Request for Startups

There just isn’t enough enough time in the day to take advantage of every opportunity. Below I’ve listed some ideas that I wish I could start in another life. I’d invest in all of them if the right team is committed. Let me know what you think! I could dig into these ideas for hours.

A dating app for hyper-targeted Reddit-style subcommunities

There are two competing trends I’ve observed in the dating space: 1) an absurd number of niche dating services have small communities, and 2) it’s difficult to filter for what you actually care about on the popular platforms like Tinder or OkCupid. Match Group, the owner of Tinder, Match.com, and OkCupid, has tried to cover the major user segments at the brand level. Is there a way to cover more user segments and give users more choice at the app level?

Nearly all new dating startups are cookie-cutter and terrible. I’m interested in a platform that solves the filtering problem by offering a marketplace of user-generated subcommunities, a la Reddit. There would be an “everyone pool” or master-list of profiles to sift through, paired with the option to “join a circle” such as tall people or neoliberals who enjoy the theatre. I’m skeptical of top-down data science that matches people together based on survey questions — I think letting users generate their own taxonomy could lead to interesting results and potentially form a lasting differentiation. The default “all” list helps users join the platform, and the unique subcommunities lock users in.

A usable prediction market

I don’t understand why there aren’t more prediction markets (primer on the concept here). The prediction markets that do exist — the financial markets — are incredibly impactful and employ millions of people. Interesting PM use cases include prediction-based corporate governance structures, better predictions of real-world events, and more accurate securitization of private risk.

I was excited by the launch of Augur, but nobody really uses it. I haven’t worked out why Augur — or a centralized service for that matter — hasn’t caught on. Sports betting is a technically a form of prediction markets and that’s a huge industry. I see no reason people wouldn’t enjoy on similar real-life events (will Kanye run for president and get more than 500k votes?) I think that a prediction market with a Robinhood-esque ease-of-use or social features could get big. (Perhaps this is something that Robinhood should just build on their own!)

This could take the form of a consumer-focused product, or a toolkit for companies to integrate prediction markets into their own products. (Beware, this is a slippery slope leading to Futarchy. Kidding.)

Better tools for remote teams

Zoom, Slack, and G-Suite have made managing remote teams much easier over the past several years. I can’t imagine leading Contrary without such convenient ways to work and communicate. But there are still unsolved problems. Documenting everything for your team through a wiki or messenger is slow and painful enough to not get done most of the time. And you can’t look over at someone’s desk to see if they have a minute to chat. We need better information collection (some companies have attempted auto-transcription of meetings) and less ambiguous/distracting ways to get someone’s attention remotely.

The holy grail of remote tech is feeling like you’re with someone IRL. No matter how much time I spend with Contrary’s venture partners over calls or text, the friendships don’t feel quite right until we meet in person. When seeing someone in-person I’ll feel like we’ve been friends for a while. But in-person interaction is that final stepping stone. This seems to be an artifact of how we’re built as humans. Getting around that somehow would be huge since team culture is so important.

Online mega church

Senior citizens are often lonely, immobile, and religious. They’re also very loyal customers. You can read more of my learnings about seniors here.

Think of how successful some televangelists have been. And they just sell videos. Now that seniors are quickly adopting mobile devices, you can layer on Netflix-like content selection, social features to build community (and network effects!), on-demand streaming, interactive components, in-app donations, etc. Just as middle schoolers can practically live their social lives in Fortnite teams or CoD lobbies, on online religious gathering place could be the killer app for seniors.

Tools or a platform for job offer negotiation

Most college kids don’t negotiate their job offers. I think that’s a colossal mistake because 1) wages tend to be sticky so a marginal difference in starting salary will add up over a career, and 2) an extra few thousand dollars saved now will compound into 5x that by the time the students’ future kids are growing up. Every little bit of cash matters early on in life.

I think there are a couple causes of this problem. College students may not know that they can negotiate offers, or they may be too timid or anxious about risking their offer. Even though in reality, nothing ever happens to the offer and employers won’t think less of you as long as you’re not overtly greedy. Or maybe students are just burned out after 4 years of hoop jumping and want to put the job search behind them.

I don’t know what the best model would be. Career coaching is available to most students, but nobody uses it and it’s got a mediocre reputation. The school cares about getting you in a job, not optimizing those little comp details (similar to the real estate agent incentive problem). There are a couple product angles you could take. First, you could offer an end-to-end job hunting service that closely coaches you on what to say to recruiters (don’t be the first to name a salary number! Blame a family member for needing time to think and compare!). You’d charge a percentage of bonuses you can negotiate to de-risk from the user’s perspective. Second, you could create a library of example emails, Glassdoor-like negotiation benchmarks (some companies are more flexible than others), and a community for navigating the post-offer process which is crowded out by resources for the job-seeking process. Paid access to such a library would be clearly ROI-positive from a user perspective in theory, but I bet it’d be hard to market in practice.

The long term vision would be to slowly eat more and more of the recruiting “stack” and eventually match users with companies. You already know how Indeed, WayUp, etc. work. I think there’s an opportunity to build lasting value-add by being a uniquely trusted brand that is on the job-seeker’s side from the start (helping with negotiations), and by having a better understanding of why employees do or do not accept an offer since you’re involved in that process.

High quality food vending machines

Consumers want 1) convenient food, 2) better quality than fast food, and 3) more unique or “local” eating experiences. The rise of fast-casual, food trucks, and single-purpose micro-shops supports these trends. But there are a couple problems you run into in the food industry that make restaurants bad fits for venture. Margins are low, the businesses are not scalable, and the moats are dependent on brand and food. I want to take the food truck craze one step further with automated vending machines that cook food within them. You’d start with simple (but restaurant-quality) foods like dumplings. The machine would have an internal steamer to cook the dumplings on the spot. To maintain freshness, you’d have a full-time employee prep ingredients and deliver them to all of the vending locations. You could expand into pizza, eggs + hashbrowns, shawarma, etc.

The key thing here is keeping quality up — most vending machine food is bad. But if customers would walk up to a machine on their morning commute and get fast-casual quality meals, you may even be able to charge a premium. Of course there would still be a cost challenge: the machines would be expensive, and you still need to hire someone to do constant maintenance and restocking. That’s mitigated by the lack of labor cost on a per-machine basis. This would be really hard to grow, but I think the market is so big that the slog would be worth it.

A robust way to signal conformity and conscientious  

I’m a fan of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. It argues a viewpoint that may seem obviously wrong or even upsetting, but is very difficult to actually find steel-man refutations of. To oversimplify one component of the book’s thesis, education signals three things: intelligence, conformity, and conscientiousness. Of course we have the SAT or IQ tests to show off intelligence. But you can’t show a potential employer that you’re conformist enough to be an obedient employee and conscientiousness enough to get the job done.

That’s a big part of why we spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and 4 prime years on education. If there were a stronger, more honest signal of conformity/conscientiousness, then you could potentially skip the brute force signalling that makes up much (most?) of modern education.

(If you’re thinking “but what about everything you learn?” then I agree that’s also part of school, but go read the book. There are some incredible empirical results that may sway your viewpoint.)

I’m purposely leaving this proposal vague. There are a lot of different angles you could try. Perhaps a company should build a stronger reputation system that tracks detailed feedback across employers (hiring managers rarely call references beyond your most recent job). Or you could build a more comprehensive marshmallow test for adults. Or something totally different that I’m not alluding to here.

A socially acceptable, well-branded nootropic

I’m worried that nootropic vitamins and supplements will go the way of Google Glass, Segway, and Soylent: useful products, but something you’re a little too embarrassed to use. Cutting edge research-based companies tend to have very utilitarian marketing strategies (WTF is a ketone ester and why do I need it?) and the nootropic/supplement/IMF/biohacking space isn’t really “cool” or consumer-ready yet. I assumed that the company formerly known as Nootrobox, now HVMN, would be the ones to make it happen. Maybe timing isn’t right, or their execution was off.

Consumers seem to gladly regulate themselves using drugs (coffee, alcohol, and nicotine, specifically) so I don’t think there’s anything fundamental preventing nootropics from happening. Vitamins are common too. I can’t explain why drugs and vitamins haven’t been combined into a mainstream nootropic. It has to be the marketing. (Semi-related: Kin is a startup I’m excited about).