a fashion accessory and not just a mobility device. For additional customizability, you could even create a functional “base” that could support multiple covers/attachments with different designs (kind of like iPhone cases), which could unlock a whole new secondary market. You’d start with a high-end model for rich people and eventually work your way down to something more mass-market for which you could pursue insurance & Medicare coverage.

Why this might be a bad idea: I’m honestly not sure. I asked my one friend who sometimes uses a wheelchair and he wasn’t sure either. If there’s something I’m missing, please tell me! If I knew anything about hardware I would seriously consider starting this company.

Bar soap in a tube

Bars of soap get your hands all slippery, and they’re so hard to grip in the shower that they’ve spawned an entire industry of problematic jokes. Why don’t they come in a plastic tube like deodorant? This product practically sells itself.

Why this might be a bad idea: it’s not—this is a genius idea. Plus, it’s tailor-made for Shark Tank. Someone please start this company.

Software that helps religious organizations engage with their congregants

Most religious organizations use some kind of tool for this already, but the user experiences are all pretty bad, which is not surprising given that the leaders in the space are multi-purpose enterprise platforms that combine congregant engagement with accounting tools, payment processing, fundraising CRMs, and a bunch of other random components whose only connection to each other is that they’re all things a church might use. There’s an opportunity to bite off the one piece of this where user experience matters most—congregant engagement—and create something kind of like Nextdoor, but for religious communities. This space is totally underserved by existing startups, likely because most startup people are nonreligious or even actively anti-religion.

Why this might be a bad idea: I’m not sure, but I haven’t belonged to a religious organization since I was a kid, so there are probably details here I’m not aware of. Admittedly, selling to churches does sound like it’d be a drag. Still, I think there’s something here. If those Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock on my door and send me handwritten letters ever succeed in converting me, maybe I’ll start this company.

Jackets Required: a dive bar with a dress code

People like dressing up in fancy clothes more than they like spending money, so why aren’t there any places that enforce a dress code but are still cheap? There are in my dream world thanks to Jackets Required, a dive bar with a dress code. We’d even have a closet full of ill-fitting house jackets for anyone who shows up without proper attire, just like at a snooty French restaurant.

Why this might be a bad idea: it’s not exactly venture scale, but I’m convinced this concept could be a huge success. In the unlikely event that I ever open a bar, it will definitely be Jackets Required, unless one of you takes this idea and beats me to it, in which case I will be your first customer.

A better ankle monitor

On any given day, over 100,000 Americans are wearing court-ordered ankle monitors. These devices are big and clunky, uncomfortable to wear, obtrusive in a manner that can stigmatize the wearer, often don’t last a full day on a charge, and cost the wearer hundreds of dollars a month in subscription fees. This is morally offensive, yes—but it’s also offensive from a product design standpoint. There’s no reason you couldn’t make an ankle monitor that’s as comfortable as an Apple Watch.

What makes this a potentially viable business idea is that the current market leaders are terrible not only for the people who wear them, but also for the people who buy them: state and county governments. Their poor design and buggy implementation cause constant false alarms, which lead to fatigue on behalf of the employees charged with monitoring them and makes it hard to tell when someone has actually violated the terms of their parole.

Of course, it’s no surprise that these products are terrible—they’re mostly made by large private prison contractors, who aren’t exactly known for their technological skill, and of course they’re also one of the few products whose users are legally required to use them. Still, I suspect something better is possible. If I ran a company like this, the first thing I’d do is require that all employees wear our monitors voluntarily at least a few days a month.

Why this might be a bad idea: I mean, do I even have to list all the reasons? Selling to county corrections departments would be a nightmare. The perverse incentives in the industry could send even the most well-intentioned company down a slippery slope of malevolence. It’s possible that making ankle monitors “better” could end up just removing barriers to their use, increasing the number of people subjected to intrusive, state-mandated surveillance. And the idea of going to a party and introducing myself as a tech guy running a for-profit business in the incarceration industry makes me queasy.

But. This industry exists. Hundreds more Americans will be forced to wear an ankle monitor today. Would they care about all these abstract moral arguments, or would they just be happy to have a product that didn’t force them to sit with their ankle plugged into an outlet in the middle of the day or risk going to prison? There’s an adverse selection problem at work here: if everyone who’s at least trying to be ethical removes themselves from the scummiest industries, those industries don’t go away—they just end up being run by the worst people.

This is the dilemma that kept me up at night all the time when I was running my last company, a property management startup. Operating in the real estate world—quite possibly America’s worst industry, after private prisons and the people who make Truck Nuts—we were constantly backed into moral decisions where every option left us feeling compromised. 

Take evictions, for example. Pretty much every management company is sometimes faced with a tenant who can’t continue paying. Since we served many lower- and middle-income tenants in metro Detroit, we found ourselves in this position a bit more than usual.

If you want to minimize the number of evictions you perform, what do you do? One option is to tighten up your screening criteria for who can rent a property in the first place, by disallowing people with blemishes on their record. But that just pushes the problem over somewhere else, preventing large swaths of people from finding housing at all. (Although it’s less discussed than the eviction crisis, the fact that people with bad credit and even minor criminal records often struggle to find housing is a social justice issue of equal scale.)

You could also choose to operate exclusively in high-end markets where tenants are unlikely to run into financial issues, but then you’re just ignoring the problem by not serving lower-end customers at all. Both options might make you feel better, because they’d lessen the number of times you had to dirty your hands with an eviction. But they wouldn’t really do anything to solve the larger problem.

Which is maybe the point. Some industries are just too fucked to be reformed from within by private operators. When the same industry birthed Robert Durst, the Trumps, and every bad landlord you’ve ever had, you know it’s a place where ethics and optimism go to die. I’m not saying there are no opportunities to start real estate businesses that aren’t moral monsters, but personally there’s nothing you could do to get me to work in the real estate industry again, short of threatening someone I love—and even then, I’d have to seriously think about it.

So I’m probably pretty unlikely to ever try to make a better ankle monitor. But if someone else does, I’ll be rooting for them.

Yours in thinking about how pissed I’m going to be if one of my readers becomes a billionaire off of that bar soap in a tube idea,

Max


Read of the week: For more on ankle monitors, this NYT Mag article from last year goes in-depth on how bad the situation is.