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Ask HN: What to work on?
56 points by jere on Aug 1, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments
I'm getting really tired of dreaming up cool ideas for apps, cranking out prototypes, and then finding there is zero interest. Here are my four best ideas for what to work on next. I don't know how to "validate" them beyond a landing page/adwords. Last time I attempted that, adwords banned my campaign immediately.

LongCal: Basically, a calendar that goes beyond the standard month/week/day view. Emphasis on long term thinking and planning. I made a very rough prototype here (click on logo to get some test data): http://humbit.com/longcal/

uTrim: A URL shortener for universities. The idea is to create trustworthy links that can only be created by people actually associated with a school. I already have a functioning app and if you don't have an .edu account you can at least check out the landing page : https://utr.im/

Vulgat Library: Helps businesses create an internal lending library (movies, books, games). I sold this to two game companies, so it's the only thing I feel has proven demand. But I'd have no idea how to find more customers. This is the landing page that adwords objected to: http://vulgat.com/

Business naming app: After all the naming debacles I've seen on HN, I think an app that generates names (and checks against .com registration and trademark) could be really useful. My big doubt is if anyone would pay for it.

Do any of these sound worthwhile? Maybe I should just suck it up and do 30x500...

You're doing it wrong. No, seriously. Don't try to 'dream up cool ideas'. Go talk to people, companies. Find out what really frustrates them, see if you share their view of their frustration and/or if you can find a solution that is not entirely obvious and that gives you a way to monetize.

Make sure there is a large enough market before you put much more time in. Then, once you've got a concept that is workable and has a large enough potential market, try to convince your complainer-soon-to-be-customer to become your pilot partner. Then execute on the idea you have, make your first happy customer and then branch out to other people/companies with the same problem.

Here's an idea I have had for a while and I dont figure I am going to make it so why not just see if someone else wants to make it.

It's mostly a mobile app because you have to be mobile to use it. (You can emulate mobility at a desk, sure)

In my head I call this app "Road Stories"

The premise of this app is that while you're driving around, your phone knows where you are, what speed you're going, etc. As you're driving home from your folks, to stay awake you fire up Road Stories and when you are coming up on an old memory worth sharing with the public, you hit record. The app starts recording your voice. Base case, you're going the speed limit, there's no traffic, so the story unfolds like one of those annotated amusement park historical rides. "See that white house on the left?" You do, because you're in sync with the original recorder. I'm sure there's some algorithm fudging to make it work.

That's obviously producer mode. Then you have consumer mode. You leave it on, and as it starts hitting nodes, it auto plays them. After there are overlapping ones, it plays by newest, best, unlistened, etc cetera.

Advertisement is the obvious way to make any cash off it. I dont know anything at all about that domain and I think this is why I never bothered trying to make it. It'd be neat to know some local businesses tucked away off the highway, sure. Mostly you're listening to hear either synthetic, or historical, folklore.

I think it would be a neat way to make people more aware of where they are, spread history, invent folklore, and just stay awake on that long-assed drive across new hampshire at 10pm. Steal it if you want it.

There was something similar to this at a startup called Broadcastr where people would record audio at a given place. They ended up pivoting, and I hadn't heard anything again about that idea until your post.

The real flaw with this is that most people are not natural story tellers. It's hard to get content with that issue. You're bound to get people who like to talk but have nothing to say, leaving you with a whole lot of nothing useful.


Andrew Mason's new venture is kind of similar in terms of tech

This is really cool. If you (or someone) does this, there could be a revenue stream in displacing the old "walking tour" with a tape player. "pause the tape, walk to station 9 and start again..."

I believe this is an absolutely awesome idea. I hope you, or someone else can make it fly.

The honest answer to your question is: the things you're creating aren't serious businesses, they're toys. That's why you can easily dream them up and crank out prototypes.

These things don't have pent up demand, and you're not solving meaningful problems for people (thus there's no money or interest in them).

My suggestion would be to rethink what you think you know about being an entrepreneur, or creating products for consumption. How you gauge whether something will be useful for enough people, and why someone would pay for it. You need to get a lot better at filtering out what seem like cool ideas, but in fact are just toys that occupy (steal) your time.

I've made the same mistake you're making. It took me years to figure out what I was doing wrong. Building what seemed like one cool thing after another, and for some reason none of them were taking off.

Do one thing, make sure that thing is worth doing, and put all your focus behind it, unrelentingly for a long duration of time. Few things take off right away, even when they're great businesses, they will always test your will to stay in the fight. If you happen to find a great opportunity, and you hop around and don't put all your effort into it for an extended amount of time (even when things look grim), you'll never find out if it has a shot at success. The emphasis is: make sure what you're doing with your time is truly valuable ("is this the most valuable thing I can be doing with my time?" is a legitimate question to use as a filter).

I think half of your advice is really good, and the other half not as much. We've all seen examples of seemingly useless things becoming very successful. Twitter, the Yo app, Let's Players, Beats by Dre, and so on. Your secondary advice of focusing on something and putting all your efforts into it is what separates toys from serious businesses. Most of our world runs on socially-fabricated needs and wants, so it's not surprising that things like yet-another-social-network or streaming yourself playing video games could be lucrative.

I know several universities already run url shortening services in-house, only providing access for faculty/staff/etc. One of the drivers for this is guaranteed longevity - urls in research papers need to live for a long time, but they also need to be short as papers have page limits.

In fact, finding that the university which employs me has a url shortener was a happy day - the url looks official, but it took a whole 2 lines from a column in the paper I was writing. If you haven't had the "joy" of trying to fit your whole idea into a short page limit, you may not understand how much space that really is... Remember in high school when you would fudge margins and font and so on, and using big words unnecessarily to reach the minimum pages? Similar tricks are often done in reverse for research papers.

If you're going to sell that service to smaller universities that don't run their own, or bigger universities looking to outsource, here's a few things that really matter:

1. Being able to tie into the existing SSO/Federated ID system the university uses.

2. Being able to guarantee lifetimes of the shortened links - perhaps even providing for running the service after the company goes away (if this unfortunately happens). Alternately, providing a way to migrate data to a local machine w/in the university if all else fails.

3. The ability to attach a university affiliated domain name - this lets shortened urls look official rather than shady.

4. The ability to move the shortened url target. Long lifetimes conflict with changes in infrastructure in the customer organization.

5. The ability to notify any/all of: the original poster, the poster's department, and the university it department when target links stop working.

6. (maybe) a caching service in case a long term url goes down - oops the page seems down, but here's a cache of what it last looked like....

I'm aware of the existing in house services, but noticed there are still a bunch of universities without one. Even some big names. Those are pretty good points. Thank you.

If you're a solo founder I think the place where the money is is in "boring" B2B products. There's a whole community called the micro-ISV community you might not be aware of that is full of people doing what you seem to want to do.

I wrote about the micro-ISV community here: http://www.jasonswett.net/the-whos-who-of-the-micro-isv-worl...

I found the link to bootstrapped forums very helpful, thanks.

It's a great community of people. It's still pretty small, but it's also very focused, which is nice. It could probably use just a tad more 'mass' to really become a going concern.

This is an alternative to Amy's 30x500: http://www.micropreneur.com/ by the same guys who put on MicroConf, which is a great event.

What is 30x500? I googled and it looks like some kind of class but I don't understand. What is 30 and what is 500?

30x500 teaches two things: 1) How to uncover real problems that people are wiling to pay you to resolve 2) How to speak to those people in words they can understand (like 30x500.com speaks to people who don't know what to build).

The classes are live, but are basically just a series of pre-recorded videos that you watch along with your classmates and have limited time to discuss afterwards. Nearly everything done outside of that class (if you choose to pay extra) is an automated series of emails that you work on alone.

The teachers (Amy & Alex) are night and day. Amy is the ringleader. She is very pig-headed and will not tolerate ideas that do not fall inline with hers. She is quick to belittle people in front of the entire class and has zero patience. Alex is very helpful, easy-going, and open to exploring all ideas. Both seem to be extremely busy outside of the 30x500 world (with other businesses, vacations, and/or personal activities), so don't expect much interaction with them outside of the live classes. They are quick to respond up until the point where you've paid. But, their interest drops off pretty steeply after that point.

Is this a scam? No. But, it's not a silver bullet either. It does teach a few important concepts that are probably not so obvious to many people. The real trick is figuring out how to apply them yourself.

I think this class would be best delivered as an eBook -- since the teachers seem to want to fully automate most of it anyhow. I'm guessing live classes have more money-making potential though.

Note: I took this class in February. Amy kicked me out mid-course for no apparent reason (she would not respond to me, so I really don't know). I had to contact my credit card company to dispute the charge and get a refund. The little bit of knowledge that I did gain was surely not worth the time, money, or hassle involved. Buyer beware.

They are quick to respond up until the point where you've paid. But, their interest drops off pretty steeply after that point.

Thanks, you just saved me 2k. Please write up a blog post, you may save others.

Traditional scammy bullshit. Pay $2k to take a class to learn how to be a millionaire when the only route they're actually familiar with is selling online scams.

There a big divide between selling a course that teaches you how to run an online business and a scam. One thing is for sure there is one party guaranteed to make money of the course (the provider of the course), but if you need to have things spelled out to you and tailored before you understand then a hands-on course may work well.

Personally I don't see the value in it but I'm fairly sure that others do. Calling it a scam is not nice. It also would require that you label lots of other things scams as well if you want to apply the same principle to teaching-for-money.

Probably I'm operating a scam (after all, what's the use of telling people things they already should know about the companies they're about to invest in for a fee) as well in your book.

Nobody forces you to sign up for that course, if you don't see the value, don't do it. And if you did sign up for it and you felt it wasn't worth your money then write about it or talk about it. Maybe ask for your money back. Lotteries are borderline scams, 419 schemes, pyramids, MLM, those are all scammy (as are sites that claim to sell you an article when in fact they sell you a subscription).

30x500 is not a scam by any definition that I'm aware of.

Please provide evidence to the contrary, nothing is wrong with teaching people how to run a business for a fee, and if not all of them become millionaires but the course providers to then that's business as usual. Evaluate the course, state what's wrong with it and how it could be improved.

(I have no dog in this particular race but I don't like such terms to be used lightly, especially not about other forum members without there at least being some actual evidence.)

Thanks for spelling that out.

Wouldn't go as far as calling @amyhoy, @alexknowshtml and @thomasfuchs scammers

Regarding "only actually familiar with selling online scams" – they don't live of www.30x500.com but of http://letsfreckle.com/

https://30x500.com/ looks exactly like every other internet marketing "learn to make money online with our amazing course" that's circulated for the past 15 years. I guess "scam" is a bit hasty but "utter waste of your money" is definitely fitting.

There's gotta be an official name for these. That skinny page with varying font sizes of text images or embedded youtube videos encouraging you to buy/ act now / sign-up for their free newsletter til a big call-to-action at the bottom after scrolling for 10 minutes?

> That skinny page with varying font sizes of text encouraging you to buy and act now or sign-up...

Those pages convert shockingly well. If you follow A/B tests and don't care about aesthetics, that's often where you end up.

>>There's gotta be an official name for these. That skinny page with varying font sizes of text images or embedded youtube videos encouraging you to buy/ act now / sign-up for their free newsletter til a big call-to-action at the bottom after scrolling for 10 minutes?

There is; long copy sales letters

By the way, I would say that despite the amount of work you have put into these ideas (a little or a lot), none of these pages made me want to "sign up". Some honest feedback:

LongCal - Though it is a prototype, it is very unclear how I would use such a tool. I use a regular calendar, and it is working for me just fine.

uTrim - It's been a while since I was in school, so I can't really say whether this solves a problem that I had.

Vulgat Library - sounds interesting, but I can't tell much from the landing page.

30x500 - I wouldn't shell out that much cash unless I have seen proven results (and not just off of their website copy). Do you know anyone who has gone through that program?

I could be wrong, but I think uTrim is designed with professors in mind -- namely, the ones that publish their research. They'd be the end users. I honestly don't think students would care enough (maybe grad students who are publishing research).

It seems like the monetization strategy would be to get the university itself to purchase the product (licenses or something) and then that would allow anyone affiliated with that university to publish trustworthy, shortened URLs (to their research, or in their research to whatever resources they used).

At least, that's what makes the most sense to me.

Update: After taking another look at LongCal, I like it. It shows different levels of different events. As someone else has said, "I'm not sure I would pay for it". I tend to agree with that.

Some feedback from someone who has been in the same position. Most projects seem to have little interest at first. Your job is to iterate on the value prop, customer needs, and messaging - ideally by talking to customers. Simply running ads does not give you feedback that you need: eg: is there no interest because people don't understand the product (for me, Vulgat provided me no insight), or is it that the value prop isn't clear. Talk to people - the end user/buyer/purchasing cycle/industry/vertical is vastly different for each of these products. Focus on a product you can directly access the users. IMHO

I am actually working on a project that I started for personal use, it lets me define a bunch of ideas and some metrics about those ideas (like market size, revenue potential etc) and then weight and score each of those metrics. I can then share this list with friends and colleagues who can also score the metrics about each idea, without seeing mine or anyone else's score so there is no bias.

The gist is, finding an objective (or as close to it) way to evaluate ideas within a simple structure.

Anyone else interested? Anything better already exist?

Basically, I had too many ideas and could not decide what to work on.

I read through the first half of this book (link at end) and some of the ideas in it may help you. It talks about some specific examples of iterating through the validation cycle. I can't say that I've created a multi-million dollar business off of the ideas in it. But some of the specific steps that the author outlines just make sense once you read them. http://runninglean.co/

I recommend working in reverse and picking a target market/niche that you want to serve, and then finding and interviewing people from that industry/market. Ask them what problems they face on a day to day basis. Find out how painful those problems are and find out how they're solving them now. If the problem is painful enough and you can solve it better than how people are already solving it, people might very well pay for it. (Patio says every time you find a problem being solved with passing excel sheets around, a SaaS angel gets its wings).

Then brainstorm a solution to the most painful problem or two that you can solve with software, double back to your interviewees and see if they would pay for it. If a decent percentage are willing to pre-pay for it, you've already got your early adopters waiting for you and you didn't have to write a line of code. If nobody is interested, you may have saved yourself a ton of time and effort and now you can easily move on to researching the next problem/target market.

More info: http://www.smoothconversion.com/blog/why-you-don-t-validate-...

Concerning uTrim, I'd juste like to point out that you shouldn't limit yourself only to .edu. I'm a Comp. Science student at Concordia Unviersity[1] in Montreal, Canada and I personally hate it when certain services are limited to U.S. university users, when in fact they would be extremly useful for other students in different countries that do not use an .edu domain.

As an example, Concordia uses different email adresses depending on your faculty: @jmsb.concordia.ca, @encs.concordia.ca etc.

I believe it would be a good idea if you could implement a way of submiting "new" universities to the list of accepted schools, which can then be handpicked by youself. I suppose ideally a list of most universities available would be better. Dropbox used an amazing email list for their Space Race challange a few years ago, however I can't seem to find it.

[1] http://www.concordia.ca/

Here are some thoughts, even though I'm not sure you asked for it ;)

LongCal: I think there is something there with regards to "long-term thinking". But don't market it as a "calendar app". I believe there is potential in tracking people's long-term goals, breaking them down into tasks, and translating these tasks into chunks of work to build daily schedules and habits. The above is what I currently do in a text editor, and there is no "calendar app" that can do it for me. Don't make another calendar app, the space is overcrowded with Machine Learning powered calendar apps. How to validate? This one is tricky. I'd try customer interviews strategy (dalacv posted a book) to see if people are really unhappy with their current time management apps, and why. No need to build something before you figure out the pain points. Ideally you have a mockup of what you have in mind in order to validate your hypotheses against what people are telling you in interviews. Monetization is an issue you don't usually worry about with these kind of products. If you build a great product then people will come, and with enough people money will come.

uTrim: I'm not sure about this one. I never use URL shorteners unless they are already integrated in a service I'm already using (e.g. Twitter). The bigger opportunity here may be to sell this directly to universities and automatically shorten anything that is posted on university-internal mailing lists and forums and provide analytics on top of that. How to validate? Try to sell it to universities (in particular, certain departments for certain products and then let it ripple through other departments)

Vulgat Library: I'm assuming employees lend stuff to other employees (landing page isn't clear on this)? How to validate? Figure out what segment your customers are in and try to sell it to them. You'd probably need a more exhaustive landing page. This can be consumerized enterprise play where you are selling to individual employees within a company. They can set up the system themselves without needing permission from any higher-ups. They then invite other employees. Basically the Dropbox model. This way you can use consumer marketing strategies instead of needing B2B sales.

Business naming app: I may be wrong but personally I'd forget about this one: 1. Generating good names automatically is extremely difficult 2. I doubt people want to have generated names 3. Don't see obvious monetization 4. One-time use

I remember in school, there were subjective subjects like literature where your grade is based on how someone else, ie the teacher, felt about your work, and there were objective subjects like maths where no matter if the teacher liked you or not, you got your right grade. Try focusing on the part of business that is objective.

What I am saying is that find businesses where the quality of the product is directly correlated with the success of the product. For instance, if you could create an exaflop computer, I don't care if you are bad at marketing you will be rich. Another example is AI, if you could get software to learn generally, you will be successful. Yet another example, being able to easily control an android(human size) remotely[this could be used in construction, farming, security, elderly care, site seeing etc.].

These are hard problems to solve, but you are trading easiness of producing a product for a guarantee on success.

Think lazy.

The most successful technological innovations throughout history have come from making a manual or longer process automated or to take less time. Start with things in your life that you feel are unnecessarily complicated and map out the possibilities from there.

The other issue is that the techosphere is plagued with solutions that solve the problems of the technocrats that populate it. Start talking to your family and friends outside of our bubble and ask them what is on their wishlist. Find someone in a flyover state that still has a flip phone and has no reason to upgrade to a smart phone because there aren't any solutions to problems they have.

We are in the infancy stages of what computing and wireless technology can accomplish. Those that bring something new to the table have the greatest chance to succeed, and the odds are best when you tap into a market that isn't currently being served.

It isn't sexy, but it is profitable.

Far more important than ideas is learning to validate them quickly; unfortunately HN is a bad place for validation since few here are your target market.

If you're looking for more ideas, here is some additional reading:

Passive income ideas: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5903868

Startup ideas spreadsheet 2010: http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0Ag-R_ZlGO21NdE9HSWRk...

2012 re-discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1190974

Further HN discussions of ideas: http://hn.algolia.com/#!/story/forever/0/startup%20ideas

The key is to find customers first. If you have a hunch that something should work, there is always a possibility that you can uncover some pain points that you can build a business around.

You need to speak to enough customers and iterate on what you offer to figure out the validity.

Coding stuff up is always a lot more comfortable, and a no-touch approach like adwords based validation is 'easy', but really, you need to be in front of people to understand if there is any validity to your thinking.

Open ended conversations around the problem area usually results in great insight and can lead to some valid ideas you can work off of. Also, speak to more than one person in a given problem area and it's not too hard to ask 'do you know anyone else that has this kind of problem?' to find a common theme and get an idea of a market size thats worth your time.

It looks like you're a great engineer but not an "idea" dreamer (that's not bad news, since most people aren't).

I think the best you can do to ensure your success is to make sure this is a problem with real demand--a great way to get started, since you're a great engineer, would be to do some software consulting for someone under the premise of you building software for your startup to sell and doing additional custom work for them (IP reasons). This is awesome because you essentially keep the lights on while being assisted by your customer in creating a product that has an actual need; whether that need extends beyond your customer is another story entirely--though, doing this a few times, you'll probably land on something universal.

LongCal seems like quite a nice interface for writing a theme based biography (of self, project, company, etc) with a super nice way of zooming in to detail and out to big picture. I like it. Someone like NYT could well use that type of interface for a long-form article, obituary of someone particularly prominent, a country or government, etc. Coloured themes / tags run on the y axis, time on the x.

Have you considered identifying one target market first, then working backwards? If you identify one group of humans (with healthy budgets!) that you want to serve, every discarded prototype for that market will surface new knowledge of what they need.

Re: naming, http://namevine.com asks for current registrar and may be earning affiliate revenue.

I'm the dev behind Namevine. It makes a little bit of side income for me via affiliate revenue. That initial popup is an attempt to help me prioritize which affiliate integrations to pursue next and of course helps ensure users are sent to register at a registrar they'd likely purchase at.

Since the HN community does not necessarily represent the target market for the ideas you mentioned (except, maybe the Business Naming app), you won't get usable data by polling the wrong audience. If you're interested in generating income for your effort, you'll need to know how to sell the product — and to whom — to help inform what to build.

A quick suggestion if you want Vulgat.com to succeed you seriously need to build out your website and put some focus on SEO. A pretty landing page with no detail no content will have a huge bounce rate and never rank for any terms that are relevant to the product. Your site does not even rank for its own brand name.

Make sure there's a market for you ideas before you build them. Read Business Model Generation.


My advice would be to dream bigger. You can't be sure if anything will work, so why not take a shot at something big then? I don't see any of those ideas becoming large businesses.

I like LongCal. It is pretty good. I would use it. Not sure I would be willing to pay for it though.

I somewhat agree. LongCal seems like a neat little tool, but I would not pay money for it nor would I use it for very long. The defining feature is being able to scroll in and out to see shorter and longer periods of time at a quick glance, but that's about it. You said the emphasis was on long term planning. However, I don't personally do any long term planning further out than a year, and I feel as though most other people are the same way. The only long term things I can think of are planning to take a vacation in two years or saving enough money to buy a house in four years. I don't think a calendar app is going to help with these goals because they are too big to forget. Also, the calendar app market is dominated by big players that provide integration with email, Facebook, etc. It's fine for a learning project, but I'm not sure how you are going to get anyone to switch from using their Google calendar to yours.

Is 30x500 some sort of framework? As in 30 tiny projects, aiming to generate $500 each?

Your problem seems to be a recurring theme here on HN and elsewhere. People building amazing stuff (as in intellectually stimulating, fun to build, difficult to do, impressive etc.) with amazing technology (shiny new languages, stacks etc.), launch it and yet nobody seems to care. Nobody seems to be willing to throw money at an app, service and so on. Why is that? People often build things that solve non-issues. And I love all of this, 99.5% of the stuff I build is purely for fun, learning, play and prove something (to myself). But that's not where the money is most of the time, though the things I learn from play are useful for the 0.5%.

I'm sure you read everything there is to know about the entire lean thing (Business Model Generation got mentioned already). Are you familiar with the work of Dane Maxwell [1]? As jasonswett wrote, the money is in the boring stuff. Dane Maxwell developed a robust and proven framework to help bootstrapped businesses with hands-on advice and mentoring. I highly recommend to have a look at his work and look up some of the success stories. It's very inspiring and you can learn a thing or two. His advice is more in the tune of people like DHH (you're much more likely to succeed in building a small company that solves a specific problem than, say, the next Facebook). Does it seem achievable for you to build an app with 50 users who pay €150 each? Or with 100 users who pay $70 each? Would you be happy with something like this for a start?

Pick something that solves a real problem in an area where there's money. B2B that is. Pick something that bothers you when you interact with other businesses as a starting point. Why is there friction? Work from there. Talk to those businesses and ask them what their biggest pain points are. What they would be willing to pay for if somebody (you) would solve it. You will have to pick up the phone, write emails and talk to people in person. That's all scary stuff (at least for me). You will be surprised what businesses are struggling with. Which things eat up tons of their resources and could be solved with open source solutions that you simply glue together. Once you find something that you think you can solve, nail the business owners down on it. Demand commitment. Make them part of the process and work closely with them. They will become your evangelists later on. Make them pay for a year in advance. That will truly validate your business idea. Only then start to build.

[1] http://thefoundation.com [2] https://www.google.com/search?q=site%3Athefoundation.com *

* The website is built in a way that it's hiding some of the content. You get it for a share on Facebook or an email sign up - that's why I've chosen this form.

30x500 is basically a sales course: https://30x500.com/

Oh. That thing. Thanks for digging it up. My brain seems to actively suppress some things. Can't judge the product though. May or may not be helpful for some people who need help or guidance with certain things and I wouldn't go as far as calling it a scam (as people in this thread pointed out). It just may not be the right product for a certain group of people.

why did adwords object to the homepage?

They pointed to two explanations:

>Google allows sites that collect personally identifiable information from users as long as this is not the primary purpose of the site.

>Google doesn't allow the promotion of sites that offer incentives in order to collect users' personal information (such as free quiz/survey results, horoscopes, etc.) where collecting this information is the primary purpose of the site.

If offering updates on the project is an "incentive", well, I have no idea how anyone does this. The adwords+landing page concept is so ubiquitous on HN. I've asked here before and gotten no explanation.

Do 30x500. I'm having a hard time seeing any of the above becoming multimillion businesses. But then again, maybe you're just not good at pitching :)

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