Modern Mobile "Door-to-Door" Salesforce

This is very rough, but it comes from one of my latest focus areas: trying to think of highly-labor intensive startups to help address the unemployment problem we have in this country. It sounds somewhat contrary to most new business models - which are very low labor - intentionally. America need jobs not just startups. 

Many assume we have a disconnect between talent and opportunity, but I think with the tools we have nowadays (iPhones, iPads, ubiquitous high-speed Internet and video), people can do a lot more than we think.

This idea is rough but simple:

Combine Square with iPhones and a good salesforce automation product, and you could create a mobilized salesforce.

The mobile salesforce could be harnessed for local marketing and sales campaigns for products large or small and could be purely commission-based. Think: helping to sell a new book through one-on-one promotions.

It leverages mobility to employ the unemployed with low barriers to training and helps people market and sell with a more "hands on" approach.

It is probably too annoying to work but maybe there is something here. Let me know if you have any thoughts.



Help Stay-at-home Moms (or Dads) Reconnect

This idea was originally inspired by a number of conversations had with female friends who are, like me, highly educated from good schools.

When many of them make the decision to stay home with their kids, they are left in a tough situation. On the one hand, they get to spend time with their kids and dedicate themselves to the most important and challenging job in the world – being a mother. But on the other hand, they are forced to let their professional aspirations go.

Too many times, this seems to result in a scenario where they end up spending their “free” time on websites like Facebook, which although perhaps amusing, does not satisfy their desire to do something more intellectually engaging and rewarding.

This seems to be a travesty both for these highly educated women, but also for our society as we lose these valuable contributors. I don’t think this has to be the case.

The idea:

Distributed Research. This organization uses a new “distributed” business model. This business would be targeted at either a) consulting or b) investment research. Employees can work entirely from home and collaborate using all the cool technology we have today. Hours would be asynchronous and flexible. And the best thing is, the pool of talent out there is enormous, so it would be staffed with really high quality employees who would likely be willing to work for a reasonable wage.

There are clearly issues of management, recruitment, details of collaboration, sales and other stuff to figure out, but it seems like this would tap into a huge resource and provide for a platform to reconnect a lot of talent with our economy.

I’m sure some people are doing similar things already. Please let me know if you have any thoughts. 


A Platform for Small Business Investment Funds

Photo by Jim Ellwanger

[I am going to continue Dave's topic of better investment options for the masses, but I am not an investor, so perhaps Dave can jump in and improve this idea.]

I see three problems:

  1. Investment advice for most people is simplistic, generic, and essentially attempts to peg their portfolios to some sort of public market average on the assumption that over the long term if they try to do better than the average they will lose their shirts.
  2. "The Market" is a poor proxy for the myriad forms of value creation that occur in the world in that it is made up of a collection of instruments (largely equity and debt from huge companies and government entities, some commodity and real estate-related assets, and various derivations thereof) that are representative of only a very narrow slice of value creating activity.
  3. By virtue of the above two problems, the broader economy of small businesses and other private entities are denied low cost capital for expansion and innovation while large, mature entities and assets are flooded with capital, over-valued, and in their every minor success and failure violently wag the dog that employs and serves most of America and the world. 

Of course there are practical reasons for this, most important of which is that it is hard to value small businesses and hard to invest in them efficiently given their inability to absorb large amounts of capital individually, so the cost of placing capital in them is very high relative to the potential value created. What I hope is that this is changing. For better, and in many cases for worse, the mortgage securitization industry was successful at channeling massive amounts of capital into individual home purchases by, in part, identifying their common elements and packaging them at a scale that could generate efficient profits for investors. This is being done for other forms of commercial debt, but as a small business founder, I don't yet see the breadth of options and affordable capital I would like to see that could help me build my business, innovate, hire people, and make the economy stronger. So here is my idea:

A software platform to create, manage, price, and market small business investment funds. The funds would make loans to particular types of small businesses (perhaps grouped by geography and/or sub-industry), leveraging new reputation systems, such as Facebook and LinkedIn for security, and spreading bets widely across many businesses for diversity. Companies with less than 5 employees make up the majority of businesses in the US, so it shouldn't be hard to find deals, so to speak. Models exist for part of this, such as Prosper, which offers very competitive rates (around 10%) to individuals willing to lend to other individuals, and correspondingly low rates to individuals looking to borrow from other individuals. 

If investors could move a fraction of their portfolios that today are tied up in some anachronistic mix of stocks, bonds, cash, real estate, and commodities, into small business funds, I believe they could make more money than they would in the public markets without taking on more risk, and the resulting influx of billions of dollars would be an adrenaline boost to the US, and world, economies. 






Better Investment Advice for Everyone

This is an idea I might actually start someday, but I haven’t yet, so I figured why not air it here to see what people think.

The fundamental assumption behind this idea is simple: "normal" (i.e. not rich) people have bad access to investment advice.

I would like to create a company that solves this problem.

There are three basic approaches I have considered:

1:  Provide access to sophisticated asset managers in a way that allows “normal” people to benefit from the services wealthy people and institutions benefit from today. The simple description of this would be something like: hedge funds for the masses.

2:  Provide automated investment advice to people through a website using sophisticated algorithms and other fancy stuff that gives people tailored advice in a way that scales. This one seems easier (less regulations perhaps) but also harder because investing is actually really hard and few people do it well – which is why option 1 (which is more human-centric) might beat this version.

3:  Connect individuals around the world with the myriad of individual investment advisors that are out there through a P2P platform. Think of it like Ebay for financial advisors, or Experts Xxchange for financial advice. This one is hard because it is a two-sided platform and suffers from the “chicken-or-egg” issue, but it is maybe easiest because it is just solving a search problem, which the Internet is really good at doing.

There are a lot of details behind each of these ideas, but I figured I would at least float the gist here to see if anyone has any thoughts. Please let me know if you do.


A Museum of Food

Four or five years ago I read The Omnivore's Dilemma, and since then have been telling friends about my dream of a museum of food. I was inspired by that book's look at the ecology, economics, and nutrition of what we eat. Another book, A History of Food, a reference that explains the unusual origins and traditions of foods like honey, and the Slow Food movement, also informed  the idea. I wanted a broad audience to experience these ideas in the immersive, social, authoritative way that only a museum can offer.

Given the relevance and accessibility of the topic (we are not talking about contemporary art), as well as its breadth, this should be a serious museum, on the scale of a museum of natural history, with a whole wing for each of the key themes the museum would cover:

Ecology and Economy: Where does our food come from? How is it grown? What effect does that have on the world around us and on nature? How have those locations, practices, and effects changed over time? Who grows the food, processes it, and sells it? Imagine exhibits with huge interactive maps and time lines. Time-lapse videos showing food growing and people farming. Live or harvested samples of different crops for people to see and touch.

Cuisine and food preparation: What do we eat today and how is that different from previous generations or eras of human history? What are the many ways of preparing food, when were they adopted, and why? What kinds of food are eaten in different parts of the world and in different cultures? Exhibits could include samples of featured dishes cooked in the museum (the equivalent of an audio guide in an art museum). Images and videos of different cultures' food and eating habits. Maps that show how one ingredient migrated around the world, influencing new recipes.

Nutrition: What are vitamins? Is it healthy to be a vegetarian? What is the history of dieting? What diseases come from too much or too little of certain kinds of food? How do traditional cuisines and eating traditions support healthy eating? How are food companies changing the way we eat? Exhibits could include scales, blood pressure tests, quizzes, and other information about an individual's diet. There could also be interactive displays where kids could add different foods to a hypothetical person's diet and see how it effects their health (“What if you only ate ice cream for a year?”)

Of course there would be great restaurants at the museum, a fabulous gift shop, and perhaps a mini-TV studio where people could pay to record their own cooking shows as a way of passing down family recipes. Like most museums, this would certainly be a non-profit and I think it could attract a great deal of financial support to complement the revenue opportunities. One key, in my mind, would be to avoid the support of big corporate agribusiness and processed food money. Conflicts of interest would be guaranteed. Just look at previous iterations of the federal nutritional guidelines. A total sham.

I hadn't Googled this idea in year or so, but I did today and found out, not surprisingly, someone (David Arnold of the French Culinary Institute) is finally going to build one: The Museum of Food and Drink ( - site under construction, real location somewhere in Manhattan). There was a big fund raiser at the Manhattan restaurant Del Posto a few months ago. I certainly hope they will be successful, but I have to wonder if NYC is the right home for another big museum. San Francisco is across the bay from Chez Panisse, the progenitor of the California Cuisine that salvaged American cooking, is a short drive from one of the world's most productive growing regions, and has an excellent restaurant scene. I wonder if SF missed a great opportunity, or if they might create their own competing institution.