7 Businesses That Sound Like Jokes — But Actually Turn Serious Profits
My partner just paid $14 to mail his son a message on a potato.
...and other sentences you’ll only hear from a hipster in the 21st century.
He sent it through Potato Parcel, a company that ships russet potatoes inscribed with an anonymous message to your friends, enemies or frenemies.
That sounds like a ridiculous purpose for a business, doesn’t it? But it’s real -- and it works!
Just three months after launching in 2015, 24-year-old founder Alex Craig told CNBC Potato Parcel was averaging $10,000 a month in sales. He soon sold the business for $42,000.
On an October 2016 episode of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” Craig and the company’s new owner Riad Bekhit pitched the spud business to a row of hysterical investors. By then, they were up to $25,000 in monthly sales, and struck a deal with billionaire investor Kevin O’Leary for $50,000.
Doesn’t sound so ridiculous anymore, does it?
If you’re starting a business, here’s why you shouldn’t throw away your joke ideas.
Serious Businesses That Started As Jokes
Why is a potato-mailing business successful? I can only speak for myself, but I’d say it’s because it’s hilarious.
The thought of your friends, family or enemies receiving a note scrawled in Sharpie on the skin of a potato is so stupid it’s funny. And hipster millennials with a weird sense of humor have no shortage of disposable income to support such frivolous genius.
Tell ‘em With a Potato
“Because I’m creative, I’m going to make you an offer,” O’Leary said before striking a deal with Bekhit for 10% of Potato Parcel.
“It’s crazy. It’s fun. I think you’ll move a lot of potatoes,” added Robert Herjavec, who made a competing offer the entrepreneurs turned down.
Potato Parcel isn’t the only business to thrive with a satirical premise. It isn’t even the only successful potato-mailing business.
Anonymous Potato, Mystery Potato, Text a Potato, Potato.gift, Tatergram and Potato in the Post also ship spuds scrawled with anonymous messages. Brick or Potato gives you more choice, and Mail a Spud skips the note and just mails a potato covered in stamps.
What else can you ship through the mail for profit? Turns out, a lot -- if you’re willing to annoy a few (thousand) people.
Glitter Bomb Your Enemies
The viral prank website ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com sold last year for $85,000 after the original creator decided he needed to move on from what he thought had been a joke business.
Now the business ships everything from neverending musical cards to fart-scented candles to penis-shaped gummies.
It’s sort of a cute way to be a huge jerk.
Ship the Joy of the Seasons
With a kinder spirit, entrepreneur Kyle Waring launched two services that help spread holiday cheer through the mail.
Waring launched Ship Snow, Yo during a frosty Boston winter and fulfilled more than 150 orders for an insulated box of snow to customers in warmer climates who don’t get to, er, enjoy blustery winter months.
After the snow melted, Waring continued the venture with ShipFoliage.com, to send “hand-collected and crafted New England foliage” to us unfortunate saps surrounded by year-round sunshine and greenery.
The business made $5,000 in sales its first week and has expanded to sell a variety of fall foliage products, including jewelry.
Give Someone the Perfect Pet
Kids of the ‘70s and ‘80s probably remember this best, but it’s the stuff of legends for the rest of us.
In 1975, creator Gary Dahl turned a bar conversation into a booming business: the Pet Rock.
You can still buy a Pet Rock today -- get on it! The holidays are coming, and what kid really wants a Nintendo DS this year?
Pet Rock is “the only pet you’ll own that you’ll never need to walk, feed, bathe, groom or neuter,” it comes “pre-trained to ‘sit’ and ‘stay.’”
Business That are Way More Important Than They Were Meant to Be
It’s not just about pranks. Some businesses started on a lark and grew into empires that have changed our cultural conversation.
Here are a few of those businesses, whose influence we couldn’t have predicted when they started:
I Can Has Cheezburger
"I'll admit to you describing LOLcats in words sounds totally lame ... it's pictures of cats with funny misspelled captions on them," I Can Has Cheezburger owner Ben Huh told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2008, when we had all just become aware of the phenomenon.
The Herald even called LOLcats a fad.
Friends Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami launched I Can Has Cheezburger after an inside joke in 2007 but almost shut it down because they couldn’t keep up with the wave of submissions, Wired reported in 2008.
Huh stepped down last year, as the venture-backed company was reaching profitability. His early reflection to the Herald on the site sums up the new language the blog network has spawned online:
"If you think about that, you're like, why is that funny, there's no reason why that should be funny, but if you look at the site and you really understand the creativity of the users that come by, it's fascinating.”
“Initially, it was just a joke,” Dan Savage told Madison, Wisconsin’s Isthmus of his popular sex-advice column “Savage Love.”
“As a gay dude, I was going to write advice for straight people and treat straight sex and straight people with the same contempt and revulsion that straight advice columnists had always treated gay people and gay sex with,”
He started writing the column in 1991 while working as a night manager at Madison’s Four Star Video and Fiction.
The “joke” took off, though. Savage set aside the “contempt” part of his advice and launched a career as an expert in sexuality.
Not only did “Savage Love” begin as a joke, but the author -- now editorial director of “The Stranger,” the column’s original home -- never even wanted to be a writer.
He hardly thinks of himself as a writer, “which kills people who are sitting on manuscripts or trying to get published and I crank these books out,” he said.
As we’ve seen dramatized in the movie “The Social Network,” Mark Zuckerberg’s journey to infamy began with the hot-or-not-style program Facemash at Harvard University.
The program drew photos from the online facebooks -- yearbook-like directories -- of Harvard’s Greek organizations and invited other students to vote on their looks.
It was a very college-boy thing to create, a real blockhead move when you think about it. But if the movie’s correct, he had just been dumped, so…
We almost certainly wouldn’t even know about Facemash if it hadn’t spawned Zuckerberg’s next big thing: (The) Facebook.
Alas, it did. Now you and I and nearly 2 billion other monthly active users rely on the site to find daily news, keep up with our cousin’s latest baby, relax to photos of puppies and salivate over videos of phantom hands preparing food we will absolutely never make.
The funniest part of this joke is Facebook doesn’t create any of the content I just mentioned.
While the media companies scoff at declaring Facebook one of them, its tech-focused founder asserts the platform is a tool for users to interact with each other -- not one of the most powerful media companies in the world, as some are calling it.
That’s a tech -- or media -- company with a market valuation of $350 billion-with-a-B today.
All Zuckerberg wanted to do was create a simpler way to look at photos of hot (or not) people we know.
Your Turn: Can you think of other giant businesses that were started as a joke?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).