Products I'd pay for (Or, businesses I'd like to start)

I'm getting the entrepreneurial itch again, and there are a number of problems I'd love to solve for myself, and then others. Below are some of the ideas I've had recently. I share them here for a few reasons. First, accountability. Now that they are out there, I am accountable to try and do something, right? Next, validation. if you like any of these ideas, please let me know on Facebook (/jmartens) or Twitter (@jmartens). Third, to show that ideas are nearly meaningless, its execution that matters! So without further to do, some products I'd pay for and the businesses opportunities I'm exploring.

Search across cloud services

I have a frustration at work. My employer is a cloud software maker and we practice what we preach. We use dozens of cloud services for communication and file sharing/storage. For example, we use: Confluence, JIRA, Slack, Jive, Google Hangouts, Gmail, Quip, Google Drive, Bluejeans, Go To Meeting, Salesforce Chatter, and more. I also stay in touch with my colleagues on Twitter, via SMS, on LinkedIn, and of course in-person discussion (gasp!).

Do you know how hard it is to find a communication, a file, or any other piece of info? I spend way too much time trying to remember what medium someone used to share information with me and then searching in various places using a brute force, try and try again method, until I find what I need (if I ever do).

I'd pay for a simple app, accessible natively or in the browser on my laptop, that allowed me to search across all of the cloud software services that my employer uses. It doesn't need to be much, just a simple search box and a basic list of results!

I figure my employer spends around $100/month per employee on all the various communication and collaboration platforms that we use. That said, I'd pay $5/month without question and could make a strong argument for as much as $20/month/user.

Dashboard for all my quantified self data

I am an avid user of Fitbit. I've owned a Fitbit fitness tracker for 3 years now (first the Flex, then the Charge HR). I've also owned a Fitbit scale for about 2 years. Thanks to their amazing hardware, I have daily (I'm all or nothing) records of my steps/activity, sleep, heart rate, and weight. Over the last 3 years, I have about 15 months of daily, complete food intake logs on MyFitnessPal (I've been religious about this logging for 2 different periods of the last 3 years, combining for about 15 months of daily records). At times, I've used Endomondo to track intentional exercise like jogging or cycling. I'm also curious about other health & fitness measures, like my blood pressure (Higi) and body temperature (Kinsa).

Isn't that an incredible amount of data? I'd love to graph it together and discover correlations as well as potential cause/effect. Unfortunately, I haven't found any place I can bring all this data together for the purpose of improving my physical health. In fact, Fitbit itself does a shitty job of displaying my data.

Luckily, all of these devices and apps I use have APIs. Most fitness wearables and personal medical devices have APIs. This means that some form of the raw data is available to be pulled out of its source, and used in another application.

I'd pay for a single dashboard that connects to and brings in data from all the health/fitness services I use. I'd like it to graph everything in a timeseries, and make it easy for me to pick a point on the graph of one data source and compare it to the same point in time on another graph from a different data source.

The value to me could be pretty high. I'd happily pay $5/month but it wouldn't be hard for me to justify $100/year. Add in some sort of intelligence on-top of that, where the software spots correlations and potential issues proactively, and I could see spending as much as $20/month ($240/yr).

Unified chat

Above I spoke of all the communication channels I use at work, but really also in my personal life. I have another problem I'd love solved, and its in the instant message (aka chat) space. Remember back in the day when your friends used Aol Instant Messenger but you used Yahoo Messenger? You couldn't talk to each other.

However, email was designed differently. I can use Gmail and you can use Hotmail. We can still talk, it really doesn't matter what software or email address we use.

Why can't we have that for chat? I find myself wanting that again in 2016, long since I used Yahoo or Aol chat. That's because a few years ago, companies started using chat at work. First Microsoft's chat software, then something called Hipchat, and now the technology & startup community is excited about Slack.

In fact, Slack says they are going to kill email! Seriously, thats their goal. I have one problem with that: as long as Slack users can only communicate with other Slack users, thats not going to happen. I'd love to have a chat ID and then be able to use any client I choose (I like Hipchat). I'd also like to have a single ID to use for all the different chat groups I am a part of. Currently, I have to have 4 different accounts, with 4 passwords, for 4 different Slack communities I am part of.

I am not sure if or how I'd pay for this, but like Gmail there are plenty of ways to make money off of giving away a service like this for free.

Non-profit addressing homelessness in radical ways

Now for a departure from tech ideas and to something thats been on my mind lately: homelessness. Its an epidemic in many US cities and things have been getting worse, not better. What I can't understand is *why* things are getting better? Portland, where I live, has hundreds of non-profits focused on the poor and homeless, and has for many decades. Go to any major city in America and you'll find the same thing. Yet, they don't seem to be moving the needle. Its probably because they are fighting an uphill battle that they can't keep up with, but I believe its also in part due to these organizations doing the same thing they always have, and not innovating.

I'd love to be part of an organization that takes a different approach to homelessness. A group of people that love to solve problems and bring radical, new ideas to the table. Like a group of entrepreneurs founding a company. Where the idea is so new, so radical, so different, that people say it won't ever work. Traditional funding sources disappear and risky, alternative finance is required. A solution that has to be 10x better than the alternative, or 1/10th the cost. An organization that is customer centric, willing to go deep to the root of the problem and invent new, unbelievable ways of addressing a problem. People that will iterate, improve, and constantly release new and more value while driving down costs.

If my above description sounds like a startup, thats not an accident. I think this societal issue deserves the best we can give it. New people, thinking in new ways, proposing brand new solutions, and funding those programs differently. Lets not just give a bed to a homeless person for a few nights, lets get the off the street for good, and prevent the next person from facing the same fate of the street.

Mutual funds that index a region's local companies

It is commonly accepted that long-term investing via mutual funds is a low risk way to build wealth. To do so, we can buy all sorts of funds (about 7,000 in the US). Some funds are very cost efficient, like Index funds that follow the broader stock market. Other funds focus on a specific industry and invest exclusively in things like oil, technology, or finance. You can even buy funds that have a socioeconomic slant, like funds that support a 'green' earth or funds that don't invest in conflict regions where industry fuels slavery & abuse.

Those are all great things, and if you are passionate about them, I encourage you to invest! That said, I'm passionate about something else but I don't have any mutual funds available to me.

I'm passionate about where I live. I love the city, I love my community. I am proud of the companies that are headquartered here. The ones that were built by my neighbors, that pay the people who spend money in our local businesses, the organizations that contribute so much to what this city is all about. I want to invest in those companies!

I'd put as much as 20% of my retirement savings into regionally focused mutual funds. Give me a fund that lets me invest in Oregon, or in Portland. A fund that seeks to represent the community I live in by owning stock in the companies that call the region home. Heck, I'd put money into my hometown plus a few other cities I love. Give me something to root for, a reason to check my investment account that goes beyond the balance and extends into my daily life.

Simple picture frame e-commerce

I buy picture or poster frames once a year, at best. Its not a common purchase for me but every single time, its a pain in the ass. In store, or online. The dimensions make things confusing, and the prices can get very high, very fast. You might think I'm pretty stupid for saying that the dimensions of what I want to frame makes things complicated, so let me share a real example. I purchased a 13"x19" poster yesterday. Go ahead, navigate over to Amazon or Michael's and try to find a 13"x19" frame with white matting. I'll wait.

I can't tell if the dimensions being displayed to me are for the cut out that will display my poster, or the total dimensions of the frame? How wide is the frame? Not sure. How thick is the matting? Who knows. I've had the same problem at a West Elm the other week when looking at a frame for a 5"x7" photo, where none of the picture frame boxes said what picture size they held, instead they focused on the overall frame size.

What I want is so simple. A frame, with matting, that can hold a 13"x19" poster. I'd like the matting to be white and about 1/2" thick. The frame black, about 1" wide. I don't care what the resulting dimensions are, as long as my 13"x19" poser is totally visible and the matting/frame sizes are about what I want. I am sure I could go into a custom framing shop, and I'd pay over $100 for what I'm looking for....because its "custom."

There has got to be a better way. In fact, I want to shop for a frame in the same way I described it to you above. Start with the content I want to frame, the work out from there (to matting, then to the frame). Instead, most frame purchasing goes the opposite way. Total dimension of the frame is highlighted, with the area for displaying the visible content being nearly an afterthought.

I'd use a web service that broke picture frame ordering down to the core parts. Size of the content being framed, matte preference, and then frame preference. Simple drop-down menus with dynamic images, allowing me to build my perfect frame. Call it custom framing but really with smart material options and an efficient "built to order" factory, you'll be pushing out custom frames at a fraction of the cost of traditional retail, and offering a much better experience along the way.


Well, what do you think? Any of these sound like products or services you'd pay for? Have you seen any of these before? Want to build one of these with me? Tweet at me or if we are Facebook friends, leave me a comment over there!

Why I'm buying the newspaper again

This blog post is not what you think. I'm not buying the Oregonian or New York Times. I'm reading Street Roots, and here is why.

A Homeless Epidemic

If you live in Portland, or any major west-coast city, you've likely been hearing more and more about the homeless situation. More people, more camps, more panhandling, more more more. Its true, and while I'm not going to dig up the stats, I can tell you that as someone that has lived and/or worked in the city for the last 5 years, things have changed drastically and for the worse.

I've found myself with a mix of emotions over this topic. I've felt frustrated, I've felt sad, I've felt disgusted, I've felt helpless. I want to have empathy, but at times its hard. I struggle on occasion to be kind and caring, when the easy thing to do is to simply wish the problem would go away...away from my neighborhood, away from me.

So in an effort to do what isn't so easy, to act with compassion and care, I attended an open house put on by a few local non-profits and listened. Listening turned to learning and today I am better equipped to act with compassion and care, although it will still be hard.

The Epidemic is Not New

One of the key things I learned is that this epidemic is not new, its not a 2015 or 2016 phenomenon. Its been building and growing for decades, specifically when the United States federal government stopped funding mental hospitals and other social services aimed at those that need a little help. Ending the practice of putting the mentally ill into institutionalized facilities was probably a good idea. Doing it without any other safety-net, or any option for that matter, was a bad idea. An even worse idea was what I understand to be a general pull back from funding programs for the ill, impoverished, and the incapable. The decisions of the 1970's and 1980's are now resulting in major issues, like extreme homelessness in on of the wealthiest countries on earth.

In 2016, the problem is worse in many cities. Places like San Francisco and Portland having booming economies, thanks in part to the technology industry. With a boom comes higher salaries, and with higher salaries comes higher rent. Don't read that as economic cause & effect, its more complex than that, but lets move on with my statement as relative fact.

When rents go up for highly paid tech workers, you probably say that there couldn't be any impact on lower income earners, but thats just not true. As rents at the high end go up, rents in the middle market will likely climb to fill the gap, and then rents at the low end will climb to fill the new gap left by the middle. Additionally, the business value of apartments rises as rents (business income) rise, and the value of the land that dwellings live on goes to to match. We live in a beautiful, free and market based economy, but it has its drawbacks. Rising rents, even for the folks who don't have rising incomes in booming industries, become a reality.

Imagine you are a low income individual and your pay $500 a month for rent. Now its $650. A high paid tech worker says "so what" but that $150 makes all the difference in the world to others. That $150 a month increase could literally lead to homelessness. And as I understand, it not only could, it is.

Enter Street Roots

What does all this have to do with newspapers? I'm making a very small contribution now, which I feel very good about, thanks to a newspaper.

Street Roots is a newspaper, created by journalists and industry experts, that supports the homeless community in Portland. One of the ways they support the community is by offering an opportunity for people living on the street to earn an income, rather than beg for it. I learned about Street Roots when it's Executive Director and Publisher, Israel Bayer, spoke at the above mentioned community event on the homeless issue in Portland. I was blown away not only by the concept of Street Roots, but by the knowledge Israel dropped on the audience and what I believe is his unique opportunity to do something about the issues our city faces.

Speaking of the concept around Street Roots, here is the ore of it: People in need buy the newspaper for $0.25 and sell them for $1.00. They sell outside of businesses, where they might otherwise sit and beg if it weren't for Street Roots. Now they provide a service, a product, a fair trade, action.

I LOVE this idea! It offers dignity in what is a community we few opportunities for self-worth. Instead of simply asking for a handout, the individuals that sell Street Roots offer my something I crave. News, information, entertainment, and an honorable way to give back to those in my community with need.

For Me as Much as for Them

I feel a bit selfish, because of all the things I like about Street Roots, how it makes me feel is one of the strongest. I feel great about contributing a (very) small amount of money each week. I like that I am supporting someone that is motivated to earn a dollar instead of beg for a dollar. I like to think its win/win, but I fear that I get more out of it than they do.

Thats probably okay, because Street Roots has gotten me off the sidelines. I'm doing something now, verse nothing. I'm doing it in a way that offers dignity and respect, and I find myself less conflicted in my heart or in my mind.

Join Me in Reading the Newspaper

So in this world of digital content, short attention spans, 24 hour news, and our comfortable tech industry salaries, I ask you to join me in buying the newspaper. Next time you see someone on the street selling Street Roots, buy a copy. Do so and know that you are helping a motivated and humble human being who is someones son/daughter/father/mother/brother/sister/etc.

Buy the paper and see how you feel. I bet you'll feel good about what you are contributing to the community. I also bet you'll learn something new and interesting while reading the paper. You'll be entertained, you'll know more about your community, and you'll be glad you read the paper.