The Five Buck Idea

Face it, startups are cool. Anyone that made it through the 90s remembers that startups were cool back then. Well guess what? They are even cooler now. So, how do you get in on the game? Let’s set the stage by thinking back to the atmosphere of the late 90s…

Maybe you were in graduate school making $1000/mo with no health insurance, working on some project that you thought was cool about two years ago. Some tiny niche problem in data visualization or graph theory that three people in the world understood and even fewer cared about. You relished the intellectual pursuit — hell, you were basically getting paid to sit around and play Diablo.

But you also remember all your other friends that graduated with a BS in whatever from your school. They were all tooling around Silicon Valley in BMW convertibles, having lunch with venture capitalists from Price Waterhouse Coopers, going to networking socials, hopping from one hot startup to another, and bagging either stock options or venture funds for doing basically no perceptable work other than running their mouths about some idea that was even lamer than your dissertation project.

Ah, the good old days. Well now’s your chance to take all that regret that has been burning a hole in your gut for the past 10 years and turn it into Internet Gold.

That’s right. You, too, can have a startup. All you need is a five buck idea. And then all that glamour can be yours. So, how do you usher in the age of sex, drugs, and rock and roll? Read on.

Like Paul Graham says, it’s really all in the idea. The simpler, the better. I’d say, if you can say the idea out loud in less than 10 seconds, and the person you’re telling basically says something like, “yeah, that sounds good, but hasn’t someone already done that”, or, “yeah, I like it, but can you make a company out of that”, or my favorite, “yeah, cool, but can you actually make money with that”, then you’re probably in good shape.

You aren’t looking to build a service that solves world hunger, or manages the schedules of entire companies, or does anything really that complicated sounding. You want something simple, almost to the point of ridiculousness, and heck, worth probably about five dollars. Extra points if someone under 20 scoffs and says, “Shit man, I can code that up in a weekend.”

You don’t want an idea that your mom would be proud to tell her friends about (my son works with lasers). You want something that your parents kind of shrug and say something like, “why’d we send him to college?” to each other when you aren’t listening.

Once you have this idea, the only trick is getting it out there and doing a good implementation. That’s where the sweat and tears come in. But never fear, because it’s just a five buck idea. Don’t lose sight of that. It’s not that hard. It’s not that complicated. And it certainly shouldn’t be mind-bending to use.

Get it out there, and get people to use it. Don’t charge money. Don’t make it exclusive. Don’t put in more than a handful of features (more on that some other time). Don’t assume anything about your users.

Don’t have a business plan. Don’t figure out how to make money. Don’t care about your competitors. Just give your users the simplest, purest, uncut, and unfiltered version of your five buck idea. And give it to them now. You want users. You want a community. You want to make it hard for people to not use it. This will not happen overnight.

At the worst, you end up with a moderately useful web site or internet-based service that you can be proud of that really only costs you like $10/mo in hosting fees. At the best, you get acquired for real money. Are you going to get rich as hell? Probably not. But there’s a chance. And, you will have left your mark on the internet landscape.

And why? Because the “big companies” don’t have your agility. You can bang something together in well under a year (remember, you’re not building something really complicated), and you don’t have any corporate baggage to bear. You don’t have to ask anyone. You don’t have to clear it with your boss. You don’t have to file any TPS reports. You are your own boss. You are a startup.

And when you build it, and hopefully they come, you have eyeballs. More importantly, you have an entire market. You created that market, and yes, Y!/Google/Ebay will want either your service, your market, your code, your idea, or at the very least, your visitors.

Then the big companies can’t compete because, well, del.icio.us is just the place to go. So they buy it instead and hope to keep the magic flowing.

So get out there. Make something happen. And just maybe, you’ll graduate like these companies did.

($??) craigslist

Ebay bought a 25% chunk of craigslist. Don’t know how much. The sale was indirect, ie. through some guy that Craig gave “symbolic” shares to. This is definitely a five buck idea. Make a mailing list-like thing and make it free? Add some classifieds and spread the love. Done. Craig, you are a good man.

($15M-$30M) del.icio.us

Yahoo! buys del.icio.us. Bookmarks online? Yup. Tag ‘em and share? You betcha. Definite five-bucker. Maybe a bit more, because it was early in the “tagging” arena. They get extra points for that.

($??) dodgeball

Google buys dodgeball. Let your friends know where you are via your cell phone? Cool. Mix in some “find me something cool” functionality and an “alert my peeps within 10 blocks” system, stir in a little social networking buzz and good graphics. Voila. Stalkerific five-bucker. Cha-ching.

($13M) facebook

Not really purchased, but funded to the tune of $Lots. It’s a web site where you can put your profile and eBeFriend other college students. Just shy of five bucks.

($15M-$17M) Flickr

Yahoo! buys some photos. Even though it has its own photo thingy, Y! gets crazy and buys Flickr. Guesses put it at $15M-ish. Fifteen? Nah. Five. Bucks.

($1M+) Ignite Logic

Google buys Ignite Logic (use bugmenot.com). This was a more quiet acquisition that went mostly unnoticed. Apparently, Ignite was a company that let law firms easily and quickly put together fancy-looking web pages. What do you want to bet this is the code base for Google Page Creator? You heard it here first. A little less flashy than the previous five buck ideas, but a five buck idea nonetheless.

($?) MeasureMap

Google buys a blog traffic analyzing tool. Hot on the heels of the Urchin (Google Analytics) purchase, looks like Google wants to know more about how people are surfing the web. This time, they are targeting software that analyzes blogs particularly well. Traffic analyzing software? Yup. Five bucks. Maybe a bit more for use of the sparklines.

($152M) mobile.de

Proving that these don’t even need to be shiny Web 2.0 applications, Ebay bought an automotive-centric classified-ad web site. Classified ads? Wow. I wrote one of those in a weekend a few years ago. Hey, snotty remark — must be a five buck idea.

($580M) MySpace

Wow. Five Hundred Eighty Million. Meeellliiioooon. Say it with me. That’s an official ass-load of cash for what amounts to a gazillion wannabe amateur porn stars and a half-bajillion wannabe rock stars. Fox seriously bought the place animated GIFs go to die. Five Eight Oh. Million. Wait for it…. five bucks. Yup. Five.

($415M) Rent.com

Ebay goes crazy again and spends big cash to get into the rental properties market. Pretty darn good idea: matching up renters with landlords. Did I say pretty good? You know I meant five bucks good.

($2.6B) Skype

And the baller award goes to…. you guessed it — eBay. Shelling out a few billion dollar bills to get Skype? That’s cool. The technology? Not so cool. Only about five bucks cool. Take the existing idea of IP telephony that has been done to death, but do it right. Put a nice interface on it, brand it as super-instant-messaging, give it great logos and a smart web page, and hell, make it work over port 80 to get around silly routers. Blammo. Five bucks turns into a couple billion. This five bucker is a bit heavy-hitting in the codebase department, I’ll acknowledge. But still. Five buck idea. Fits the bill in all the ways outlined above.

($?) Upcoming.org

Social network + calendar == Yahoo! wants it. Too bad this comes in after Skype, because it just doesn’t look as impressive. Oh well. Still five-buck worthy.

So, are any of these ideas ground-shaking? Not really. But they were done nicely and they created a market where there was none before.

I guess five bucks goes a long way these days.

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