In the time just before a lot of the big players first came online — giants like Amazon, eBay, and Netflix, the Internet was a weird phenomenon. America Online (AOL) was one of the giants then, constantly sending marketing CDs out to everyone on the planet. If you had a mailbox, you probably had a dozen of those CDs lying about even though you probably already had an AOL account anyway, with which you would tie up your home phone line for hours on end in order to connect.
From around ’92 to’96, I worked at a large publisher in D.C. During those years, we made the painfully slow transition from receiving author manuscripts via floppy disks to getting them online (first via direct modem-to-modem connections, and later via email). The boomers in management had zero ability to conceptualize what the Internet was or would be. (Many of them still can’t grasp it.) But, we Gen Xers were on-board already.
I remember a time pre-Amazon when a couple of co-workers and I would regularly meet up and discuss starting an Internet business. We knew enough about coding to do HTML, and we all sensed that the Internet would be huge. Our issue was the product. What in the hell would we sell?
We agreed on some basics. Whatever it was …
- … it should be small in size. After all, we all lived in D.C., and no one had any room to store inventory. I don’t think we gave any thought to having others inventory merchandise for us, which probably would have been a smarter approach. The plan was to work out of our apartments. So, the merch had to be small.
- … it should be cheap. Again, we didn’t have much money between us, and had no connection to investors (and also had no business plan at all, other than a vague idea about selling stuff online). Bottom line: We couldn’t invest much money.
- … it should be light-weight. We figured light-weight products made shipping affordable and practical. Having products shipped to you might be absolutely common right now. But back then, people didn’t really order a lot of things to be shipped, and weren’t used to what was perceived as a needless extra cost. So, we wanted to minimize that expense.
- .. it should be something that people need to order multiple times. Repeat sales seemed like a really smart aspect of such a business.
These were all proven hallmarks of the pre-Internet mail-order industry, which used to be a nearly ubiquitous novelty. Look in the back of any periodical or newspaper from that era, and you’d see classified ads selling various things that fit that model — posters, pamphlets, maps, reports, and other useless but mildly interesting crap.
In the end, we came up with just a handful of contenders. As I recall, the top two were flower / vegetable seeds, and condoms. Both of those products met all of the above criteria.
Only, we couldn’t agree on which one seemed best. I liked both ideas. Another guy hated the condom idea but loved the vegetable seed one, and the other guy hated the vegetable seed idea but loved the condoms.
Long story short: We never did anything. And that’s probably why, presumably, none of us are millionaires today.
✍🏻 Jim Dee maintains three blogs — Hawthorne Crow, Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine, and Wonderful Words, Defined — and contributes to various Medium pubs. Connect at JPDbooks.com, Amazon, FB, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, or Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. His latest screwball literary novel, CHROO, is a guaranteed good time.