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Crazy startup ideas that actually worked out

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As a tech journalist, hundreds of startup ideas pass through my inbox every week, ranging from the genius and groundbreaking to the untenable and downright bizarre.

Sometimes they’re both bizarre and genius, with some really whacky ideas actually working out, raising a serious amount of money and gaining impressive support. It’s quite difficult to put together a list of such companies, though, because in many cases what must have seemed like a completely crazy product upon launch has become a norm and something hoards of people use on a regular basis.

I’ll have a crack anyway, though …

Uber

Basic premise: Ignore everything you learned as a child and get in a car with a stranger.

The mobile app that connects passengers with drivers for hire was founded in San Francisco in 2009 and has raised $8.17bn (£6.3bn) to date. It started off with a $200,000 Seed round and closed a $3.5bn Series G from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in June this year.

There’s no question it’s a huge success, but it hasn’t been without its pitfalls. Earlier this year,  around 8,000 black cab drivers in London took part in a protest to highlight the threat to their trade from TfL’s licensing of Uber’s taxi-hailing app.

There have also been a number of complaints centering on safety concerns, although I don’t really see how getting an Uber is any less safe than hopping in a black taxi or pre-ordered mini-cab – regardless which service you use, the driver is essentially a stranger.

Snapchat

Basic premise: Make the effort to take a picture, only to have it disappear again in a matter of seconds.

It’s the kind of concept you explain to your parents and, if they’re anything like mine, you can see their brain melting before your very eyes. “But, but … why?” they ask.

Because it’s fun, I suppose. I don’t really get it either, but I still love it and I’m definitely not the only one – back in June, Bloomberg reported Snapchat had 150 million users on a daily basis. This makes the messaging app more popular than Twitter in terms of daily active users.

The firm has raised $2.63bn across eight rounds from 22 investors since its launch just four years ago.

BorrowMyDoggy

Basic premise: Give your dog to a stranger for a bit, or borrow a stranger’s dog.

It’s definitely an odd one – if you own a dog, you can get matched up with a stranger who will look after your pooch. If you’re a dog enthusiast, you can get matched up with someone in need of a pet sitter. It’s kind of like a cross-species dating service, but without the romance. Ok, that was a bad analogy.

The platform is going well, though, founder and CEO Rikke Rosenlund told me recently there are more than 400,000 members in the BorrowMyDoggy community, with thousands of new people, and dogs, all across the country joining every week.

It’s raised $2.32m so far, but as a player in the ever-popular sharing economy vertical, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it gain more financial support in the not-so-distant future.

Couchsurfing

Basic premise: Go round a stranger’s house and sleep on their sofa.

Couchsurfing was founded way back in 2004 and was kind of the precursor to Airbnb. It introduced the idea of sharing your home with someone you don’t know, but rather than it being a money-making exercise, it was about fostering a friendly exchange of culture and local knowledge.

It grew incredibly quickly and, without any revenue strategy in place, ended up struggling under the weight of its own popularity. Enduring a rocky few years, and a steady stream of senior staff members, it battled to find a sensible compromise between maintaining its ethical roots and developing a sustainable business model.

It relaunched in 2014, but is still fighting this very battle. Nonetheless, the company claims to have 400,000 hosts and four million ‘surfers’ on its platform and has raised $22.6m in two rounds from six investors including Benchmark and General Catalyst Partners.

Ashley Madison

Basic premise: Find someone with equivalent moral deficiency and have a good old cheat on your wife/husband/significant other.

Ashley Madison was founded in 2002 in Toronto and had the signature tagline ‘Life is short. Have an Affair’. Lovely.

The site’s parent company Avid Life Media rebranded as ruby Corp in July and also decided to change the tagline to ‘Find Your Moment’.

Ruby CEO Rob Segal said: “Close to 45% of our members are single, over 50% are attached and they are interested in a wide range of experiences. While remaining true to our roots, Ashley Madison needs to evolve, grow and attune to modern sexuality in 2016.”

Ashley Madison faced a catastrophic data breach in July 2015, with a group of hackers releasing a huge batch of user names, home addresses and search histories. The site claims to still have over 47.8 million members, though, which is A LOT.

A special mention goes to …

Pooper

Basic premise: Like Uber for dog dirt. Let your dog do its business then use the app to summon someone to come and deal with it.

Ok, so I still haven’t quite figured out whether this is for real or not, but If it is I actually think Pooper could be a huge success. Let’s face it, the poop-a-scoop thing has to be the least attractive part of owning a dog.

And …

Comparethecoffin.com

Basic premise: Don’t waste time shopping around for the best deal on a casket for your loved one, fill in a form and let this site do the legwork for you.

Founded Steven Mitchell after he realised how little information there is out there to help people arranging a funeral, Comparethecoffin.com has been up and running since in 2012.

Mitchell didn’t disclose how many users the site has, but said he’s aiming for 2% of the market – 10,000 coffins a year. He also hopes to soon launch the service in Holland, Germany and South Africa.
So there you have it. I suppose the moral of the story is: however crazy your idea may seem, pursue it and bring it to a reality, you never know, it could be the next Snapchat.

Read an edited version of this article on Cisco’s Startup Hub.

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