Friday, December 3, 2010

Still Life with Robin: Businesses I Wish Existed

by Peggy Robin

In a tough economy it’s hard to get a new business going, but sometimes an idea comes along that is so powerful, you think to yourself, “How could this fail?” Still, you need more than a good idea to make a business viable. Someone has to draw up a business plan, and scout for investors, and do all the legwork to create the product and market it. In other words, put years of work into it. I’m not the person to do that. I’m just someone who sits around talking with others (mainly my husband, Bill), saying things like, “Yes! That product is just what we need! If only someone would start a business to sell it, they’d make a fortune!” So, if you’re feeling entrepreneurial, here are three ideas for businesses that we’d love to see someone take the ball and run with.

1. The Smarter Smoke Detector. Fire safety experts tell us that you should have a smoke detector on every level of your house and you should change the batteries when needed. You know that smoke detectors save lives. But you also know the annoying reality that when a smoke detector is beeping “low batt” it’s always the middle of the night. So you stumble out of bed and begin to wander around the house, going from smoke detector to smoke detector, listening for that damned beep. Why are they set to beep just once every other minute? What idiot came up with that design? The needed improvements seem so obvious: Design a smoke detector that has a smarter “low batt” warning, set so that it won’t start the warning beep in the dark. It could work on a timer, so that it waits until the next daytime cycle to start beeping. (The “low batt” indicator comes on when there’s at least 24 hours of battery life left, so there’s no worry that they battery will die before the next daytime cycle.) Or you could link the low batt indicator to a light detector so that the beeping starts only in the presence of light. And while you’re at it, eliminate that minute-plus gap between beeps. There’s no reason why you should have to wait so long to hear the beep that lets you locate the one that's losing power. Just make it give a steady stream of pips. If I could buy a product with a smarter battery indicator, I’d scrap all my smoke detectors right now and replace each one, before their batteries had a chance to go “low batt” on me in the middle of the night!

2. Caffeine Detection Strips. I order coffee in restaurants with trepidation. That’s because I do my best to avoid caffeine after 1pm. So anytime I go out to lunch or dinner, I need to be absolutely assured that the coffee in front of me is genuinely a decaf. Many years ago “60 Minutes” did a hidden camera feature on bad practices that go on behind the scenes at some of the best restaurants in New York. One of the things some waiters were caught doing was serving caffeinated coffee to customers who had ordered decaf. This typically happened when the decaf pot was empty and the waiter did not want to slow down the service by brewing a fresh pot. The waiter probably shrugged off the switch thinking most customers really don’t notice the difference. But I’m just the sort of person who would happily consume a few cups after dinner and only realize that I’d had been involuntarily dosed with caffeine when it's  past midnight and I find myself still wide awake in bed. Of course, I ask waiters, “You’re sure this is decaf?” but I know it’s a futile question. How much better it would be to skip the interrogation and have at my disposal a simple means to test the coffee. I wonder if it’s possible for a chemist to come up with a strip, something like a pH color tester of the sort used to check swimming pool water. You could just carry a few in your purse, and when presented with a cup of coffee, you stick in the test strip for a second and then pull it out and read the results. Here’s the brand name for the product, if you would like to invent and then market such a thing: “CaffTell.” As soon as you start making it, I’ll buy it!

3. Box Exchange. This business would be a nonprofit, ideally. With the rapid rise in online shopping, more and more of us are ending up with excess boxes. Week in and week out, boxes arrive on our doorsteps – boxes we can’t reuse, boxes that are not so easy to recycle. (All that cutting and flattening to make them fit into our recycling bins!) If the boxes are big enough and you have enough of them, you can offer them up as moving boxes on your neighborhood listserv, but then what do you do with all those smaller ones that are not big enough to be useful to movers? Wouldn’t it be great if each neighborhood had a convenient drop-off center that would take your old boxes? Then, whenever you needed some boxes for a move or even just a single box to ship some item to a relative far away, you could just stop by and find the particular box, or boxes, you need. Small businesses that do a lot of shipping might be able to cut out or at least sharply reduce the cost of shipping supplies if they could pick up what they needed regularly at the Box Exchange. Of course, there were have to be a fee of some kind for participants. And the Box Exchange would need to be attended so that the rejects, the non-reusable boxes, could still be flattened and sent to be recycled. Perhaps this sort of local drop-off center could also handle recyclable electronics, document shredding, and hazardous waste. Right now I have to keep an eye out for recycling events put on by schools, churches, or businesses in the neighborhood, or else plan to take a long car ride out to the city’s recycling/hazardous waste dump at Fort Totten (now open only for limited hours on the first Saturday of each month). Office supply stores and some hardware stores take certain kinds of recyclables (used inkjet cartridges and old batteries) but there's no one place that takes everything. So, maybe not just “Box Exchange” but “Box Exchange ‘N More.” I don’t say you’ll be able to make money with this idea, just that lots of people would use it.

Don’t look to me for any practical tips on how to get any of these businesses off the ground. Just let me know when they’re open for business. I’ll be the first customer in line!

(I welcome any other great product improvements/business concepts/better mousetraps in the comments section below.)

No comments:

Post a Comment