Please Steal My Startup Idea

The Idea

Every restaurant menu item in the world is searchable by its ingredients.

Why It’s a Good Idea

This dude has hair, but it's not on fire. That's why he is not buying your product.

It’s easy to sell water to someone with their hair on fire. So I get excited about startup ideas that involve “hair on fire” problems.

Think about all of the people with strong dietary restrictions: vegans, people with peanut allergies, people eating a kosher diet, etc. These people have strong feelings about what they eat and always check the ingredients. They have a “hair on fire” problem. They would certainly use a web application that allowed them to search menu items by ingredient. There are also a lot more people who may not be so strict about what they eat but still have preferences. They would also use this web application. Probably one of the best use cases is a group of friends going out to eat, each having their own set of dietary preferences. This web application would make it easy to find a restaurant with the most options for the group as a whole.

One reason this is a great startup idea is that it adds real value to the economy. For example, I used to live in Davis Square and buy vegan cupcakes from Kickass Cupcakes and vegan muffins from Diesel Cafe. When I moved to Harvard Square, I did not know of any place to get a good vegan treat, so I would always travel to Davis Square. After about half a year, I discovered that Tealuxe in Harvard Square sold yummy vegan muffins and cookies. I would practically walk right past them on my way to Davis Square! This is what gave me the idea for this startup.

There is a genuine inefficiency in the market in that people don’t buy a restaurant’s menu items simply because they do not know about them. They can easily search for restaurants, but this is a sloppy heuristic for what they really want.

So I think people would definitely use this product. But users are not customers, and any business requires customers. And the rules of the game say that search engines shouldn’t charge users directly, so how do you monetize?

Diagram of the most common ad-generated revenue model.

This is another reason I think this is a great startup idea. It seems like it would be easy to monetize. For one, advertising would actually work. Whereas most advertisements are poorly targeted and buzz around users like pesky mosquitoes, a person with Coeliac disease would gladly welcome ads promoting gluten-free products. This means that ads would not detract from the positive user experience and users would actually click on the ads.

Another way to monetize is to charge restaurant owners for services. This web application would basically allow restaurants to easily publish their menu online to an eager audience. You would be driving business to the restaurants, so it’s easy to add enough value to restaurant owners that they would be willing to pay for your services.

Finally, there is room to grow more products and offerings. For example, users could review and comment on individual dishes. They could also get alerts when new menu items appear in their neighborhood.

How to Pull It Off

Web applications like this face a chicken-and-egg problem: without any data, who would use your service? That’s why I think the best way to execute on an idea like this is to start with a very small, local niche. For example, you could start the product off as a way for vegans in Cambridge, Massachusetts to search for vegan dishes. Starting small makes the first step much less daunting. As you gain traction, you can expand geographically and broaden the dietary preferences.

It’s also not hard to think of companies who may be interested in acquisition, so exit shouldn’t be hard.

However, there is a big challenge in assembling accurate data about menu items, which can be especially tricky with potentially life-and-death issues like allergies. So this idea still presents some interesting challenges.

Why I’m Giving My Idea Away

When I came up with this idea I didn’t think I had the right business skills and domain knowledge to execute it well so I set it aside and moved on. But this idea really stuck with me and is one of my favorite startup ideas so I hate to see it end up in my dead pool. I think the world would be a better place with this product so somebody please steal this idea!

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25 Responses to “Please Steal My Startup Idea”

  1. Diesel Laws says:

    Brilliant idea! I know what you mean with the ‘dead pool’ of startup ideas – had quite a few myself.

    I really hope someone takes this idea and makes it work, and where possible give you due credit.

    – Diesel

  2. Mike B. says:

    There’s a startup in DC called Personal (http://Personal.com) that sort of takes your concept and works backwards. People can save their personal food allergies in their own “vault” and combine that with their friends when planning dinner parties. I’m sure you could use this on future websites like Yelp, AllRecipes, GrubHub, etc.

    Check out the 50 second mark of their video » http://www.personal.com/how-it-works/video

  3. Martin May says:

    Just a heads-up that our app (http://forkly.com) might solve that problem for you :)

    Stay tuned!

  4. Stella says:

    Yelp can easily add the vegan gluten free, dog friendly, child friendly, or outdoors as an option. Starting a whole company based on an option of a big company is inefficient when yelp can add this feature so much cheaper.

  5. techiferous says:

    @Stella Agreed! Yelp, please steal my feature idea! :)

  6. suzanne says:

    Completely agree that this is a real problem that can be solved with existing technology. Keep an eye out for what http://www.lollihop.com comes out with :)

  7. Drummond says:

    Stella, say that to Twitter founders. I’m sure FB/Friendster/MySpace could’ve added this feature aswell.

  8. I love this idea. I’ve thought about it before but from a slightly different angle. I eat a low-carb / paleo based diet (no wheat, grains, artificial vegetable oils, white carbs, added sugars) so finding suitable food when in a hurry can be a massive hassle – something like this would be perfect. The hurdles, of course, are getting access to the data and making sure it’s highly accurate (especially if you’re going to target celiacs)

  9. Kristian says:

    I don’t think it’ll work – yes the tech is there – but who will keep up-to-date menus? Who will enter in all that data? A: no one. We’re all lazy. I know you might think restaurants have an incentive to do it, but ask menupages.com – they hire kids to go around the neighborhood to just grab up-to-date menus. On top of the menu – you want ingredients too!? What if they change them around a bit? What if someone wants to call “bullshit” on the item list?

    It’s a cute idea, but a lot of unprofitable leg work.

  10. Veera says:

    A question: How do you discover a hair-on-fire idea for a different niche?

  11. Adnan says:

    Something Similar came in my mind when I was having a dinner at a local Restaurant here in Karachi,Pakistan. Actually my idea is a bit different. What I believe that Restaurant owners usually have no data, hence no idea which of their menu item is more popular(trending) and in which order they ask for it. I think if something like that could be made then it would be quite helpful for business. It’s difficult to implement in Pakistan but doesn’t seem in US

  12. VN says:

    Just adding my own 2c here…I think it’s a good idea and although we’re taking a different approach, we’re trying to solve problems that vegans and vegetarians have (being one myself) finding good restaurants with existing services without having to filter by ingredients. On http://tattle.com , our users join communities like vegan/vegetarian/raw, and are able to post reviews, get recommendations, and find places that people like within those communities.

  13. datt says:

    This is grate idea. yeah people go far distance unnecessarily their food is available to very near. This can solve the problem but it’s challenging task to deal with the restaurant owner.

  14. viandante says:

    This reminds me of octopart, a search engine for electronic parts. The revenue model is similar to yours.

    For me, the big challenge would be the development of such product. Of course there are many competitors, but to be on the top you will need an awesome way to search this overload of information.

  15. Undecisive says:

    Strangely enough, I’ve been working on a concept very similar. It’s quite close to going live, we’ve called it “SneezyChef”. The first round is going to be a basic recipe site where you search recipes by the things you can’t eat, but we hope to branch out into recommendations of companies that are particularly “sneezy-friendly”. We have a newsletter signup at http://sneezychef.com – add your email to the pot and we’ll let you know when it’s ready!

  16. Hopefully, publishing your idea like this will prevent someone else from patenting it. http://c4sif.org/2011/03/jefferson-on-anonymous-defensive-patent-publishing/

    BTW you cannot “steal” an idea–if you learn from someone by observing them or their products or business, and emulate or copy what they are doing, they still have their idea–you didn’t “take it” from them. So it’s not stealing.

  17. Corey Ballou says:

    My only fear is that this MVP assumes a restaurant is willing to give away their trade secrets (ingredients list) for each menu item. While they aren’t giving away the measurements, it’s still close enough to make the item reproducible.

  18. techiferous says:

    @Corey The idea could also work if restaurant owners simply share information about ingredients that aren’t in their menu items (soy, wheat, nuts, dairy, etc.).

  19. Ernie Miller says:

    @techiferous No, I don’t think it could, for the same reason that whitelists are better than blacklists when it comes to securing software. It’s safer to list what you know is included than it is to provide a list of what you don’t include, because the latter is more likely to have holes. The set of “not an ingredient in this menu item” is much, much larger than the set of “ingredients in this menu item.”

  20. techiferous says:

    @Ernie Good point!

  21. Heidi says:

    @Ernie, so in that case you just need a way to mark what is in the dish, but not list *all* ingredients. Kind of like a checklist: “Includes: (check all that apply) -peanuts -tree nuts -meat -wheat -tomatoes” etc.

  22. bluishoul says:

    Hi ,Greene
    I got all most an same idea,I am a junior college student in China,and I used to worried about my board wages and health at the same time(I won’t not take too much concerned about the nutrition of my food),because I don`t know what I can eat to get enough nutrition and How much money I spend on the ‘right’ food,so I got an idea that providing the list of food in the dinning hall in the campus,and providing the nutrition constituent of foods.I also thought about the profit of this idea which is similar with yours.
    I use Java,and I am wondering if I can exchange some more detail about this idea with you.
    Please contact with me if you’d like to…

  23. Andrew Mager says:

    Have you checked out Forkly?

  24. techiferous says:

    Yes, Forkly was mentioned on the discussion over at Hacker News. Thanks!

  25. Rohit Khanna says:

    Very interesting article. Thanks.
    Is anyone aware of any website where we can post failed startups detail? It will be great to see how other people reacts.

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