Steal This Business Idea: Fidget Ninja
In my “steal this idea” series (previous post), I pitch you on a business or startup idea I’ve been noodling on. What do you think? Stupid or solid?
Lots of meetings are super boring, but it feels unproductive to mindlessly doodle or zone out. When in-person, there isn’t much you can do. When you are working remote, it’s considered unprofessional to keep your video turned off, which limits options. Even if you do something productive like respond to email, it’s easy to tell you aren’t paying any attention. That’s bad news for your career!
Steal This Business Idea: The Solution
Even though remote work limits the options available, most VC setups enable you to do more interesting activities.
Last year, for instance, I taught myself how to actually shuffle a deck of cards. Learning to straight shuffle and bridge a deck wasn’t hard, but it did take time to practice and master. There are a lot of handsy skills that would be fun to learn: more card tricks, coin tricks, spinning pens or pencils, lighter tricks, butterfly knife tricks, drawing perfect circles, or contact juggling come to mind. And then there are lots of skills that are more practical: sewing, crochet, calligraphy, sketching, whittling, and knife sharpening to name just a few more.
Most of these skills require hours of long, repetitive practice and don’t have a marketplace to acquire the skill. Youtube hosts lots of tutorial videos for these skills, but they’re generally low-quality.
Even with a good Youtube video, translating what you see in a video into actual human muscle movements is tough. It also takes a lot of effort to be self-directed.
Then there’s the gear. Where do you even get a contact juggling ball? Which pens are best if you’re learning to twirl them around? Should you get a light or heavy coin?
Technology would make it much more effective to teach these skills. For instance, you have to hold your hands in a very precise to do card tricks without tweaking a muscle. I learned this the hard way! Using an iPad or Phone camera would enable a learner to easily track their movements and get immediate feedback. High frame rate recordings could show learners where they are messing up. And as with all digital learning, stats, streaks, and reports could gamify and make the long process of learning the skill more discrete and rewarding.
Steal This Business Idea: The Product
To implement the solution, I’m envisioning a mobile application that has the following features:
- Traditional coursework (videos, text, pictures)
- Features that provide real time feedback and tips to teach fun, non-traditional, at-your-desk skills.
The product would have the standard free content that hooks people on the concept. Customers would be able to purchase additional content, features, and real human training sessions with a subscription.
This is definitely not a startup-sized opportunity, but there’s more of a market than you might think. 60% of the Americans in the labor market [~100M people] are knowledge workers. [source] In the EU, there’s another 80M. [source]
Among knowledge workers, ~70% say that they regularly experience inefficient or unproductive meetings. [source] Only a small number of those who are bored in meetings ever search for a solution. Fewer still would be willing to spend money to learn a cool skill in that time.
Assuming 1% of bored international knowledge workers are addressable, that’s ~1.3M people. If only 1% of those people would ever even consider spending on this, that’s 126,000 potential customers. If you could get 1% of those (1,260) to pay for a $30/mo instructional subscription, the business could be capable of generating ~$40,000 per month or $450,000 per year in gross revenue. Assuming a 50% profit margin, that works out to a ~$225,000 in profit.
Let’s also think about this from a minimum-viable profitability standpoint. Let’s assume you want to earn a top 10% income in the US ($132,000 per year). At 50% margins with a $30/mo subscription, you would need to sell the service to 733 people. That’s .0004% of the people in the US and Europe who regularly have boring work meetings.
That at least doesn’t seem too insane, but there are a lot of assumptions built in here.
Steal This Business Idea: Acquisition Channel
This seems like exactly the sort of business that would take a decade to hit profitability. Teaching people to spin pens at their desk? C’mon. But there’s an interesting discovery channel that might work.
Many of these skills are inherently cool to watch. There exist today entire genres of short-form video on TikTok and Instagram reels just showing off these kinds of skills. To test this in the real world, you’d want to create a slick video showcasing some of these badasses. You would run it as a commercial on TikTok and Instagram and do a false-door signup test on a website.
Assuming an average user sticks with the service for ~1 year (which is pretty conservative for the sector), LTVs would be in the $300ish range. If you could acquire a customer like this for less than $300, you have a repeatable customer discovery channel.
Overcoming the Cold Start Problem
If the initial test proves interesting, the same appeal to spectacle could overcome the cold start problem. The obvious approach would be to partner with existing influencers for the first couple of courses.
I was able to find 5 contact juggling Tiktok accounts in under 5 minutes that each have 10k+ followers. Vancouver_silverman and _refriedbeanz_ alone have more than 300k followers. If you got to this step, you could spend research which cool at-your-desk skills get the most eyeballs and then start approaching influencers with partnership offers. As part of the partnership agreement, the practitioner would agree to promote the course once created.
Steal This Business Idea: Pricing
A flat $30 per month per user revenue number probably underestimates the service’s unit economics. Here are some obvious ways to enable the service to generate more profit.
There’s the obvious “master class” approach. You could charge a lot more than the base subscription for access to instructors. There would probably be at least two tiers. The first “master class” tier would provide async feedback on video recordings of yourself practicing. The most expensive would get you the traditional synchronous video call practice session.
Selling the Gear
There are several ways to potentially profit from selling gear to visitors and customers. The very simplest thing to do would be to add affiliate links to very in-depth gear guides for people getting into the hobbies. You could essentially become the Wirecutter, but for a short list of niche hobbies.
The intermediate optimization would be to get set up as an Amazon reseller. You would buy the stuff yourself from a wholesaler and then mark up the products on Amazon. In this plan, you can profit both on the initial wholesaler discount and markup on the purchase price.
Finally, you could go whole-hog and sell the gear yourself. This would enable you to offer more customized “sets” of products. You could also claim tax advantages by depreciating your inventory at the end of the year. Because all the stuff would be physically small, the warehousing and storage cost would be small as well.
Steal This Business Idea: Why now?
Remote work is becoming institutionalized. While this seemed likely a year or two ago, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to an increasing number of people.
A year or two ago, lots of people weren’t sure whether remote would remain an option. Today, some people are leaving jobs to maintain their remote work flexibility. This is a change from simply coping with remote work to embracing and optimizing for it.
While this idea would probably have been even better from a PR perspective a year or two ago. it’s still timely.
Steal This Business Idea: Challenges
Obviously, there are lots of potential problems with this business. The biggest and most obvious one is the limitation of accurate ML-assisted computer vision. Hardware like the Apple Vision Pro promise to keep pushing the boundary of what’s possible in the space, but adoption is likely to be very low for the foreseeable future. Oculus and other Meta AR/VR products don’t have the front-facing camera arrays to solve the problem either. You would need to conduct deep research to see how viable the technical aspects are.
Apart from that big show stopper, here are the rest of the problems:
It’s a Nice-to-Have
People are bored to death in meetings, but they aren’t actively searching for solutions. So the discovery mechanism, while potentially viable, will always be worse than if the customers were seeking out the solution.
Who is Actually the Buyer?
My personal experience pushes me to consider this as a “boring meeting problem,” but that’s probably wrong. When we started Skritter, we thought we were building for college students. But it turned out that the people who actually bought the product were middle-aged male expats. This uncertainty calls into question whether the knowledge worker demographics are even relevant at all. 0004% of a user population with no demonstrated interest is $0 in revenue.
50% Margins Don’t Support Content Partnerships
If you have to offer revenue shares for each new course, the assumption of 50% margins is probably not realistic. The best you could probably hope for would be 50/50 splits with creators. Even if you could get to 50/50, you’d still have to pay for all the technology-related costs like engineering and application hosting.
I just dipped my toes into learning how to shuffle cards and quickly learned how hard it was to teach myself that skill. I have no context for how to teach the other skills. But hey, maybe you do!
Learning card tricks is a very different motor skill compared to contact juggling. Each course would probably require at least a moderately bespoke development process. After development and debugging each module, this liability will turn into a competitive moat. That’s great, but for a cash strapped new company, this will be a challenge.
If the primary use case is a product that runs while someone is on a call on their computer, they will need a separate camera to observe and report on their practice session. This pushes for a mobile-first solution. Mobile is much more expensive to develop for and iterate than the web.
Business Development Will be Required
To make this successful, you would need to be a successful talent scout. You would need to find good teachers as well as on-screen personas. You would then need to convince them to work with you on an uncertain venture. That means lots of contracts, negotiations, profit sharing agreements, and for 1:1 coaching, logistics.
No Other Obvious Acquisition Channels
Customers referrals probably won’t work. After all, how many people in any one person’s network are really willing to pay for contact juggling courses?
Content marketing might work a little, but I assume search volume for these hobbies is non-existent. So you might be able to make this work, but it would take years to get off the ground.
Inside and outside sales won’t work because LTVs are an order of magnitude too small. If you could get to the low $3,000s for LTV, you’d be in business.
If this idea sounds interesting, there are lots of questions to answer to figure out if it’s worth pursuing. You could dive in and steal this from me and maybe make your fortune. Here’s are the questions I’d want to answer next.
- What is the total market size for fidget toys in the US and globally? If this number is large, that’s good, if it’s small, that’s very bad. Although fidget toys aren’t a perfect corollary for this service, if people spend actual cash on fidget spinners, that’s good signal that they might spend on other adjacent products and services. I found a couple of market research reports being sold for $3k, but that’s way too much to spend at this point in the process.
- What percent of knowledge workers own at least a smartphone or tablet? I assume this is very high, but worth checking.
- How else could I learn to sew online? I know about some of the other skills, but it would be really important to research and document all the competitors, their pricing, acquisition channels, and approximate demand. Probably the demand-side research would need to come from hobby market sizes, paid search advertising bids, and organic search volume.
- How much would it cost to make a slick video commercial? The only way to communicate how this will work is through video. Otherwise it’ll just look like yet another influencer course. If it costs $50k to make this video, that would go into the “challenges” category.
- What are Instagram reels and TikTok CPMs and CPCs for these topics? I assume they are low, but validating that assumption would be critical to the feasibility of the MVP test.
- What are other professionals actually doing during boring meetings? Probably the simplest and cheapest way to gather this data would be to run a Fivvr or Mechanical Turk survey, but it would be a lot better if you could interview professionals and physically see their setups. People may be too embarrassed to tell you what they’re really doing during boring meetings. It would be hard to hide the evidence in a workspace, even if the interview was planned.
As always, happy overthinking!
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