I think one of the invisible shifts to adulthood happens when upon hearing a seemingly outlandish business idea, one no longer asks “Why didn’t I think of that?!” in wonder anymore, but instead mutters, “That’s a stupid idea, how does that work?”. From there, it’s only a short hop, skip, and jump away to “That would never work, now get off my lawn!”
I briefly reached that point for a short while a few years ago. But I made an active decision to reverse course before I fully morphed into a know-it-all griper.
I know it’s hard. When you’re as old as I am, you have had so much experience and have seen so much failure, you get good at recognizing certain behaviors, practices, or markets as difficult, pointless, and disadvantageous. That’s fine because such experience-based heuristics (whether firsthand or observed) are important. Otherwise everything new you face will mean you starting from zero each time, calculating whether it’s worth entering or not.
However, that doesn’t mean we should wall ourselves off from all seemingly silly or stupid ideas. Innovation happens when disparate ideas converge, and often one or most of these ideas are seen as silly or too difficult with little upside to even bother trying. We may not be interested in personally pursuing these opportunities or methods. Oftentimes, we aren’t wrong in recognizing that these may not work where we are, at this particular moment in time.
But it’s still good to be aware of what else is happening outside our bubble, what is succeeding in markets elsewhere, because it helps bring some freshness into whatever we are working on. We can adapt bits of those that may work in our milieu, or combine different ones. And even if fully 100% of them are inapplicable where we are, it keeps us from turning into a cranky old “that’s never gonna work” coot by injecting some whimsy into our lives at least.I’d like to share with you some uncommon business ideas I’ve encountered the past few months:
Chat app stickers, bad “cluttered” design, and feature cramming
This article contrasts how one of South Korea’s top mobile messaging app would look to people raised on American style design language. I’m not American, but most of the software and websites I frequent are, and I’m used to the spare, minimalist ethos mentioned in the article.
When I lived in Taiwan briefly in the mid 00s, I could not handle seeing how their typical websites looked like 90s Geocities pages, and these were supposedly big, commercial, top websites. Remember, this was already during the web 2.0 neat-and-clean design phase of the Internet. I remembered getting dizzy looking at the home pages of their popular blogging platforms, and then slinking back to my beloved Blogger, whose simple orange and white design didn’t try to scream at my eyes with a thousand different stimuli. I’m telling you, Xanga looked liked a clean, minimalist standard-bearer compared to those.
I was aware that this crazy style is also how things are done in Japanese and South Korean websites, because I’ve seen Taiwanese view sites from those countries too. I assumed maybe it’s just because the CJK countries had non-Roman systems of writing, so perhaps that’s how they adapted to displaying text and information online. I also attributed the high rate of eyeglass wearing children in Taiwan to this crammed-with-words website design.
For example, see these two screenshots below. It makes me feel I don’t know where to look first.
These 2015 versions are actually already less cluttered from when I first encountered them in the mid 00s.
Compared to what I’m used to seeing:
I finally learned the real reason from this article, and it’s not a conspiracy by optical shops and eyeglass manufacturers to create generations of nearsighted East Asian children after all. It’s because they had very fast Internet early on that there was no need to “save” bandwidth by limiting what’s onscreen.
“…American mobile design is fetishistically minimalist. Silicon Valley applauds itself for good taste in this regard, but this aesthetic has sprung up partly in response to a deficiency: Americans have learned to strip out bandwidth-guzzling elements because they slow down loading times. Korean designers, lacking such bandwidth restraints, can stuff their apps full of all the information and widgets they like. …
This trans-Pacific gap in bandwidth is so pronounced that Korean developers often have to strip down their software if they want to take it stateside.” (source)
Another software the article references is Band, a Korean mobile messaging app that has so many features that Koreans are used to using within one app, but confused Americans.
“Even when Korean firms don’t encounter technological issues, the design gulch can confound their attempts to lure American customers. In 2014, Doyon Kim was tasked with taking Band, a South Korean mobile-messaging app, to Silicon Valley. Band lets friends chat, plan outings, share video files, split bills and even conduct informal polls about where to go to dinner. Doyon Kim says that the sheer number of Band’s functions confused users who were not accustomed to performing all of those tasks within a single app.
“As a newcomer in the United States, products have to have one strong feature to market,” he said. “Band had so many features and functionalities, that when people saw the product, they didn’t really get it.” (source)
Indeed, isn’t the cardinal rule of building software or web platforms American-style is to focus on one or two core capabilities and then branch out from there? But even when branching out, an app is supposed to have one featured strength, not be everything but the kitchen sink.
The thing in this article that struck me the most was the $1 to $2 virtual sticker packs that Koreans purchase for Line and KakaoTalk. I first read about those in some other article about Line, but I thought that was just hype because I could not conceive of anyone willingly parting with their money for a virtual good that does not even serve any purpose.
It’s not even like virtual gold or virtual lives/ power-ups in video games. These are just stickers that do nothing and look horrifying:
I live in a country where many middle class employed people only have a daily meal budget of $6 (and even more have meal budgets of $0 to $2), so I really could not fathom anyone paying such amounts for imaginary stickers. Even moneyed people I know here who have a lot of disposable income for gadgets, fashion, or Steam games, have never purchased sticker packs and thought that was a pointless waste of money.
But apparently they’re a thing. I don’t know if the tough life here in a third world tropical paradise suck the whimsy out of us, or we just have a scarcity mindset, or American influenced design appetites evoke a visceral disgust in me at such cutesy icons, garish color schemes and cluttered feature panes, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around this.
Look at the difference between the crazed colors of the first two screenshots below compared to WhatsApp.
Now that your eyes are now open to this possibility, talented designers, go jump in this market by creating your own sticker packs! Hawk them in one of those all-in-one mobile messaging slash market slash ticketmaster slash file sharing slash polling apps.
(Read source article)
Lingerie Empires and Plastic Recycling
This is one of my favorite articles of 2015. I love reading about two super different things coming together by chance. And what can be more different than how some random Chinese cornered the market on sexy underwear in an obscure corner of Egypt?
First came the sexy undies.
The lingerie vendor who pioneered the small Chinese community in Asyut, Egypt, landed in Egypt by chance. He chose that place on a map, thinking it’s the most populous city in Upper Egypt and he’d do better than Cairo, since he’ll be the first Chinese guy there. He wasn’t even right, it is Luxor.
He landed with pearls, neckties, and underwear, not because of any market research but because those were the only things that fit his suitcase. The first two things didn’t sell well. Apparently Egyptians don’t care for pearls or wear neckties over their traditional clothing. But lingerie was a huge hit!
Soon, he started importing more, and even set up factories there. Many of the lingerie sellers are concentrated in Upper Egypt, the most conservative part of that country.
Alot of these enterprising Chinese lingerie dealers show up not knowing the language, and when the writer visited the home of one of the vendors, he didn’t see any Chinese-Arabic dictionary, phrasebook, or language textbook. The sellers may barely know Arabic or English, but they do know the most important phrases for doing business in their field, “I have this in a wider size.” and “beautiful bride”.
They just showed up, tried to see what works, and then did it. They also gained their buyers’ trust by not meddling in their affairs or having all these preconceived notions about their religion.
Then, spotting an opportunity and seizing it.
The pioneers I mentioned above are also the ones who established the first plastic bottle recycling facility in Upper Egypt.
“In Cairo and northern Egypt, the network of Chinese lingerie importers and producers quickly grew, and eventually Lin and Chen rented a storefront in Asyut. They invited a relative and a friend to open the two other shops in town. While Lin and Chen were building their small lingerie empire, they noticed that there was a lot of garbage sitting in open piles around Asyut. They were not the first people to make this observation. But they were the first to respond by importing a polyethylene-terephthalate bottle-flake washing production line, which is manufactured in Jiangsu province, and which allows an entrepreneur to grind up plastic bottles, wash and dry the regrind at high temperatures, and sell it as recycled material.” (source) (emphasis mine)
“Here in Egypt, home to eighty-five million people, where Western development workers and billions of dollars of foreign aid have poured in for decades, the first plastic-recycling center in the south is a thriving business that employs thirty people, reimburses others for reducing landfill waste, and earns a significant profit. So why was it established by two lingerie-fuelled Chinese migrants, one of them illiterate and the other with a fifth-grade education?” (source) (emphasis mine)
The article also contrasts the success of the lingerie dealers with investors and businessmen who tried to create industrial/ factory zones in Egypt because they were unaware of how things on the ground work. The zone planners were thinking from a distant, top down angle, and failed to consider local features like women only working half the day, so the factories find it hard to be profitable.
Most importantly, the biggest entrepreneurial lesson I learned here is that the successful ones don’t seek to meddle or impose their values or “change” the system, but see the market and their operating milieu for what it is, and adapt to it. From there, just by their presence as “others”, they have already made changes. And their profits in fact allow them to reinvest into bigger ventures like the full stack plastic recycling plant.
(Read source article.)
Instagram Shops in the Philippines
Even before Instagram “monetized” by putting ads on users’ feeds, people have been monetizing their own Instagram accounts by putting photos of things related to their business- whether the actual product, or lifestyle photos depicting the usage of said product.
The accepted best practice of selling through Instagram is not just posting the photos of your products on your account, but to use it as a brand building exercise with seductive lifestyle photos, one or two pictures of the actual merchandise, some other helpful content that add “value” to your readers, and then hopefully they will be attracted to your brand and go to your website, an e commerce site, or store to buy your product.
There’s a burgeoning cottage industry of Instagram sellers in my country now, and the way they do things is a reversal of these supposed “best practices”.
I remember when Multiply still existed, I couldn’t figure out why so many Filipinos would use it to put up online stores when it’s so unsuited for ecommerce. I could only chalk it up to masochism.
It’s similar to the way I feel about selling on Instagram. Most posts are ephemeral, there’s no rating/ feedback mechanism, no searching through archives, there’s no organized method of presenting your wares, let alone an index, there’s no check out method, inquiries are done through the phone (captioned on the picture) because most sellers note that they have turned off notifications.
Ijust learned about this method of selling recently. I buy and sell things online, but on sites made for selling. My friend was the one who told me about this and I couldn’t believe that there’s this hidden ecosystem of Instagram players.
When she explained to me how it works, I could not wrap my head around it. Why would anyone choose to buy and sell on this platform, in this incredibly roundabout manner, when there are other robust e commerce sites now in the Philippines? At least back in 2007 when selling on Multiply was all the rage, we could say that there weren’t as many online selling platforms then.
She tackled each of my questions one by one.
For feedbacks/ ratings, the seller requests the buyers to take photos of them using the product, and then tag the seller. The seller will thenrepost it, showing a positive feedback. (Reposting/ “regramming” apps– yet another mini cottage industry spawned by Instagram.)
I asked, but there’s no easy way of seeing the aggregate positive/ negative feedback on each seller the way ratings are posted beside usernames on eBay. She said, well, sometimes sellers take a combined photo of a bunch of their shipping waybills and post that. I’m like, no… that doesn’t count.
She also added that the follower count also is a signifier of buyer confidence. I rebutted that follower counts can be easily bought. You can have hundreds of thousands of bot followers for $5!
And she said, well it doesn’t bother buyers like her, and neither do they bother apparently thousands of others. I had nothing to say to that. If the market accepts it, and people sell and buy, as inefficient as I may think it is, who am I to say “that’s not the right way!”
Ifound out from her that most of these Instagram sellers are private. You have to follow them, and you start seeing their wares after they accept you. I could understand the desire for privacy, what with the shakedown-happy government here, but how does that aid your buyers in discovery?
It turns out that to get around the problem of discovery, the sellers came up with the concept of #S4S or Shoutouts for Shoutouts. In exchange for Store A tagging Store B and posting a photo of Store B’s wares, Store B will tag Store A’s account name, and Store B will also post a photo of Store A’s merch on the former’s Instagram account.
These Instagram sellers will also only accept these quid pro quo “shoutout” arrangements from sellers with a minimum number of followers (say a few thousands). Which to me doesn’t make much sense, because you could buy followers so easily, but that’s how they roll.
Note all this is temporary, the Shoutout for Shoutouts last for around a day, then the seller will delete the shoutouts and corresponding advertisements for the other Instagram accounts and then the cycle begins anew a day after.
To me, this sounds tedious and cumbersome. But it apparently works for that market. And they’re making money.
This was an eye opener. To make money, I learned I have to listen and eat my whatever “best social media practices” theory I have previously learned. I can keep asking why won’t they use the other just as easy to use online selling platforms based in the Philippines, but if what they’re doing makes money, if Instagram is where their buyers prefer to scroll and browse, even if the process sounds inefficient and convoluted to me, who’s wrong and who’s right?
This applies for every other business practice out there too.
There are theories and case studies and papers on what people say is the “correct” practice, and there’s what actually works. And what works is not imposing what you feel is “right” based on some “I know better” notion (once again, refer to article the lingerie sellers in section #2 and how they managed to gain a foothold and customers’ trust in the most unlikely place.)
Japanese cuddle cafes
I live in the third world where people sell their bodies to survive- whether in the flesh trade, the “hospitality” trade (girls get commissions from the bar when you buy them drinks), manual labor, paid for peanuts freelance outsourcing work so the first world can live a four hour workweek lifestyle and never have to encounter dick pics and beheading videos in their social media feeds.
The “love industry” staples mentioned in this link are nothing new to me.
(the segment on the cuddling starts at 5:53)
I’ve met both customers and service providers. However, through an informal poll of random people I asked, not a single person has ever thought that cuddle cafes are a good value for money, are something that would be viable as a business, or forget feasibility, something that would even catch on short term!
I thought I had heard of almost every permutation of the flesh trade, and through the years I have learned to not judge because it’s not my place to say what’s wrong. It makes money, and unless I have some brighter idea for people to feed themselves (now, not 10 years away when people are dead), I have no right to impose whatever Western liberal standard of “right or wrong” I learned or read.
When I put those tainted prejudices aside, I see the bigger picture and can get the sense of what sells, what doesn’t sell, why certain services sell, what is “attractive” to what markets, etc.
However, cuddle cafes were never something that I’d thought would make inroads in this industry. Either this is a flash in the pan, or it could be a harbinger of future trends to come. Maybe this will only be a hit in certain cosmopolitan pockets where there’s a lot of lonely singles. Who knows. But hey, it’s still good to learn something new each day. Now go hug someone.
(link to source)