October 24, 2011
When it comes to crazy student business plans, Columbia Business School Professor Murray Low has heard them all. There was "Catistan," the social networking website created for cat lovers to role play as their own pet cats. And "Turn Off," a business proposal for a drug designed to decrease your sexual arousal, inspired by a student who was overly stimulated by her attractive classroom professor. But Low, the director of The Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School, welcomes creative craziness because sometimes out of inspired madness, comes the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Students bring their offbeat ideas to the school's annual "Outrageous Business Plan Competition" in April where they’re judged for their creativeness—and their potential to succeed in the real world.
"We're focusing on things that are real and achievable, we want ambitious ideas that are at the same time not flakey," says Low. "Sometimes students need to focus on crazy, silly ideas, to get their creative juices flowing."
If one is lucky, unlikely, outlandish or just plain bizarre ideas that seemed doomed to failure, actually do succeed. With the right vision, tenacity and support, an offbeat concept can fly. Companies that seem like no-brainers now, were considered outrageous when they started.
Twitter, according to one of the original developers, Dom Sagolla, was born during a daylong brainstorming session in San Francisco over Mexican food when one person suggested building a service to tell groups of friends what you were doing in short, simple texts. “It’s FriendStalker!” someone joked.
Remember Pet Rocks? A short-term unfathomable sensation in the mid-1970’s, Gary Dahl decided that instead of caring for demanding dogs and cats, a rock could offer its owners a more peaceful (if totally inert) pet. The company ended up selling about $15 million worth of pet rocks.
A smaller scale success is Ken Ahroni, the founder of Lucky Break Wishbone Corp., a Seattle-based organization that makes breakable plastic wishbones. On Thanksgiving of 1999, Ahroni came to the conclusion that no one should have to fight over a single turkey wishbone. He launched the company in 2004, and currently has eight full-time employees and an estimated $700,000 in annual sales.
While Low acknowledges that he sees more losers than winners, there's always the chance a crazy idea will exceed expectations and prosper. Here are nine of the craziest, most offbeat and original ideas, conceived by business students in the past few years.
1. TakeOff Underwear: Kathleen Stillo, Winner of the 2010 Best Elevator Pitch, A. Lorne Weil Outrageous Business Plan Competition at Columbia Business School
The judges were impressed with Stillo's idea for women's underwear that could be easily removed with a velcro strip; conceived as a way to avoid "awkward romantic" encounters." "This wasn't a joke, it was a full-blown concept" according to Low. The company's tagline was pitched as "Set the Mood. Don't Interrupt It." Low says that ultimately, Stillo's research led her to believe that a better market for the product would be elderly women recovering from surgery with limited mobility. The fledgling entrepreneur ultimately decided to not proceed with the business.
2. Ramensquare: Leonard Kang, Graduate Student, University of Chicago, 2011
Kang's brainchild for a vending machine that makes fresh customized Ramen noodles in about three minutes was hatched when he was a Ramen-noodle-loving college student. Kang now 35, wants to recreate "a ramen experience" for college students in Chicago, and then expand to food kiosks at airports and malls. "Currently there are only two places to recreate this experience, at home or at a gourmet restaurant," says Kang. Kang plans to officially launch his freestanding noodle business in January 2012 at universities in the Chicago-area.
3. Entom Foods: Matthew Krisiloff, Tommy Wu and Chelsey Rice-Davis, Undergraduates, University of Chicago, 2011
While eating insects may seem repulsive to most Americans, the founder of Entom Foods, Matthew Krisiloff, 19, is determined for that to change. The solution (and it's a tall order) to what Entom considers environmentally unsustainable meat consumption, is a business that markets "de-shelled" insect meat. "We will make insects more palatable, similarly to removing the beak and feathers of a chicken," says the EntomFoods.com website. Tracey Keller, the associate director of marketing communications, and external relations at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, says that Krisiloff spent part of last summer with an entomologist further developing the concept and the technology to support it. "He is truly serious and very dedicated to market to a country that doesn't eat insects."
4. Devon's Dirt Cheap Compost: Devon Maher, Glenville State College, Finalist at the West Virginia Colligate Business Plan Competition, 2010
A business plan that discusses horse manure and worms is likely to make a strong impression. And Devon Maher's plan for an environmentally friendly business that "specializes in the collation and distribution of worm waste through the process of "vermi-composting," which uses the critters to feed on decomposing waste material like kitchen scraps to produce a nutrient-rich fertilizer, made a powerful impression on Mindy Walls, the director, Entrepreneurship Center, at the University of West Virginia's College of Business and Economics, a sponsor of the competition. "I loved the idea," says Walls. "It's simple but brilliant." Maher, 24 is a college junior and has plans to pursue the business when he graduates. "It would not only bring a fresh new life to the agricultural aspect of the West Virginia business market, but it would also help clean up the soil and environment by removing a need for chemical based fertilizers," Maher says.
5. MyBad Industries: Zach Rohde, Malcolm Perry and Thomas Sellers, Winners of Most Offbeat Idea that Might Make it Big, at the Kenneth A. Freirich Business Plan Competition, at Skidmore College, 2011
Does being a college student mean never having to say you’re sorry? It does if you’re the founders of MyBad Industries, which earlier this year, created a collection of T-shirts that reads "MyBad" on the front, and "I'm a Work in Progress" on the back."We call this apology lifestyle clothing," says Zach Rohde, 19, now a Skidmore sophomore. Since the ubiquitous "my bad" has become a catch-all expression for Generation Y, Rohde believes he can take the brand much further "I'd like to do a MyBad collection on college campuses, and in the long-run, expand into making Ed Hardy style clothing."
6. Massox: Jeffrey Bischoff, Westminster College, Winner of Best Written Plan Award at the Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, 2011
What can you do when your feet are aching and a good foot massage is in short supply? The solution could be in your socks. The promise of Massox, men's designer socks made of bamboo fiber and equipped with acupressure massagers inside sock's surface is to relax the feet. According to its website, Massox "uses wisdom from the past and technology from the present, to create sustainable socks of the future." Definitely, not your father's tube socks. "There are so many things that can be done with socks," says founder Jeffrey Bishchoff who graduated this spring. "We want to become the premiere therapeutic sock brand that offers comfort, health and modern style as well."
7. Wix: Nick Friend, Chris Beardsley, Russell Greenberg Winners at the A. Lorne Weil Outrageous Business Plan Competition at Columbia Business School, 2010
Murray Low calls the Wix concept "perfect for tailgating parties." The team created the Wix Sidecar, a liquid filled disposable cartridge that fits comfortably over a soda can. "Think a portable Jack-and Coke in less than three seconds," according to a posting on Lang Entrepreneurship Center's Facebook page. These instant mixed cocktails have other advantages: "No spills. No cup. No makeshift bar." And the winners received a $7,000 first prize.
8. Terra Solutions: Jacob and Matthew Smoker Winners Burton D. Morgan Business Plan Competition, Purdue University 2010
The brothers Jacob and Matthew Smoker, are developing biodegradable diapers made of soybeans (among other soybean and corn-based products), a product intended to appeal to environmentally conscious parents. The siblings won $20,000 in the undergraduate contest. But can soybeans take-away that full-diaper smell?
9 Are You A Human? Tyler Paxton, Reid Tatoris, Benjamin Blackmer, University of Michigan, Winner, Rice University Business Plan Competition, 2011
Are You a Human is an Ann Arbor, Michigan based company, that promises "verification" software for websites and advertisers seeking to distinguish between real people and computers. It seems humans are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to purchasing items like concert tickets, compared to the software programs used by scalpers to buy those tickets fast, and in bulk. When entering a website utilizing the "human software," a person will be asked to complete a simple game, easy for humans, but difficult for computers to decipher. A possible victory for mankind over machine. This summer, the startup received a first-round investment of $750,000 from the Frankel Commercialization Fund at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.
Watch the winners of Columbia’s Outrageous Business Plan Competition pitch their ideas here: