Micro-Gigs

Today in America and across much of the world, there exist predatory lending institutions which are happy to give short-term loans at high interest rates to essentially anyone. The most common and obvious example is the payday loan. If you drive through “the wrong part of town,” you will see these on at least as many corners as there are convenience stores of cafes. They are everywhere and they are delighted to give short-term high-interest loans of a couple-hundred dollars to literally anyone regardless of the person’s credit or personal history.

I read an article about how bad these places are for their customers and for civilization, and it made me think of The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

What if it was possible to reliably beat predatory interest rates with smart investments? This idea could turn these predatory loans into widely available venture funding for small-scale projects like the ones Chris Guillebeau describes in his book. I call this idea, the micro-gig rather than Guillebeau’s term micro-business because this isn’t necessarily a business. The idea is to beat the predatory loan, not necessarily to build something sustainable that you want to keep doing in the long-term. I have always enjoyed projects more than businesses. It’s easy to pick projects up and set them down when you get bored. This makes the process a lot more interesting.

The biggest challenge is the timeline. In California, a payday loan of $300 gets you $245 cash but you only have a couple weeks to pay it back. This means that a successful project needs to generate a 20% return in a very short time. Luckily, this is actually relatively easy. Those levels of returns are much harder with larger dollar amounts than they are with these smaller amounts.

Here are a few initial ideas…

Flipping

There are huge online communities dedicated to the art of flipping. This means buying something and then immediately selling it for a profit. Personally, I have had great success with flipping.

It is super easy to find trendy things like Ikea furniture for very cheap and then sell it for more. Several times, I’ve been able to sell Ikea furniture for more than I paid for it new, even months or years later. This is especially true if you check out Ikea’s As-Is section where you can regularly find floor models and returns that are half-off. It’s super easy to flip these for their regular price or even more within a short time.

Another easy type of product is consumer electronics. I have found expensive and perfectly functional consumer electronics at thrift stores for just a dollar or two, then flipped them for a hundred times that. An easy example is Apple products.

Flipping: Appraisal

It is critical to know you can get a return before buying something to flip. Local sales through sites like Craigslist are usually going to give you the best return, but don’t forget ebay. This makes appraisal easy because you can check ebay for sold listings.

Here’s a true example from my flipping experience. I saw an Apple bluetooth keyboard with magic mouse at a thrift store for $5. I tested it on my phone to make sure it was working. Then I checked ebay’s sold listings for that device. They were going for close to a hundred dollars in “fair” condition. It was a no brainer! I bought it and flipped in the same weekend on Craigslist. About twenty minutes of work earned me $120.

Flipping: Just In Time

Another great tactic is using just in time inventory and specializing in a particular item. For example, I could work towards getting really good at selling “my amazon alexa that I never use.” Voice assistants regularly go for as much as half-off on ebay. So if I expect to sell it quickly, I might buy one to keep on hand. Once I start getting offers, I might buy a few more. As long as I can sell them at the same rate that I am buying them, my profits will continue to increase. If sales slow down, all I have to do is stop ordering them off ebay and wait to sell through my inventory.

Sell Food To Drunk People

When I had my cafe in Chico, I had an idea. I borrowed a push cart and food warmer from a dorm and ordered a bunch of pizzas. I got 30 day terms, so I didn’t have to pay for the pizzas until a month later. I spent no money to do this. When the pizzas came, I wrapped each slice in aluminum foil and put them  in the warmer on the cart. I had no trouble selling as much pizza as I could fit in the warmer, at 400% markup. I expanded to offer bottled water and energy drinks. People loved it, and it didn’t cost me anything.

Thinking back to this, I am reminded of how many people I see selling “homemade” tamales out of their trunk outside the bars downtown. I can’t help but wonder if these are actually coming from those enormous bags of tamales that Costco sells for just a few dollars. How many other bulk food items could you sell out of a trunk for more than you paid for them?

Hundreds of percent of markup is expected and normal with food products, especially when the customers are drunk people. Those ten dollar salads at Starbucks cost less than a dollar to make.

Arbitrage

In many cases, companies have online sales with crazy low prices. So flip it before you buy it. I have often listed things for sale on Craigslist which I haven’t even bought yet. If someone wants it, I will buy it and then sell it to them for a nice markup.

There are great online communities dedicated to things like extreme couponing or general frugality which can help you find these amazing deals. Selling before you buy, or at the same time is called arbitrage. And it’s a huge part of price-equalization in every industry and market from foreign exchange to retail. Cash in!

Outsource It

Get someone else to do the work for you once you sell the product. Why do you think infomercials need eight weeks to deliver their products? Because they don’t manufacture the products until after they’ve been paid for. This is called just in time manufacturing, and though it is technically illegal, it is standard practice in the industry. This idea is very much in the vein of The Four Hour Work Week. Author Tim Ferriss would argue you should test any business idea this way.

There are so many examples you could do in your own town without needing to invest anything. Find a business where employees aren’t wearing branded shirts and sell the manager a batch. Then go order them from a local shop. They don’t want to pay up front? That’s fine. You know where to get a quick loan for a few hundred dollars.

Final Thoughts

All of these micro-gig ideas I’ve discussed here are basically foolproof, with very minimal risk. There are lots of other ideas with slightly higher risk and more potential rewards. I would love to hear about related ideas that are working for people, or feedback about the ones I’ve mentioned here.

Drop me a line at chris.j.trowbridge@gmail.com.

Startup 12: Smart Mailer

SmartMailer.io

I built a tool very similar to this one as an experiment to see how much money I could bring in to a previous workplace by sending automated emails based on various criteria. The answer turned out to be millions and millions of dollars. This was a very exciting surprise which largely led to the direction I decided to go with my career and my choice to quit that job and get my MBA so I can get funding and start a large project around this idea.

It would be very easy to accidentally use this product in a way which violates laws all over the world. You MUST research the legal requirements in your jurisdiction before using any part of this product, and make sure you have unambiguous and clear consent as required by law before sending any emails to anyone.

I accept no responsibility for the misuse of this code, accidental or deliberate by anyone.

That Time I Found Millions of Dollars Under The Cushion…

Lots of businesses have lots of data. They may not know how to access the data or how to analyze it, or even that it could be valuable to analyze it, but businesses keep track of things like what customers buy and when. They keep track of things like how frequently a customer uses their services. They keep track of things like which products have particular behaviors and lifecycles.

They can’t help but keep track of these things. The question if whether it is possible to extract value from this data.

You’re Customers Are Getting Older.

Customers age. In business terms, this sometimes means that a customer has not been seen in a while or has not purchased any products for some time. A previous employer of mine had all the contact information for these people, but no free labor to perform outreach.

The answer was obvious. Send all of those people an email every few months, automatically. And it worked spectacularly. The percentage of customers who disappeared each month dropped right away, and kept dropping as more and more customers converted for new services.

Your Product’s Are Getting Older.

Lots of products have life cycles. Nothing lasts forever. If it did, there wouldn’t be opportunities for businesses. Analyzing past customer data and behavior can illuminate likely durations after the purchase of particular products when a customer may need another product.

Maybe it’s the same thing they bought before. Maybe some kind of tuneup. Maybe it’s something complementary. Find those patterns and determine when it’s the right time to remind the customer that you’re thinking about them, and don’t be afraid to send them a coupon. I literally wrote an automated email for one such pattern which simply said, “We’re thinking of you. Here’s a coupon.” It was one of the most successful campaigns we ever tried.

At my last workplace, this larger strategy of analyzing trends and incentivizing them when they’re coming up brought in tens of thousands of dollars a month in new revenue at absolutely no cost whatsoever. You write the queries and emails once and then they send automatically every day.

Your Employees Are Imperfect.

Employees make mistakes. Sometimes they try to cheat and steal. It can be easy to find these kinds of things in the data and automatically alert supervisors so they can look into it. This saves an enormous amount unnecessary oversight and regular inspections and investigations to make sure procedures are followed correctly. Simply write a query which finds the problem, and then have it send an email to a manager.

This simple concept eliminated multiple entire management positions at my last workplace and allowed those managers to work on more important things like growing sales and developing the team.

 

The Future

There are a lot of exciting directions this product can go in the future. This concept within my various projects has been under constant development for almost five years in one form or another. I am very excited to be able to share this concept as a product and to give others the opportunity to find the missing millions under the cushions like I did.

Group Meditation: Othering Is The Root Of Most Evil

This week’s topic is based on an interview which you can listen to, here. I recommend listening to it, it’s a great interview! I have condensed the main points for discussion here;

Philip Zimbardo is the former president of the American Psychological Association. From the interview, “[Zimbardo] is one of the most distinguished psychologists in the world and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He is arguably best known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students were turned into mock prisoners and guards for a continuous 24-hour-a-day study. The experiment was planned for two weeks but terminated after just six days.”

Key Terms

Evil: (Zimbardo’s definition) The exercise of power to intentionally harm (psychologically), hurt (physically), and/or kill innocent people.

Othering: using language to dehumanize groups of people. Common examples include “druggies,” “stupid people,”the homeless,” and the use of racial or other slurs. Othering makes groups of people into abstract concepts, deserving any evil thing said or done to them. According to Zimbardo, this is the number one cause for people or groups of people doing evil things.

Delegation of Authority: Examples include “I was just following orders,” or “it’s my job.” These phrases are used to release one’s responsibility for doing the right thing by delegating the responsibility of one’s behavior to an authority. According to Zimbardo, this is the number two cause for people or groups of people doing evil things, and it often reinforces and compounds the effects of othering.

Key Points

  • According to an overwhelming amount of evidence from many experiments done over the course of the last century, Othering is the number one cause for ordinary people or groups of people saying or doing evil things. It is usually accompanied by the delegation of authority which reinforces its effects.
  • Especially in groups, people are far more likely to do evil if othering is taking place and goes unchallenged.
  • Challenging othering in a group setting is one of the best ways to change a group’s tone and direction from evil to heroic.

Examples and Research

-The Milgram Experiment

Milgram Experiment

In The Milgram Experiment, a normal and psychologically healthy volunteer was placed in front of a control panel and asked to read a list of questions to a “subject” who was in another room, via an intercom.

Researchers explained to the volunteer that the subject in the other room was hooked up to electrodes and that each time the subject responded incorrectly to one of the volunteer’s questions, the volunteer should flip another switch on the control panel. The switches would electrocute the subject as punishment for the incorrect answer. Each successive switch increased in voltage to the point of being potentially lethal. They were labeled as such.

Before the experiment, Milgram asked psychologists to predict how many volunteers would go all the way to the end and deliver the potentially lethal shocks to the subject. The consensus was that 1% of the volunteers would do so, since one would have to be a psychopath to potentially endanger the life of another during the course of the experiment.

In fact, though the subject would scream and beg for the test to stop because they had a heart condition, more than two thirds of volunteers went all the way to the most lethal dose of electricity.

Zimbardo, who was one of the researchers working on this experiment, attributes this result to the deliberate dehumanization of the subject by putting them in another room and referring to them with the abstract term subject rather than person. In this case, the effects of othering are compounded by Zimbardo’s number two cause of evil, the delegation of authority.

-The Stanford Prison Experiment

Stanford Prison Experiment

Decades later, Zimbardo conducted The Stanford Prison Experiment. He put normal and psychologically healthy student volunteers into groups of “guards” and “prisoners.” Prisoners had their faces covered and were only allowed to use a prisoner number instead of their names. The goal was to see what would happen when one group was given power over another group which had been deliberately dehumanized.

The groups were told to play out their roles in the simulated prison for two weeks while their behavior was recorded by researchers. Many of the participants had complete emotional and psychological breakdowns in just a matter of days. The behavior of the guards became both physically and psychologically evil to such an extreme degree that the researchers were forced to cancel the experiment after just six days.

When the researchers told the prisoners the experiment was over, the prisoners didn’t understand. They had to go through extensive counselling and therapy before reclaiming their real identities and rejoining the outside world. Several movies and many books have been made about these events.

Decades later, almost the exact same scenario played out in a real prison, Abu Ghraib. Guards covered the prisoners’ faces, gave them numbers instead of names, and committed acts of evil ranging from pointless physical violence to sexual assault.

 

Conclusion

Because of these examples and lots of other research done by Zimbardo, he has concluded that dehumanizing people is the most effective way for a normal person or group of people to do evil things.

Conversely, he concludes that an awareness of this fact can allow someone to be heroic versus evil by discouraging othering and nipping evil in the bud.

Startup 11: PHP TTS Webhooks

Smart Homes Are Pretty Great

I have very much jumped on the bandwagon with smart home products. I have smart lights, a smart fan, a virtual assistant in every room; mine is a very smart house. I have also gotten very into IFTTT and related functional services which integrate with these smart devices to make them even smarter and more interconnected.

Example; my lights turn red at sunset automatically each day. This is actually a very exciting and new possibility which confers enormous health benefits. With cheap commodity products and running no servers or custom hardware or software, I can easily create triggers in IFTTT which pull the sunset time from weather services automatically, and then toggle my lights to red exactly at sunset each day. (Hopefully it goes without saying that sunset is at a different time each day.) Imagine trying to do this a decade ago. It would have been ridiculously complex. Just look at my Arduino smart plug project for example, where I do it from relative scratch.

A Problem

There is one thing that still is not possible with any of the popular virtual assistants and smart home devices such as Google Home or Amazon Echo.

I can talk to Google Home or Amazon Echo all day, and they are happy to acknowledge me and do whatever I ask of them. But there is absolutely no way to make them reach out to me in response to some external trigger.

Example; my Ring Doorbell detects motion in the front yard, and I have my phone on silent. I will not know until I next check my phone that motion was detected. There is absolutely no built-in way to make my army of virtual assistants notify me of something like this. I could buy Ring’s official plug-in chime (which I did) but this should not be necessary when I already have little computers in every room which should be able to just talk to me. Thinking about this problem gave me lots of other interesting ideas about things I would like to be notified about. For example problems at work, time-sensitive emails from teachers, or any number of potentially important issues.

A Solution

I have a whole box of Raspberry Pi’s from old projects. With one simple command, I can make them say anything I want. I just need to install Say;

sudo apt-get install say

Then I created a simple PHP script which accepts webhooks and calls the say command. This is a little complicated to set up, but I have included all the directions on the Github page.

There is also a beta feature which saves the speech as an mp3 file, then casts it to the virtual assistants around the house. This means I can use IFTTT or other functional-paradigm cloud services to trigger my virtual assistants to speak to me based on external commands. It does mean I have to run a single piece of hardware; the Raspberry Pi. But I had to struggle to remember where I even plugged it in. It’s hard to notice.

There are all kinds of exciting directions this project can go in the future. There is no reason it shouldn’t be able to cast tv shows or movies from my NAS for example. The potential of this product is very exciting. I look forward to future versions, and I think this is one of the few cases where the product will outlive my Levels Challenge.

Money doesn’t change men, it merely unmasks them. If a man is naturally selfish or arrogant or greedy, the money brings that out, that’s all.

Henry Ford

War

“They were cold, professionally polished, and well on their way up a career ladder that would ensure that despite the uniforms they wore, they would never have to come within a thousand kilometers of a genuine firefight. The only problem they had, as they cruised sharkishly back and forth across the cool marble floor of the court, was in drawing the fine differences between war—mass murder of people wearing a uniform not your own; justifiable loss—mass murder of your own troops, but with substantial gains; and criminal negligence—mass murder of your own troops, without appreciable benefit.”

From Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Sociopathy and Allegiance

“I tried for the Envoys once,” Trepp said suddenly.
I glanced sideways at her, curious. “Yeah?”
“Yeah, long time ago. They rejected me on profile. No capacity for allegiance, they said.”
I grunted. “Figures. You were never in the military were you?”
“What do you think? She was looking at me as if I’d just suggested she might have a history of child-molesting. I chuckled tiredly.
“Thought not. See, the thing is, they’re looking for borderline psychopathic tendencies. That’s why they do most of their recruiting from the military in the first place.”
Trepp looked put out. “I’ve got borderline psychopathic tendencies.”
“Yeah, I don’t doubt it, but the point is, the number of civilians with those tendencies and a sense of team spirit is pretty limited. They’re opposing values. The chances of them both arising naturally in the same person are almost nil. Military training takes the natural order and fucks with it. It breaks down any resistance to psychopathic behavior at the same time as it builds fanatical loyalties to the group. Package deal. Soldiers are perfect Envoy material.”

From Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Rules and The System

“Kristin, nothing ever does change.” I jerked a thumb back at the crowd outside. “You’ll always have morons like that, swallowing belief patterns whole so they don’t have to think for themselves. You’ll always have people like Kawahara and the Bancrofts to push their buttons and cash in on the program. People like you to make sure the game runs smoothly and the rules don’t get broken too often. And when the Meths want to break the rules themselves, they’ll send people like Trepp and me to do it. That’s the truth, Kristin. It’s been the truth since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago, and from what I read in the history books, it’s never been any different. Better get used to it.”

From Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

The Machinery of Justice Will Not Serve You

The personal, as everyone’s so fucking fond of saying, is political. So if some idiot politician, some power player, tries to execute policies that harm you or those you care about, take it personally. Get angry. The Machinery of Justice will not serve you here—it is slow and cold, and it is theirs, hardware and soft-. Only the little people suffer at the hands of Justice; the creatures of power slide out from under with a wink and a grin. If you want justice, you will have to claw it from them. Make it personal. Do as much damage as you can. Get your message across. That way you stand a far better chance of being taken seriously next time. Of being considered dangerous. And make no mistake about this: being taken seriously, being considered dangerous, marks the difference—the only difference in their eyes—between players and little people. Players they will make deals with. Little people they liquidate. And time and again they cream your liquidation, your displacement, your torture and brutal execution with the ultimate insult that it’s just business, it’s politics, it’s the way of the world, it’s a tough life, and that it’s nothing personal. Well, fuck them. Make it personal.”

-Things I Should Have Learned by Now, Volume II, by Quellcrist Falconer From Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Choking Someone is Felony Assault and Attempted Homicide

There have been several high-profile cases in the news this week about people choking people. I wanted to bring it up and talk about some important facts.

Consent must be talked about before-hand. Non-consensual choking, even during consensual sex, is strangulation. It is felony assault and it is attempted homicide; with a mandatory prison sentence.

Beyond the legal definitions, it is also the number one indicator that a person will go on to kill a partner in the future, and since it is a power-and-control-dynamic, it is also one of the highest indicators that abuse and violence will escalate in the future between the two partners.

It is not ok to choke another person, even during consensual sex, without talking about it beforehand and getting an explicit and enthusiastic yes to that specific act. Furthermore, if a person wants to do that to you, it is extremely likely that it will lead to more violence and potentially homicide in the future.

https://www.strangulationtraininginstitute.com/about-us/

http://time.com/5269444/eric-schneiderman-sponsored-strangulation-law/

https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/5/10/17340008/anthony-wall-police-waffle-house-video