How to come up with a truly Purple Cow-y business idea

Visual representation of a post-coital smoked salmon sandwich (possibly)

My new hero is Antone Roundy. He’s written a book called Riffs on a Purple Cow – essentially a collection of some of his blog posts – which takes Seth Godin’s ideas and explores them (“Riffs them”) in more detail.

Sometimes Antone includes stories to illustrate his explorations further, and occasionally he’ll refute Seth’s opinion. If you want more info about Riffing in general, I’ve included some info at the bottom of this post.

As we all know, Seth’s very big on the importance of USPs, uniqueness and being interesting (i.e. being a Purple Cow). One of Antone’s Riffs is about how we can actually come up with ideas for a truly Purple Cow-y business. Here’s what he says, with some help from another writer called Perry Marshall:

“Take all your expertise from some field that most people think is completely unrelated. Import it into the new field. You’ll create something totally new that never existed before.”


1. Grab a sheet of paper and write down everything you’re interested in.

2. Start combining.

3. Simple process. Do you think you could come up with a unique and interesting combination?

Your unique set of interests is your personal goldmine of unique combinations of different interests. Somewhere in there, surely you can find something interesting… The most powerful combinations will be those that aren’t immediately obvious. Why? Because they’ll be the most unique, and the most unexpected.

In the spirit of Riffing, Rob and I tried out Antone’s process.

1. Grab a sheet of paper and write down everything we’re interested in. (We’ve mixed together all our separate and mutual interests.)

  • Grammar
  • Copywriting
  • Pet Shop Boys
  • Typography
  • Website design
  • Information architecture
  • Sexing
  • Long walks
  • Blogging
  • Woody Allen movies
  • Roast chicken
  • Smoked salmon sandwiches
  • Real estate
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Podcasts (listening to but perhaps one day creating)
  • TED talks

(This is just an excerpt from our ridiculously long list.)

2. Start combining

TED talks + typography: Find the most popular TED talks of all time, and – with the help of outsourced designers – turn each one into a beautiful poster containing key quotes from the talk. Sell.

Podcasts + long walks: Create informative-yet-hilarious guided tours for certain popular tourist cities. Each “guide” consists of a series of mini podcasts. People follow a map (downloadable from the website) and when they walk to a certain marked spot on the map, they click “Play” on the relevant numbered podcast to hear information about that place.

Pet Shop Boys + real estate: Have a very niche real estate business in which we buy houses and develop them so that they contain paraphernalia and decor hinting to a link to the Pet Shop Boys’ songs. (Off the top of our heads: a half-built wall separating two rooms (“Building a Wall”); a gorgeous domino set (“Domino Dancing”); a trophy on the mantelpiece (“Winner”); a specially created vinyl record with the photo of the new owners on it (“Ego Music”). Find the hugest (and richest) Pet Shop Boys fans in the world and sell.

Woody Allen movies + information architecture: Create a beautiful, information-rich site that makes it easy for Woody fans to navigate all the themes across Woody’s movies, find relevant quotes, interesting titbits  etc. Monetise through affiliate links, advertising, etc.

Sexing + smoked salmon sandwiches: Write a recipe book containing fantastic, easy-to-prepare post-coital smoked salmon sandwiches (different “additional” fillings depending on the mood you’re in).

Entrepreneurship + roast chicken: We all hate chef’s cookbooks really. These are people who’re ALLOWED to spend all day cooking, so of course they’ve got time to prepare, marinade for hours, chop fresh herbs, etc. Entrepreneurs are busy people with other priorities, but they like good food too. So let’s do a series of YouTube videos in which they show us their favourite “busy person” recipe. We’ll make the series huge by getting some well-known entrepreneurs on the show, and then we’ll monetise through turning it into a Kindle book, a real-life book with pretty pictures, etc.

(We chose to just combine two interests – but you can combine more if you want to.)

3. Did we come up with unique and interesting combinations?

Clearly there are some mighty duds in our first attempts. And variations of some of our ideas might already exist (although I’m too scared to Google “recipe book post-coital smoked salmon sandwiches” to find out). But with some refinement and polishing, a couple of these might possibly lead to something – even if they have to pivot somewhat before being successful.

Having given the process a go, we think it could really work if you’re stuck in an inspiration rut. We’d also add our own extra tips:

  • Write down as many interests as you can possibly think of. And if you have a potential business partner, combine his/her interests with yours: it means there’s lots more opportunity for great combinations.
  • If you can, write down all your interests on separate scraps of paper and put them all into a hat (or someone please come up with a web app that’ll do the same). Then pick out ideas from the hat and combine them: it means you won’t be limited by your imagination when pairing different interests. For example, “roast chicken” and “TED talks” just seemed way too difficult to contemplate, so we didn’t bother. But if we’d been forced to come up with something I’m sure we’d have managed just fine.
  • Give each idea some time – no matter how daft it seems. Really take each idea seriously, because you could come up with a real gem.

If you decide to try it, please let me know in the comments (or in an email)! And if you want to go into business with me on any of the ideas above, you’re very brave and slightly odd – I think we’ll get along fabulously.

As promised, here’s Antone’s guide to Riffing:

  1. Subscribe to several good blogs in your industry.
  2. As you’re reading, keep your eyes open for quotes that spark bigger ideas, or remind you of related ideas and experiences of your own.
  3. When you come across one, copy a brief section and use it as a seed to grow a blog post of your own.

When you read with the intention of finding things to Riff off, you tend to notice useful ideas more.

  • Turner

    Interesting process to test wild ideas. I like. I will have to sit down and think about that one for a bit.



    • Mish

      Thanks Turner! I’d love to hear how you get on.

      • Turner

        Mainly Jack Daniels and A Ouija board.

        • Mish

          A new Ouija board drinking game, where every time something “moves”, everyone has to have a shot of whiskey? Could become the bachelor party game of 2013!

  • Pingback: We're ripping up the travel script (and you should too)()

  • Kelly

    “TED talks + typography” so, have you done this??? I love both of these things, too.. this sounds awesome!

    • Mish @ Making It Anywhere

      Haha! No we never went through with a business idea based on those things! But if you want to run with the idea, please do: we’ll buy from whatever business you create out of TED talks and typography!