There are a lot of ways to make money in this world. Despite what you’ve heard, you don’t even have to have money to make money. It’s been more than a decade since YouTube was created and people are still shocked that content creators are making money for simply pointing at a camera at themselves and talking. Even though that may look easy (at least from the outside), advertisers will pay top dollar to go where the eyeballs are pointed.
Even something as simple as attention is a commodity, but what if you wanted to make money selling even less?
As part of the Revenge Method project, I’ve been trying to find unconventional ways in which people have made money. In fact I’ve found a few cases in which people 1) actually sold nothing, 2) purchaser knew they were receiving nothing, and 3) both sides left happy.
To keep things interesting, I am intentionally leaving off this list. These are items of symbolic or debatable value, like religious symbols, environmental tokens, or speculation-driven commodities. In those cases, both parties know what they are getting into, or are paying for a service they believe or find value in, so leave me alone about your carbon credits and bitcoins.
Also left off this list are items that are promising things they can’t really deliver, like buying a Scottish title, a deed for a plot of land on the moon, or the right to name a distant star after your grandma. So if you want to be the Laird of the Lunar Highlands and show all the lassies the view of Nana Centauri the go right ahead. Just watch out for your kilt in a zero-gravity environment.
Here we go:
A Book With Blank Pages. If you go into any hobby store, you will find lots of blank books, ready for you to fill the pages with your own poems, memoirs, or sketches of ninja turtles. This is not what Michael J. Knowles was selling when he listed a book titled Reasons to Vote for Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide on Amazon. Within the book you will find almost nothing. To say the book is “blank” is a bit of a misnomer. The book does have a table of contents. It has chapter headings, page numbers, and the title of the book on the top of every page (just in case you forget what your reading). It even has a bibliography which contains references to actual books. What it doesn’t have is a body of text.
As you can probably tell, this book was a joke, and the description of the book even admits “the book is mostly blank.” Michael J. Knowles isn’t even the first person to sell this particular kind of gag book. The thing that sets this one apart is how well it’s sold. As of the writing of this article, the release sits very close to #3,200 in Amazon.com’s Sales Ranking for books, perhaps because President Trump himself tweeted about it, (or so the description says). That’s the list that includes legitimate releases like Harry Potter, John Grisham, and How to Win Friends and Influence People. From a business standpoint, the real clincher is that every copy sold is made to order, using a service that prints on demand only after a copy is ordered, so there’s not even inventory sitting around if or when the orders dry out.
A Grown Man’s Poorly Drawn Cat Pictures. In 2012, Steve Gadlin appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank asking for $10,000 in exchange for 25% of his company. The Sharks, who are well-known business investors, have been pitched anything from apps to pre-made garden systems to motion sensor lights for your toilet bowl that activate when you pee. Against staunch competition Steve Gadlin still managed to stick out. As he presented before the panel of self-made multi-millionaires, he danced and grimly sang a song stating “I want to draw a cat for you” and went home with a small pile of Mark Cuban’s money in exchange for 33% of a company that sells made-to-order cat drawings.
If Steve Gadlin has artistic ability, he’s not using it here. For an amount of margin that would make a Ferengi weep for joy, Steve Gadlin gets out his sharpie and sketches his creations on copy paper and sticks them in the mail. (it’s extra if you want him to send it without folds). Every cat drawing is available on his website, which currently sitting at number 19,843. There are articles from 2015 stating that Gadlin intended on closing down his site, but the website itself is still active. There is other merchandise available and if you want a cat picture drawn by Gadlin himself, it will now run you around $30 with 4 to 6 weeks for delivery.
A Rock. No matter how old you are, you’ve probably heard about this one. In the late 1970s, a man named Gary Dahl, who is now described as a genius, placed smoothed stones from Rosarito Beach, Mexico in a box. Dahl included a short manual for the care of feeding of these stones and sold more than 1.5 million units of what is now known as the “Pet Rock.” The Pet Rock is now the go-to business case for fads, novelty gifts, and marketing. Dahl himself in on record stating that he never thought it would be that successful and that he never expects to replicate those kinds of results.
Whether or not it’s from the same company, you can still buy a Pet Rock, and there are even variations with at least some additional value, like this one that at least comes with some paint. Honorable mention goes to Think Geek with their update, the USB Pet Rock. No, it isn’t even a storage device, and keeping with the spirit of the original, it retails for $40. Yikes!
A Cornflake. One day, two sisters from Virginia almost ate their profits for breakfast. Right as one of them was about to chomp down on some cornflakes, somehow one of them noticed their cereal bore a striking resemblance to a map of the State of Illinois. What are the odds? (Pretty common if you check the internet, actually).
They listed the cornflake on eBay and a collector by the name of Monty Kerr snatched it up for $1,350 to add to a museum of Americana he was producing.
Literally Nothing. You know the drill. It’s Black Friday so you scope out all the deals across all the big box stores, retail websites, and specialty outlets. Back in the day, Black Friday was a great way to find cut-rate deals on hot ticket items. Now, retailers offer pretty standard discounts with the hope that people will just show up. Retailers kept inching back the value for customers until one of them finally snatched the brass ring.
In 2015, Cards Against Humanity had a sale unlike anything else I’ve found. They had a sale on nothing. Let’s be clear. It wasn’t that they didn’t sell anything. It’s that they had absolutely “nothing” and they had it “on sale.” If you went to their Black Friday web page, all that you would find was a series of text boxes allowing you to enter your credit card information, a checkbox affirming that “I understand I am paying Cards Against Humanity $5 and receiving nothing in return” and a large clickable button labeled “Give us $5.”
“Who would hit that button?” You might ask. Apparently, 12,000 people did. Reportedly more than $50,000 of nothing was sold and proceeds went to employees of the company to spend however they pleased. No word on if purchasers of nothing were issued a receipt of nothing.
So with all that, why have you been sitting on your business idea? If these people can sell literally nothing and make money, what is your excuse?