Over the years, I've had hundreds of ideas for businesses. If you're reading this magazine, you've probably had your own share of business ideas. (Maybe some of the same ones I had. )
A few years back, I wanted to start a company that would send men underwear and socks for the rest of their lives. You'd register your preferences (styles and sizes) on a website, enter a credit card number and sit back: Packages would come, once every six months, until you changed or stopped your order. My thought was that men hate shopping for underwear and their wives/partners don't want to have to do it for them. So why not an underwear subscription service?
I came up with a name--Underwear for Life--and even registered the domain name underwearforlife.com. But that's about as far as I got.
Starting a business is hard, but talking about it is easy. Over the years, I told a lot of people about Underwear for Life, hoping they would insist I drop everything and start the company this minute. That's one of my problems as a wannabe entrepreneur: I wait for other people's encouragement, which means I'll wait forever.
In the meantime, I kept expecting someone else to start "my" business. When no one did, I was alternatively relieved (I still have an opportunity!) and mystified (if it's the greatest idea ever, why hasn't somebody else done it?).
Last year, knowing I would never get around to starting the business myself (I do have a successful career as a writer), but still hoping to cash in on my idea, I wrote a letter to Walmart, in which I offered to fly to Bentonville, Ark., and explain the concept in five minutes. I was hoping Walmart could start its own version of Underwear for Life, using its existing product lines, and pay me a small royalty.
I received a polite response from Stephen Quinn, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Walmart. Mr. Quinn wrote: "Walmart has a practice of not accepting unsolicited business offers, strategies, ideas, promotions, slogans, new or improved products, marketing plans or new product names. The purpose of this practice is to avoid potential misunderstandings or disputes when Walmart's methods, products or marketing strategies may seem similar to unsolicited proposals submitted to Walmart." (So, Mr. Quinn, if you're reading this article--erase the idea from your mind. )
Finally, a few months ago, someone started a business following "my" model. It's called Manpacks (I don't love the name) and it has an odd website, with bland graphics and--surprisingly--no photos of the products. And, unlike the imaginary Underwear for Life, it sells only one brand. I get some satisfaction knowing I could have done better. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. So how do I feel about the "competition"?
Part of me wants Manpacks to fail. That means I would still have a chance to roll out Underwear for Life. But another part of me wants Manpacks to succeed. Then I'll get one of the rewards I suspect all budding entrepreneurs dream of (along with wealth and fame): The right to say, to anybody who's listening: I told you it was a good idea.