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Top 10 unlikely start-up successes

Friday, 21 January 2011 | By Oliver Milman

Last week’s $30 million investment in the Cheezburger Network will have raised the eyebrows of the casual observer.


After all, how can a business behind something as banal as LOLcats or the FAIL series of sites attract such a huge investment?


The answer, of course, lies in the fact that Cheezburger’s sites are able to capture 16.5 million guffawing users each month. The idea may seem throwaway and silly, but the core numbers of the business stack up.


Cheezburger isn’t the only unlikely success story in the business world. Far from it. There are plenty of seemingly outlandish ideas that have formed the basis of successful businesses. Here are the top 10.


1. Iwearyourshirt.com


Jason Sandler is set to make $500,000 this year, merely for wearing t-shirts. Sandler isn’t a celebrity, model or designer – he simply wears t-shirts emblazoned with the logos of companies.


Every day, Sandler wears a different t-shirt with a different company logo. The businesses pay him for this privilege. In return, Sandler attempts to plaster himself across as much of the internet as possible – think Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – to provide his clients with online exposure.


On January 1, 2009, Sandler charged his first client, UStream.tv, $1 to wear their logo for a day. He charged his next client $2 for the next day, and so on, until December 31 where he pocketed $365 for the day.


The success of the business means that Sandler was able to charge $5 on January 1 this year, with the price rising in $5 increments each day.


I Wear Your Shirt


2. Green Hanger


Making recycled cardboard hangers appears to be a fairly simple idea that you imagine someone would’ve cottoned onto a long time ago.


A trio of Australian entrepreneurs discovered that, in fact, no business had entered this area and so Green Hangers was born.


Retailing at $5.95 for a pack of 10, the company has recorded booming sales and has found retail and contract suppliers such as Bunnings, Quiksilver and several hotels and drycleaners.


Global domination is being eyed by Green Hangers. Logistics remain in Australia while manufacturing has been outsourced to China.


Green Hanger


3. Switch Flops


An idea that stemmed from Lindsay Phillips’ high school art class when she was 16-years-old netted her $30 million in revenue last year.


Phillips was decorating porcelain sandals for a class project, with the activity quickly turning into a personal hobby. One day, a friend was so excited by the colourful shoes that she attempted to put them on.


Phillips realised there was an opportunity for sandals with interchangeable, decorative Velcro straps, giving the outside world the impression that you own multiple pairs of colourful sandals. Each pair sells for $35. Wisely, Phillips, now 23, patented the idea. She plans to expand into UK and Europe.




4. SheWee


Marketers struggle to get consumers to change their behaviour from buying one brand of chewing gum to another, so you would imagine that meddling in people’s lavatorial habits would prove futile.


Such a challenge didn’t deter UK entrepreneur Sam Fountain, who decided that the act of female urination was the basis for a business.


While backpacking in 1999, she came up with the idea for the SheWee, a device that enables women to urinate while standing up, much like men. Following her degree, she set the business up in 2003 and the company has since expanded to the US, no doubt hearing plenty of stifled sniggers at dinner parties along the way.




5. UStarNovels


For anyone who is lacking tedium and the faint whiff of cheese in their lives, a romantic novel can often be the perfect remedy.


Seizing on this rather tired genre, Katie Olver started up U Star Novels in 2006. The novels run along certain themes – titles include ‘Fever in France’ and ‘Indecent in Italy’ – but each book is personalised by the consumer.


The user inputs their details – standard passport application questions such as name, age, height and nipple colour – and these titbits are weaved within each steamy story.


Somehow, there is a market for this. U Star Novels has experienced impressive sales in the UK, US and Australia.


6. Craigslist


Craigslist looks like websites did in 1999. Viewing its sparse lines of text, placed atop a featureless white savannah of nothingness, you almost expect to hear the accompanying pop and crackle of a dial-up modem.


Stubbornly refusing to add superfluous nonsense such as colour, homepage pictures or social media plug-ins, Craigslist should’ve slid into obscurity. In fact, its annual revenues are estimated at $150 million.


It began in 1995, started by Craig Newmark who started listing events in San Francisco. It has since expanded to include job ads and services and now spans cities across the world. It was never intended to be a business. Maybe that is, conversely, why it has actually worked.




7. Doggles


At the climax of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Animal Farm, pigs walk around on two legs wearing clothes.


Ken and Roni di Lullo attempted their own brand of anthropomorphism by trying to force their dog to wear a pair of glasses after they noticed it was squinting in the sun.


Realising the fallacy of this, they could’ve easily given up. Instead, they went on to develop a range of tinted sunglasses specifically for dogs, called Doggles.


At $40 a pop, Doggles aren’t cheap, but in a world where pets are lavished with diamond-encrusted collars, the idea proved a winner. The business now has revenue of $3 million. Most dogs have remained on all fours though, thankfully.




8. The Pet Loo


In further evidence of the viability of unusual start-up ideas in the pet care industry, a Melbourne-based business is seeking global expansion for its product - a portable square of lawn that acts as a toilet.


Simone Iglicki and Tobi Skovron started up The Pet Loo in 2006 after their pet dog created one mess too many in their apartment. The piece of turf has a drainage system and is aimed at those living in small apartments or people who are unable to take their dogs out for regular toilet-induced walks.


The Pet Loo


9. Million Dollar Homepage


Most people seeking to find some extra money to see them through university get a job in a bar or a call centre. Not Alex Tew. In 2005, he decided to set up a blank webpage and charged advertisers a dollar a pixel to advertise on it.


The idea was so unexpectedly successful that Tew dropped out of his degree to reap the rewards. Many imitators have come before and since, but Tew was the original million dollar pixel man.


Million Dollar Homepage


10. Superjam


If a 14-year-old who started making jam at his grandmother’s house can become a multi-millionaire, there really is hope for every budding entrepreneur out there.


This isn’t to diminish the achievements of Fraser Doherty, the fresh-faced Scot behind Superjam. He has achieved astonishing success and, after getting his product stocked in every major supermarket chain in the UK, he is now set to crack the US market.


But, a product as ubiquitous as jam? Made by a schoolboy? Maybe those who’ve spent millions developing pieces of software or bootstrapping a consultancy should look to the condiment market instead.