Fixing important issues like education or healthcare is really, really difficult. It's a lot easier for companies to develop solutions for the little annoyances in life. And when that's too hard, businesses look to eliminate problems you never even knew existed. Here are six such startups, which have created products and services you never knew you needed or wanted—and perhaps still don't.
1. Fitness Tracking… for Dogs
You probably thought being a good pet owner just meant being attentive, caring, and taking Fido to the vet when he looked sick. Well, Whistle is here to tell you that’s just not good enough. You also need real-time data on what your dog is doing and when he is doing it.
The product, which costs $129 and attaches to your pet’s collar, is basically a FitBit for dogs. Whistle claims that by keeping a detailed account of your pet’s life—providing “a visual summary of your dog’s daily activities”—and comparing Fido’s activity to that of other dogs of the same breed, it can help keep your pet healthy and highlight any worrisome anomalies. And because all new startups are required by law to have a social component, you can also share your dog’s activity logs on Twitter.
Does it work? Dr. Wakshlag, associate professor at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine, calls Whistle "a kind of farcical thing" but says it may have utility on some pets. He says most house dogs don't change their activity much under any circumstances, but it may actually reveal significant indicators of ill health for outdoor pets with daily routines.
That's not to say Whistle can't also help your inside pets. One beta tester told the Verge that Whistle helped her discover their Lab-Pitt mix wasn’t getting as much exercise on nights when both she and her husband weren’t home. This might seem obvious (and it is), but without Whistle they wouldn’t have gotten to use a swanky iPhone app.
2. Laundry Quarters Delivered (for a Fee)
Over the years, many services have been created to make the annoyance of laundry go away, or at least be less difficult. Laundromats do the washing for you. Some will also do the folding. Others offer delivery service, and even free cookies in addition to freshly laundered clothes.
The new startup Washboard, for its part, sets out to tackle yet another laundry-related problem: getting enough quarters for the DIY laundry machines in your building or the local laundromat. The website promises to send you all the change you need every month—for a fee. In something reminiscent of a Saturday Night Live skit, $10 in quarters will cost you $14.99.
Why not just get a teller to give you change for free? “Banks close at 5, maybe they’re open Saturday, but they close at noon,” laments Washboard co-founder Caleb Brown. “I’m rarely out of bed by then.”
Unfortunately, Washboard was too far ahead of its time. After just over ten days on the market, the company's payment processor balked and Brown announced they were shutting down.
3. A Messaging App That Only Sends One Message
There are millions of messaging apps out there, but few can match the simplicity of Yo. The service, which recently received $1 million in funding, allows users to send anyone they can cajole into also installing Yo a message that says, well, “yo.” Seriously, that’s all you can say.
Moshe Hogeg, the app’s principle investor, explains that he likes Yo because it makes his life easier. “My secretary, I love her, but I hate to tell her to come” when he needs her, says Hogeg, immediately provoking the ire of everyone who doesn’t communicate with other humans in the same way they would talk to a golden retriever.
Many have rushed to lampoon both Hogeg and Yo, including the Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert, but Money’s own Pat Regnier points out that Yo is really good at one thing: spamming other Yo-using friends until they let you delete it from your phone.
4. Website That’ll ‘Hand-Select’ $200 Jeans for Guys
Online shopping makes browsing for clothes easier than ever. But with great power comes great responsibility, and maybe your fashion sense isn’t quite up to the task. Ask yourself, are you actually qualified to pick your own wardrobe?
Trunk Club is betting you’ll realize the answer is no. The service asks men a few survey questions to get an idea of their preferences. Then a personal stylist mails you a few articles of clothing in a trunk-like box. On the upside, there are no membership fees, and Trunk Club lets you send back anything you don’t like free of charge.
But beware: this product is not for bargain hunters. Casual shirts range from $100-$200, sweaters can go as high as $300, and a pair of jeans ranges from $170 to $250. Having a personal stylist sounds nice, but one wonders if you couldn’t get similar recommendations from the staff at, you know, a regular store.
5. Subscription to Tell You Your Underwear’s Old
As you’ve probably already learned by now, you can subscribe to pretty much anything on the Internet. Even butt wipes for guys. So it should come as no surprise that undergarment retailer MeUndies allows men and women to order a regular shipment of underwear. Yup, that’s a thing now too.
It’s not quite clear why scheduling one’s underwear purchases (MeUndies offers to send you a new pair at one month, two month, or three month intervals) would be useful since MeUndies sends its product out too infrequently to be a constant guard against a sudden underwear emergency.
Also, most consumers are aware of ways to buy underwear as necessary with minimal effort. Presumably, the arrival of a new pair serves as a reminder to toss your old undies. In any event, the company sweetens the deal by offering a 20% discount to its products to underwear subscribers.
6. A Less Convenient Way to Pay for Things
The white whale of the tech industry is something that we’ve been told will “disrupt” how the world will pay for anything and everything under the sun. For years, we’ve heard that smartphone-enabled mobile payments will soon take over, replacing credit and debit card swiping (and cash, of course) as the primary mode of completing purchases. Credit card companies and banks have made trillions placing themselves in the middle of your every transaction, and entrepreneurs are eager to get themselves a piece of that action with innovative new payment systems.
Unfortunately for Silicon Valley, it turns out credit cards are pretty awesome. They’re tiny, fit right in your wallet, and they’re accepted everywhere—not just tech savvy coffee shops in the Bay Area. However, this has not stopped companies like LevelUp and Square from trying to become the way you pay for everything. Square, the more creative of the two, promised to make the purchasing experience easier by allowing Square Wallet users to buy something at a Square-participating store just by giving their name. Unfortunately, not enough stores were as keen on this idea as Square was, and Wallet was discontinued earlier this year (although Square continues to chase the whale with other products).
LevelUp doesn’t even try to create a substantially different buying experience than credit cards, offering users the ability to pay for things (again, only at participating retailers) by scanning a QR code. Instead, LevelUp distinguishes itself by offering users deals at certain stores, but credit card companies have spent decades rewarding their customers with everything from frequent flyer miles to discounts on various products.
In the end, it’s hard not to feel like some of these apps are a solution searching for a problem.