toaster

Why the Best Business Ideas Are Weird

Google. GoDaddy. Zynga. Hulu. Zillow. It would be really easy to make a list of high-profile businesses with names that sound, well, dumb. Some are portmanteau words — that is, two or more words squished together. Some are misspellings (Google comes from “googol,” the word a mathematician’s nephew came up with for the number ten followed by one hundred zeroes. Some are acronyms (did you know that Yahoo stands for “yet another hierarchical officious oracle?” If you did, you get to write this column!). And some are complete nonsense.

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What about weird products? Oh, there are plenty. There’s the Selfie Toaster, which can be equipped with stencils that will toast the image of your face (or practically anything else) onto bread. There’s Potato Parcel which will send a message written on a potato to the person of your choice. There’s the Stache Shield (what’s with the food, people?), a wearable steel guard you can pull up over your mustache to keep it from dipping in your beer or marinara sauce. And just like the oddball company names, we’re barely scratching the surface of the wacko products circulating out there.

Why the explosion of weirdness in business? Back in the time of our fathers and grandfathers, businesses had conservative monikers. They were either named after their founders, like Ford Motor Company, or given super boring names like International Business Machines — or as you know it, IBM. Now, we have names like Buzzfeed, Twitter, IKEA, and Skullcandy. We’re used to strange names in the world of creative design and marketing shops, but today multi-billion-dollar brands have names that sound like something thought of while very high.

But when you think about this, it really makes sense. After all, most great ideas — really disruptive, terrifying ideas that met with a ton of resistance — started out appearing weird and crazy. Before Alexa, the idea of putting a speaker in your house that would obey your voice commands seemed nuts. What about accepting a ride from a stranger, not a medallioned taxi? Insane, right? At one point, traveling in a heavier-than-air craft was considered impossibly and completely mad. Even the most world-changing product of our time, the iPhone, was regarded as loony because Apple proposed — horrors! — doing away with the physical keyboard that had been part of every mobile phone since the dawn of time.

potato parcel

Now, every one of those weird ideas and millions more like them is accepted as completely normal, even desirable. Which just goes to show you that if you’re looking for an edge in a competitive vertical, don’t look to imitate your rivals. Do something they can’t possibly expect. Go in a direction only a lunatic would consider. Weaponize the weird.

To choose one example of this, let’s take one of the dumbest business ideas of all time, the Pet Rock. Back in the early 1970s, Gary Dahl, an advertising executive from California, bought a bunch of rocks from a builder’s supply store, packaged them in cardboard boxes with holes so the rocks could “breathe,” and marketed them as pets. Yeah, we know. The ’70s. But Dahl sold more than 1.5 million Pet Rocks and became a millionaire.

What about Cards Against Humanity? In a world dominated by wholesome family games like Uno, a profane, disgusting, extremely adult card game created by eight Highland Park High School alumni should not be able to take the game scene by storm. But it did. Now CAH has a huge line of extra decks and ancillary products and has earned at least $12 million in profit. Then there’s Nick Gray, who started offering fun and interesting tours of New York’s art museums and ended up turning that into Museum Hack, a $1.2 million company that leads what it calls “F*&king awesome” renegade, small group museum tours for people who think they don’t like museums.

The point is, great ideas tend not to lie in your path. They tend to be off in the weeds, in the dark and scary woods that slope away from the well-lit trail. But the thing is, when you step into those woods and away from the lights, once your eyes adjust you see that the weeds and woods aren’t scary at all. They’re beautiful and magical. So, how do you cultivate “weaponized weird” thinking for your company?

Hire weird people.
Hire people who don’t fit your culture at all and invite the culture to change to accommodate them, not the other way around. Hire the square pegs, the pierced and tattooed, the people who don’t check all the boxes in an interview but have a ferocity that can’t be contained.

Get out of the office and do weird stuff.
Throw axes. Take dance classes. Fix houses in poor neighborhoods. Sell lemonade on corners. Talk to strangers. Do anything you can to break your mind and the minds of your people free of normal patterns. That will set them free to think around corners.

Encourage creative expression in the workplace.
We’ve never understood why an office that isn’t customer-facing has to be as tight and buttoned up as a clerical collar! Unleash your people by loosening the rules around attire, cubicle décor, music, humor, etc. Obviously, you want to avoid problems by maintaining decorum around things like sexuality and profanity, but otherwise, turn ’em loose to be themselves.

Have a weekly “What if…?” sesh.
Get all your people together once a week, maybe at the end of the week after hours so the beer and wine can flow, and invite open-ended “What if?” questions. No question is too weird or too stupid. That’s how you come up with the kind of ideas that make people say with a sly grin, “We couldn’t do that…could we?”

Maybe most important, let people off the leash a little. Who you and your people are at the office should be exactly the same as the people you are when you’re playing cards or at the ballgame. Because we’re all weird. And if you let that weird out without being self-conscious about it, who knows what you’ll find?