There was a time when the adjective "weird" didn't imply anything you would want to emulate. But today, it's more like a badge of honor. Heck, the cities of Portland, Oregon, and Austin actually brag about their weirdness. So in that spirit, behold eight of the weirdest startups in business:
Rap as an art form is alive and kicking. Just take a look and Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake's recent History of Rap 5 which the duo performed on The Tonight Show to a delighted crowd and now nearly 7 million viewers on YouTube. But making a business out of helping people rap? It's a weird idea, albeit one that at least one guy is using to make money.
Rapt.fm is a beta platform for live video rap competitions. Since launching in September the Detroit-based startup has 50,000 registered users, 6,000 active monthly users, and in January landed funding from the Silicon Valley accelerator 500 Startups.
Before that, founder and CEO Erik Torenberg had been bootstrapping the company with $30,000 earned from corporate gigs in which he and his team taught employees in companies such as Quicken Loans, Fathead, and Chalkfly how to rap. Why would companies want this? Rapt.fm says not only do its workshops make for a fun team-building exercise, they boost creativity and confidence as well as presentation and leadership skills.
If you're a food wholesaler, restaurant, or community farm cooperative, you might want what Boston-based Freight Farms has to offer, especially if you're located somewhere with a limited growing season. Co-founders Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara had the brilliant idea of repurposing shipping containers into farming systems outfitted with all the equipment and environmental controls necessary to grow food year round.
According to Friedman, the company has sold one farm a week--at $70,000 a crack--so far in 2014. You can see why: the 320-square-foot farms are stackable, come with a tablet and software a grower can use to adjust climate controls remotely, and are capable of producing 900 heads of leafy greens per week.
You're familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous. How about a similar concept for startups?
StartupsAnonymous is a website entrepreneurs can use to anonymously vent frustrations and fears, as well as ask questions and get help. In the two months the site has been live, it has garnered more than 130,000 unique visitors, as well as over 700 submissions and responses from users. It also inked a deal with PandoDaily to syndicate a user's story every week.
As for the business model, it involves sponsors paying StartupsAnonymous to act as advisers. For example, the website is about to launch a series called "Ask a Startup Attorney," in which users can ask legal questions anonymously. Other topics will follow, such as venture capital, HR, and marketing.
"I think that people have spent so much time over the past eight years--effectively the start of social media--trying to build their ideal image and impress people that anonymity is a welcome relief," says co-founder Dana Severson. "It's the equivalent of taking off your skinny jeans at the end of the day and putting on sweats."
Imagine a little camera clipped to the front of your shirt snapping two images a minute all day long. I don't know about you, but I'd have a whole lot of photos of my computer screen and other uninteresting things. Plus, who's got the time to look through all those pictures later?
While the concept might not make a lot of sense at first glance the folks behind this Swedish startup are right: it's humanly impossible--unless you have a photographic memory, of course--to remember every little interaction you've ever had. But wouldn't it be wonderful to somehow replay moments you've shared with loved ones over the years?
Meet the Narrative Clip, which can hold 4,000 photos and keeps a charge for two days. It raised more than $550,000 on Kickstarter and now boasts users in around 50 countries enamored with the idea of "lifelogging." For $279, it comes with one year of cloud storage you can use as a repository for all those images.
As for concerns that Narrative will amass a heap of boring images, the iPhone and Android apps that work in tandem with the camera actually take care of the problem and filter only the best photos and present them in a movie-like timeline you can play and pause.
"You can capture your moments effortlessly without interrupting them with technology--holding out a cell phone or an SLR in front of you--and your photos get nicely organized for you," says co-founder Oskar Kalmaru.
While Kalmaru says Narrative users don't fit into any particular demographic, the company sees its product being particularly useful to people who tend to take a lot of photos, such as travelers and parents.
Mix 'N' Match Creamery
It's an old chemistry class trick--use liquid nitrogen to make flash-frozen ice cream. Newbie food cart proprietors Genevieve and Eric West tried making a business out of it for the first time last summer and were blown away with the success of Mix 'N' Match Creamery, often running out of liquid nitrogen or cream base before the end of the day. They ended up hiring five employees, putting their eldest child to work at the cash register, and sometimes even doling out ice cream with their newborn strapped to Genevieve's chest.
"When you see a crowd of people with their cell phones out taking video, and smoke erupting from a little food cart with a banner that announces 'Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream,' most folks stop to see what the fuss is all about," Genevieve says.
Where the world is going to get food in the next several decades and beyond is a sobering question. Yet Hampton Creek may be on its way to helping solve the food shortage problem with a weirdly cool innovation--a plant-based egg. The San Francisco-based company developed its formulation for its egg-like "Beyond Eggs" family of plants by screening more than 3,000 plants from around the world. Not only can food manufacturers use it in their products for 18 percent less than what real eggs cost, it has the potential to alleviate the environmental problems associated with chicken-egg production as well as Avian Flu, which birds spread.
The innovative food-tech company has attracted some high-profile supporters, including Bill Gates, who last year called it out as one of three companies shaping the future of food. Last month, the company also landed $23 million in Series B funding led by Li Ka-shing, the wealthiest man in Asia.
Want to try a plant-based egg-like product yourself? Hampton Creek sells its debut consumer product, Just Mayo--a mayonnaise made with pea protein instead of egg--in Whole Foods Market stores nationally, and says it has inked deals with six other prominent companies that will start doing the same later this year. Next in Hampton Creek's pipeline: a scrambled-egg product to rival the real thing in taste, look, and feel, as well as cookie dough you can safely eat raw.
If you've ever had an old T-shirt you couldn't part with, you understand the sentiment involved with this kind of apparel. Maybe you remember wearing a particular T-shirt on what turned out to be momentous occasion, such as a first date with your spouse, or perhaps you've collected a pile of them from various sporting events or concerts.
Project Repat co-founders Ross Lohr and Nathan Rothstein started out by making random upcycled T-shirt tote bags and scarves but customers kept asking for T-shirt quilts instead. To undercut competitors such as Campus Quilt Company, the duo decided to sew T-shirt panels together and back them with Polartec fleece, instead of using traditional batting and interfacing.
"In February 2013, we sold 6,000 custom T-shirt quilts on Groupon in two weeks," Rothstein says. "As T-shirts have become a cheap commodity, they really have become the modern form of scrapbooking."
The company processed 400,000 shirts last year, resulting in $1.1 million in sales.
At first glance, Austin-based SpareFoot, an online marketplace for self-storage, doesn't seem all that weird, but it's what goes on inside that matters here. Not only does the company do away with titles of any sort, but it also brags about sake bomb initiations and produced the weirdest recruiting video you'll ever see.
In it, a camera person follows a potential hire through an interview at the company, where the co-founders assault workers with blow horns and megaphones, a plucky HR person rolls around the office in a battery-operated kiddie car and waves goodbye to the applicant while destroying her application in a paper shredder hanging from her neck. It's all made up, of course, but somehow you know a company that would put such a thing out there must be a fun place to work. Oh, and since launching in 2008 SpareFoot has raised $26 million in venture capital, including $10 million in Series C funding in February from New-York Based Insight Venture Partners.
Check out the video for yourself.