Engineering a “Muse” – Volume 4: Case Studies of Successful Cash-Flow Businesses

The Square36 yoga mat earns $10,000-$25,000 per month for Bob Maydonik.

One common challenge for readers of The 4-Hour Workweek is the creation of a “muse”: a low-maintenance business that generates significant income. Such a muse is leveraged to finance your ideal lifestyle, which we calculate precisely based on Target Monthly Income (TMI).

I’ve received hundreds of successful case studies via e-mail, and more than 1,000 new businesses were created during last year’s Shopify competition (If you haven’t already, sign up for this year’s contest here), but I’ve presented only a handful of them.

In this installment, I’ll showcase three diverse muses, including lessons learned, what worked, and what didn’t. Income ranges from $1,000 – $25,000 per month…

“Square 36” by Bob Maydonik

Describe your muse in 1-3 sentences.

Oversize yoga mat.

What is the website for your muse?

http://www.square36.com

How much revenue is your muse currently generating per month (on average)?

$10,000 – $25,000 per month

To get to this monthly revenue number, how long did it take after the idea struck?

1.5 years

How did you decide on this muse?

I was doing P90X and was annoyed by how inadequate my typical yoga mat was. My good friend, who is also an entrepreneur, convinced me that we should give Tim’s formula a try. So we plugged our big yoga mat concept into the 4HWW business model, and that’s how everything got started.

What ideas did you consider but reject, and why?

We thought about doing a free-standing pull-up bar (and we’re actually still considering this). We also considered rings that could be attached in a door way frame for doing pull-ups, like gymnastic rings for home-based workouts. We rejected the rings for a few reasons: (1) RingTraining.com was already doing it, and (2) we were going to have to deal with a few different manufacturers to have one product made. It was too complicated and wasn’t worth the hassle. More importantly, the market for ring trainers is much smaller than the market for yoga mats.

What were some of the main tipping points (if any) or “A-ha!” moments? How did they come about?

Sorry, no major tipping point moments for us. We’re both entrepreneurs and were already part of the New Rich!

What resources or tools did you find most helpful when you were getting started?

Alibaba.com to source our manufacturer. We also really lucked out with Google Adwords. Google built our Adwords campaign for us, then they gave us seed money credit to launch it… all for free.

What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time/money?

Our biggest mistake occurred when we ordered our first 20 prototypes. We bought a large roll of PVC mat and asked the yoga supply wholesaler who we bought it from to cut them into 6′ x 6′ mats. If you look on this yoga wholesaler’s website now, you’ll see they totally ripped off our idea (they took a picture of our mat) and took credit for it. We dealt with this by changing the color of our mat to black, amping up the density and thickness, then de-bossing it with our logo. Luckily, the wholesaler has done a crappy job marketing his product. I don’t think he’s affected our sales too much, but it’s still a piss-off.

What have been your key marketing and/or manufacturing lessons learned?

Key manufacturing lesson: Guangxhi (Mandarin for ‘connection’). This is how the Chinese do business. When you meet, you talk about your family for two hours, then discuss pricing/terms for the last 10 minutes. If you go out for beers with the factory manager, you will get way better pricing/terms.

Marketing lesson: it matters what time of day your ads appear. Most people aren’t shopping online during their workday. Ads that appear on weekday nights are best.

Also, incorporating the cost of shipping into our price and advertising “FREE SHIPPING” has been pretty effective for our Google Adwords campaign.

If you used a manufacturer, how did you find them? What are your suggestions for first-timers?

We found our manufacturer using Alibaba. My suggestion is to find a minimum of three manufacturers who can make what you want. If you’re dealing in China, there’s a good chance all of your manufacturers will be in the same town (different towns seem to specialize in manufacturing one type of product). Go and visit with them all personally. Chinese manufacturers will almost always tell you that they can do what you want, but when you actually meet with them in-person and show them what you want, 2/3 of them will not be capable of producing your product. We visited five factories for our mat, all of which assured us through e-mail that they could produce our product. Only one of the five factories actually could.

Any key PR wins? Media, well-known users, or company partnerships, etc.? How did they happen?

The New Rules of Marketing and PR” by David Meerman Scott is a killer book on PR/media. However, we haven’t really done a lot of PR/media stuff for Square36. We focused a lot of energy on retail after reading “This Business has Legs” about the ThighMaster. We will be testing in 10 Costco stores across Canada, and are also in negotiations with another large Canadian retailer.

Where did you register your domain (URL)?

http://netfirms.com

Where did you decide to host your domain?

http://bluehost.com

If you used a web designer, where did you find them?

I was lucky: my web designer was my former next-door neighbor.

If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I’d probably pick a product that’s easier to ship. A 6′ x 6′ yoga mat that weighs ten pounds is not as easy to ship as a pair of shoes or a DVD. Plus, you can fit a much smaller product in a Sea-Can, which would be a nice savings.

What’s next?!

Counting dollars and sending Tim a mat 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration.

[NOTE: Readers of this blog get a discount on Bob’s yoga mats with the coupon code ‘tferriss’]

“iFlip Wallet” by Vincent Ko

Describe your muse in 1-3 sentences.

The iFlip is a niche product that combines the style of a leather iPhone case with the functionality of a flip wallet. Our product is for minimalist iPhone owners who are looking to carry everything in one package.

What is the website for your muse?

http://iFlipWallet.com

How much revenue is your muse currently generating per month (on average)?

$1,000 – $2,500 per month

To get to this monthly revenue number, how long did it take after the idea struck?

3 months

How did you decide on this muse?

Right before returning for my senior year of college, I received an iPhone as a birthday present. Form-fitting jeans were the style around campus and having pockets bulging with an iPhone and thick wallet looked pretty stupid. I evaluated whether I needed all the items in my wallet, and came to the realization that the only things I really needed to carry around on a daily basis were my ID, credit card, a $20 bill, and my iPhone. That’s when I envisioned an iPhone case that also acted as a wallet. When I went online and couldn’t find that type of product, I decided to create it myself.

What ideas did you consider but reject, and why?

Prior to reading the 4HWW, I was actually selling fold-up beer pong tables online. It was a fun product to sell as a college student. However, beer pong tables are huge and heavy. Logistics and shipping from a rented out warehouse soon became too much of a hassle. Along with growing competitors, import tariffs, and shrinking margins, I knew I had to call it quits on a profitable business. The time spent was not equal to the financial output. I traded-in 30 pound beer pong tables for 3 oz. iPhone wallets.

What were some of the main tipping points (if any) or “A-ha!” moments? How did they come about?

My A-ha moment was the first time I went online searching for an iPhone wallet. When I found the only product out there was an iPhone case that looked like a mini-purse, a light bulb went off: create an iPhone wallet case that guys would want to buy.

What resources or tools did you find most helpful when you were getting started?

The best resource was learning directly from other muse owners and entrepreneurs. For instance, Mixergy.com does a great job of putting out interviews with entrepreneurs who have been successful. Taking those nuggets of wisdom and implementing them into my business has been extremely helpful. This includes everything from tactics for increasing conversion, tracking statistics, sales language, and more.

What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time/money?

The biggest marketing lesson I learned was: you have to get your product in front of people searching for it. Initially, I was advertising on iPhone-related sites. It was only after I invested money into getting my site in front of people specifically searching for “iPhone Wallet” was I successful. This naturally led to me working on SEO for particular keywords.

If you used a manufacturer, how did you find them? What are your suggestions for first-timers?

I found my manufacturer on Alibaba. My suggestion for first-timers is to find the supplier that currently manufactures a product as close to the product you are envisioning, then tweak that product to fit your specifications. I found that creating a custom product from scratch was not only hard to communicate but very expensive. The iFlip was actually a modification of an iPhone case that my manufacturer was already producing.

Any key PR wins? Media, well-known users, or company partnerships, etc.? How did they happen?

I was able to get my product featured on some iPhone accessory blogs by creating a template e-mail and sending out custom messages to sites I thought would be interested. I told all of them that I was a college student who had created a unique product that solved a simple problem.

Where did you register your domain (URL)?

http://www.netfirms.com

Where did you decide to host your domain?

http://www.netfirms.com

If you used a web designer, where did you find them?

I actually designed the site myself. I took a template I purchased at ThemeForest.net for $15 and tweaked the text and images in Dreamweaver. However, I did hire help for SEO. I found two people on oDesk to create backlinks and submit the site to directories.

If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

I have a short video that demonstrates my product. After putting it on my site, sales increased by 25%. I believe that potential customers who see your product in-action not only understand it better but are also more inclined to purchase. If I were to do it again, I would have implemented the video sooner.

What’s next?!

Creating more muses! The iFlip was developed by creating a product I wanted for myself but currently was not on the market. I have teamed up with a college buddy to create several new muses. The key is that we only create products we would use, then we strategically think about the best way to market the product to ourselves. It is a fun process 🙂

“Keynotopia” by Amir Khella

Describe your muse in 1-3 sentences.

User interface libraries for turning Apple Keynote and Microsoft Powerpoint into interactive prototyping tools.

What is the website for your muse?

http://www.keynotopia.com

How much revenue is your muse currently generating per month (on average)?

$5,000 – $10,000 per month

To get to this monthly revenue number, how long did it take after the idea struck?

3 hours

How did you decide on this muse?

I’d been creating and using these libraries for awhile in my consulting gigs, but wasn’t sure they would be useful to anyone else. One day, I was playing around with my iPad and challenged myself to prototype something in 30 minutes. I did, and it worked on the iPad almost flawlessly.

I wanted to do a quick test to see if this would be useful to anyone else, so I wrote a step-by-step blog post and created a video showing the end result. I also included a downloadable zip file containing the iPad interface library with the blog post. Three weeks later, I had over 10,000 views on the post and over 500 downloads of the archive file. One evening, I thought about prototyping a quick website to see if anyone would buy the libraries if I charged for them. Three hours later, I had a premium WordPress theme linked with an e-junkie shopping cart and I posted a link at the bottom of the original blog post.

The website made its first sale after roughly 10 minutes of being online (The original version of the site looked too ugly – at least for me, as a designer – that I thought about pulling it down, but that first sale told me otherwise).

The full story behind this experiment can be found here.

What ideas did you consider but reject, and why?

Developing plug-ins for Keynote and Powerpoint. I wanted a product with a very low barrier-to-entry so I could quickly test it, and these templates were the fastest. Now I can confidently develop these plug-ins, knowing that I already have hundreds of paying customers who can use them.

What were some of the main tipping points (if any) or “A-ha!” moments? How did they come about?

The biggest tipping point was waking up one day to find more money in my bank account. That was a paradigm shift, as my income was no longer coupled with my time. Instead of consulting/freelancing (trading time for money), I had invested some upfront time to create a system that worked hard for me.

Here are a few other “A-ha!” moments:

– Realizing the first prototype doesn’t need to look pretty, it just needs to work. Instead of spending days (potentially weeks) reinventing the wheel and creating my own e-commerce site, I just bought something that was good enough and tried it out. Total cost: $47.50 ($5 hosting, $7.50 domain, and $35 WordPress theme).

– People buy benefits: if it weren’t for the original blog post, I doubt that I’d have 1/100 of the sales I have now. The blog post continues to be the highest traffic generator for the site, because it shows people what they get out of the product (not just how they can use it).

– Aggressive testing: For Keynotopia’s landing page, I tested over 29 iterations for the copy and layout, reducing the bounce rate from 59% to 12% in less than 30 days.

– Byproducts can be profitable: The UI libraries had been sitting on my hard drive for months before I’d decided to share them. I didn’t consciously sit down to create a business by making the libraries and selling them; they came as a byproduct of working with clients, and all I needed to do was to create a system that delivered them.

What resources or tools did you find most helpful when you were getting started?

WordPress + Premium themes

Google website optimizer

e-Junkie

TextMate (Mac)

What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time/money?

Banner ads. They don’t generate much traffic (compared with AdWords) because they are placed in websites/blogs where people are already distracted by other information, and may not be actively looking for a solution.

What have been your key marketing and/or manufacturing lessons learned?

Great free content (blog posts + videos) converts better than $1000’s in advertising.

Any key PR wins? Media, well-known users, or company partnerships, etc.? How did they happen?

The libraries have been mentioned by some of the top UI designers (including a blog mention from Adaptive Path). I basically reached out to bloggers who had written similar content, left them thoughtful comments, and sometimes shared a free copy of the libraries with them. In the beginning, almost nothing happened, but then the mentions started to snowball.

Giving away a freebie on a well-known blog has helped tremendously with building a strong rank on Google. I gave away a simplified version of the libraries on SmashingMagazine (one of the top design blogs in the world), they wrote a post about it, and it literally brought down the server.

Finally, sharing the story behind the product helps too. I wrote a blog post on how I prototyped the product and it was on the homepage of Hacker News for more than 24 hours. Again, lots of traffic and good back-links.

Where did you register your domain (URL)?

http://godaddy.com

Where did you decide to host your domain?

http://1and1.com

If you used a web designer, where did you find them?

Nope. Just a premium WordPress template.

If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Do it much earlier. I waited too long to build up enough confidence and discover that what I had built was useful enough to sell.

What’s next?!

Having paying customers is great because they send all kinds of questions and requests. I have great customer service (I personally reply to all emails and tweets), and I have a long wish-list of what they’d like me to build next!

###

Do you have a successful muse that’s generating more than $1,000 per month?

Please tell me about it! If it stands out (meaning you give specific details of lessons learned and what’s worked vs. what didn’t), I’m happy to promote you and help further increase your revenue. If you qualify and this sounds like fun, please fill out this form.

Both physical and digital goods are welcome, as are services, as long as they’re low-maintenance, income-generating “muses” as described in The 4-Hour Workweek.

Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series can be found here.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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169 Replies to “Engineering a “Muse” – Volume 4: Case Studies of Successful Cash-Flow Businesses”

  1. Forget it folks, we’ve been asking for Tim to clarify whether “revenue” refers to revenue to the owner or gross receipts for the business since Part I. No luck. Revenue, in my opinion, refers to the classical finance definition – gross sales. I would like to think that these people are pocketing 30% of that, which is plausible, even likely, using cash-flow automated business architecture.

  2. Hi There

    I read the 4 hour work week only recently. It seems great, but I have some problems where I get stuck. For one thing, both my husband and myself love our jobs. But neither of us can figure out how to automate. He does counceling, a one on one unique thing each session and my work is to write and analyse and read other people’s writing and critique. Again, little space for automation. I already eliminated quite a lot of meetings. Now, the problem is that we both love our jobs a lot. Enough to continue spending time doing this. And we do not earn a lot. More money would definitely be great. I am currently thinking about automating my personal life, even maybe outsorcing it. Stuff like paying the bills, running errands etc. Maybe I can save enough time here to make a difference.

    About mini retirements. At a fairly advanced age we packed up everything and moved to Manhattan for a 10-month fellowship. It was wonderful, and definitely better than waiting dor retirement to pursue these kind of dreams.

    I would love some comments to this. How can the book still help me if I cannot automate my job and basically like it enough to want to continue doing what I am doing>?

    1. Hello Anneke-

      Your product is the easiest of all to mass-produce and replicate. Your service is based on information and knowledge. No counseling session is unique. There are 7 billion people on this planet. If you are one-in-a-million, there are still 7,000 people just like you. Without having a deep understanding of your business, typical ways to automate sales for information/knowledge based services would be a blog, a podcast, a workshop, a webinar or a book – even a radio or TV show might work for you. I know too little about your business to make a recommendation. Feel free to contact me directly, I’d be happy to help you brainstorm how such a venture might look like for you.

      Best,

      Leo

  3. TIM,

    Please add in ONE question to your survey… “What is your Muse’s legal entity?”

    Anyone trying to set up a muse is eventually going to have to cross this bridge and it can be a painful one to cross if not correctly or accurately researched.

    Thanks and keep up the great work.

    Tim

  4. Awesome article. I don’t know if you have other ‘muse’ articles, but I love the set of questions. Thanks also to the contributors for sharing your ideas with us all.

    A square yoga mat, brilliant!

    Thanks for the inspiration

  5. I have a muse still in early stages of development. I am curious what experiences people have had working with Chinese manufacturers as an ODM. is there anyway to limit the manufacturer to only distribute to you? Is this the best route to take when developing a product that contains components that the company may already use in some of their products already? the muse is simple but may need testing (due to electrical components) what have been your experience with testing new products?

    thanks!

  6. G’Day Tim,

    Just wanted to let you know that your link to Bluehost is not working. That could mean a missed opportunity of like $65 a crack if you are on their affiliate program.

    Jono

  7. Really inspirational stuff. I’m looking at several product ideas myself and articles like this are the kind of kick in the pants that really motivates you. Thanks!

  8. Man, i thought of an over-sized yoga mat about 7 years ago! The saying is true “Everyone has a million dollar idea, but only a tiny percent will ever act on them”. Well good on them, its good to see my idea really was viable.

    It looks exactly how i pictured it should be. Perfect for a home gym corner in a small space.

  9. Square 36 – how do buyers find you – i googled ‘yoga mats’ + extra large yoga mats’ + ‘exercise mats’ etc…

    Got plenty options to purchase large mats cheaper than yours and did not even see you as an option?

  10. I love these muse examples and the structure that they’ve been published in. They’ve inspired me to create a website where I hope to document many more similar stories. If you liked these I’m sure you’ll get something out of the site so feel free to check it out (by clicking my name to the left).

    Thanks again Tim

  11. What about the possibility of a manufacturer stealing your idea and profiting from it… is there a high probability of this happening? If so… how do you protect your idea and profits?

  12. For those people that have got a muse off the ground and produce physical products in China or similar low cost countries, did you initially use a sourcing company or go direct and try to find a suitable end supplier yourself?

    Production seems to be the most difficult hurdle at the moment for me, might well be more pyschological than anything else as it represents a major step, but there’s a huge amount of uncertainty when you get to the realm of getting others involved and handing over money especially with variances in language and technical understanding.

    If anyone’s used a sourcing company and is UK based I’d be grateful for some recommendations or simply any tips for the process. Does this approach offer greater security and quality?

    Thanks for any views from the more experienced souls here!

    Kris

  13. @ Chris – Generally speaking the chances are low but only you can make that determination. Again generally speaking, the idea is far less important than the execution – specifically the execution of marketing and sales. Now, if your idea is that strong that it’s worth stealing, you’re in big trouble. The only way to protect you in this case is to be first to market with large marketing campaign so that your consumers will identify everything else as a “knock-off.”

    @Kris – Just get on the plane and visit your suppliers and establish a relationship. You could buy such relationship from someone – typically a local lawyer, but you rip yourself from an enriching experience. I strongly recommend joining ROTARY and use their existing network to source a supplier in a developing country. You may want to check out other countries besides China. Africa is emerging as the next hotspot for manufacturing.

    One more thing, don’t go abroad for “cheap labor,” go abroad because you find the better quality. The cost benefit is already there by going into a developing country.

    Leo

    CEO of Virtual Knowledge Workers, Inc.

  14. I think these muse case studies must be one of the most interesting posts.

    Just a thought though, I don’t see many Asians reply in here. Would love to hear back from some Asians who are applying the same principles and successful at this.

    In case any of you are interested in outsourcing for product creation to Asia, do let me know, I will try my best to help out.

    Great post again.

  15. Patents?

    How many of you have patented your ideas or products. I have three ideas that I want to bring to market in my scope of expertise which is rehabilitation and exercise. I think they are unique, and fill several nice niches in the industry, but I am clueless about what steps I need to take to get this dream to reality.

    The entire legal process seems to get in the way of getting things done, but it also seems to be the only way to stop someone from stealing your intellectual property.

    what have you folks done?

  16. Like AJT, I’m worried about intellectual property. My muse idea is simple, brilliant, and the potential market is huge. But I can’t imagine that it’s patent-able.

    What I’m worried about is the manufacturer that I contact about making a prototype ripping off the idea. The square yoga mat folks were perhaps lucky that their original manufacturer didn’t market well.

    Is there any way around this? Should I ask for a non-disclosure agreement with potential manufacturers?

    Thanks for the inspiration Tim (and everyone else here!)…

  17. Hi guys,

    Tim these case studies are really interesting but I was wondering how exactly do you go about getting your product designed online?

    I am current trying to develop a product(tablet case with a niche appeal). I was wondering where do you find a product designer online or at least one in the UK.I want to make one physical product so I can make a test page with a video. Than I will really be able to test the muse before going into manufacture.

    I am hoping to find a cheap one somewhere cause I only have a very limited budget.

    1. A-Muse yourself or die trying.

      Tim, you must have so much good karma racked up! Thank you, congratulations and much love to you.

      I am your unofficial PR here in London spreading the word. Taking on your practical positivity I am feeding friends and strangers with your philosophies encouraging them to follow suit and maximise their lives. I’m finding that doing so is benefitting me so much personally and professionally. Many businesses I have run in the past have been too labour intensive, I am now concentrating my efforts on passing on my wealth of knowledge and will launch my Muse photography Masterclass “How to Agent Yourself” in the coming weeks. My monthly target is £9,600. In September I plan to take my two kids around the world, finish off my novel and home school. Watch this space!

  18. I simply LOVE the Square 36 business model. Tim–I would have sworn that was your project.

    You can’t beat buying Yoga mats in China at 2$ a pop, add 1$ in packaging and about 2$ in shipping then sell for $29.99.

    I surmise the owner is referring to Adwords in the marketing advice regarding timing. I would proffer that PPC as we know it from the “golden days” is pretty much too cut throat to be profitable.

    I’m a huge fan of Real Time Bidding across all media channels online with care to capture IP addresses for retargeting at CHEAP rates. I’m seeing drops from $1.69 CPM in targeted traffic to $0.40 CPM. Assuming a .015 CTR and a 3% conversion that means your cost per sale drops from $4.8 to about $1.20…..

  19. Tim, these case studies and your original work (4HWW) have had a huge impact on my life. Thank you! I quit a good job a year ago to start Berry Sleepy with my wife. Berry Sleepy is the first 100% Superfruit Sleep Aid.

    We’ve been selling for 6 months and it’s been going very well! There is no way we would be doing this without 4HWW. Thanks for providing the blueprint and inspiration. Oh, and happy 36th birthday!

  20. Hi,

    I have an idea for a Muse business. It is quite niche and is based in a field that I have experience in. I am trying to do the initial Muse testing by setting up an but I am having trouble figuring out where to start. Would anyone be willing to help me? I would be happy to barter my skills to help your business (digital media, sales support, customer happiness advice) in exchange for help. If anyone is interested (or just a good Samaritan!), please reply and give me your email address.

  21. I love reading the case studies you’ve posted. I was wondering though if you’ve ever done anything like this for a subscription box company. They seem to be popping up everywhere but it’s hard to find any concrete evidence of whether they’re worthwhile or not