We've all had that moment when we hear a business idea and kick ourselves for not thinking of it first. Those are the start-ups that no one's surprised to see succeed — and then get bought by Google .
Every now and then, though, a company comes along that confounds us — or maybe makes us laugh. A lot of those fail, due to the sheer lunacy of their premise. But when one of those companies succeeds, it's hard not to be impressed.
Steve Gadlin knows that. Two years ago, he made a goofy video on YouTube and sent the link to a handful of friends. His premise: People send him $10 and he draws a picture of a stick-figure cat for them.
Two years later,I Want To Draw A Cat For You has racked up 8,500 orders, has been featured on a prime time ABC show and has found a high-profile backer in Mark Cuban, who invested $25,000 in the company.
"I'd say my expectations were not matched by what actually happened," he says. "I had a feeling that in the comedy circles that I play in Chicago it would be a hit. And by end of life, I'd sell about 100 of these things."
Gadlin's surprising success is hardly a unique story. The Internet has let several entrepreneurs — some accidental — find success with the most unusual business models.
In 2008, Jason Sadler saw potential in the burgeoning field of social media and began charging companies to wear and promote their branded t-shirts. By the end of his first year, he had pocketed $80,000 by doing so.
Today, IWearYourShirt.com has a full-time staff of four, three regularly used freelance video production specialists and, last year, it recorded revenues of $400,000. It's actually turning away some potential customers (mainly those looking to promote a political or religious agenda). And it already has bookings for 2013.
"My focus has been building a community that wants to be advertised to, but in a very humanistic way," says Sadler. "At the beginning, I haphazardly took on any company that would be willing to pay me to wear their shirt, but now I want to bring personality back to marketing. So we pick and choose the companies we want to work with."
The godfather of unusual business success stories is Alex Tew, who in 2005 had the unique idea to fund his college education by selling sponsorships on a single Web page – one pixel at a time. TheMillion Dollar Homepage, against all odds, went viral. Pixels were sold for $1 each, with a minimum purchase of 100. Sponsors were guaranteed the page would be up for at least five years.
Five months later, the page was sold out — and Tew had raised $1.04 million.
He's since gone on to create other viral hits, including Sock and Awe, a shoe-throwing game at George W. Bush after a 2009 incident when an Iraqi reporter threw footwear at the then-president. Today he's with Calm.com – which can best be described as an online meditative rest stop.
Other unlikely entrepreneurial efforts have come not so much from thinking up something entirely unique, but by discovering niches so specific that others wouldn't think to explore them.
For instance, San Antonio-based Alisa LeSueur has made a living by specializing in cleaning dryer vents. And Virtual Dating Assistants lets you outsource your love life. The company will assemble a profile for you on dating sites after a thorough interview, then weed through the people who respond, sending you the best matches. Clients pay between $360 and $1,440 per month for the services.
David Marcks stumbled across his calling when working at the Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, Conn. 25 years ago. Charged with ridding the course of the pesky Canadian geese that flocked there, he came upon an innovative solution: Border Collies.
While other dogs would chase the geese away temporarily, specially trained Border Collies effectively herded them away permanently. Within a couple years, he opted to make this a full-time job – and Geese Police was born.
Today the company employs 30 people (and 30 dogs), has helped rid New York City's Central Park of the unwanted visitors and has 12 franchised locations around the country (which carry total start-up costs for the franchisees of about $70,000).
"We're adding a predator to the property, which is what's missing," says Dianne Neveras, Marcks' sister and vice president of Geese Police. "Our goal is to get them to lift and fly away 'cause they'll fly a mile or mile and a half away – and generally won't come back, because geese are lazy."