Jul 2, 2015 ยท 8 minutes

In author David Sedaris’ short story, “Twelve Moments in the Life of an Artist,” the young narrator wants more than anything to become famous for his art.

“The only crimp in my plan,” Sedaris wrote, “was that I seemed to have no talent whatsoever.”

This is a common thread among American youths -- particularly those of us who didn’t fit in so well with our sports-adoring peers. Art and music posed opportunities to show all the kids we hated in high school that we were far cooler and more interesting than they’d ever be. They'll see!

But without a deep well of experience or emotion – and without the talent to communicate these qualities effectively – young Sedaris, like so many art-damaged teens, was merely a tourist; an angry and arrogant fake who believed that his artistic pretentions alone were enough to make him better than most everyone else on the planet -- even actual artists. 

In the minds of many, these character traits are part and parcel for the American “hipster” in 2015. Hipsters aren’t smarter or more talented or more interesting than the average American. The definition of the word -- though slippery to a fault -- has noticably shifted over the past 50 years to the point where it no longer necessarily describes a person who is “unusually aware of new and unconventional patterns,” as a new book published by Priceonomics titled Hipster Business Models puts it.

Today, the word more closely signifies a particular aesthetic; an aesthetic that, while perhaps more unconventional than other fashion statements or artistic pretensions, is just as easy – particularly in the digital age – for anybody to mimic. It’s not a philosophy or even a lifestyle. It's simply a collection of personal tastes used to aggregate arrogance.

But while a huge number of 21st century hipsters started bad bands, wore bad clothes, and thought all the better of themselves for it, the hipsters of today start bad companies. Okay, not all of the companies in Hipster Business Models are “bad,” so to speak. But they are less the product of inspiration, intelligence, or a desire to change the world, and more a product of cheap capital and a desire to be one’s own boss.

Which is fine. The pursuit of money and happiness is a more-than-understandable motivation for doing most anything in this life. But the author’s lionization of the hipsterpreneur, “who embraces new ideas and tries to be different,” isn’t backed up by most of the 22 men and women that the book profiles. The various business models described therein almost exclusively pertain to the pat "weirdification" of existing consumer products -- many of which are built on the backs of massive corporate brands that are decidedly "non-hipster": Like LEGO, Trader Joe’s, and even Cheetos. They're like the startup equivalent of Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown, which filters bad and boring romantic comedy tropes through the equally predictable conventions of "indie cinema." In case you couldn't tell from that description, Elizabethtown is the worst film ever made.

Only a couple of the book's business ideas are both compelling and lucrative, and many of them are neither. Moreover, it’s a somewhat depressing state of affairs when the least conventional members of society are no longer starting bands, making films, or chasing other artistic endeavors. They’re starting businesses. In the early 2000s, all the "cool kids" you'd meet wouldn't shut up about their bands. Now they won't shut up about their apps.

“Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator,” writes author Wiliam Deresiewicz who is quoted in the book.

"It’s the small business.”

There you have it: The dominant form of expression among young adults in 2015 is "corporate expression." Reagan would be proud.

That is, until he saw the types of businesses these kids are founding, most of which range from absurdly unnecessary to not-even-a-business-at-all.

Curiously enough, the first entrepreneur Hipster Business Models profiles created one of the book’s most mockworthy products: Underwear with pockets.

Danieal Cormier of New Brunswick, Canada designed them for the new economy of freelancers who are such big scumbags that they can’t even be bothered to throw on a pair of gym shorts in the morning, but still want to be able to carry around their phone or keys or whatever.

From there, most of the products follow this same trend of uselessness. The second chapter is devoted to a man who makes jellyfish tanks -- as if there are millions sitting around musing, “You know what I could go for, right now? A jellyfish tank.”

“With almost 100% market share, it’s hard to increase sales,” founder Alex Andon says without a hint of irony.

Next is a pair of brothers who drive around in a van fixing windshields and who only sometimes get paid for their work. This is only the first of two chapters on entrepreneurs for whom compensation is optional. The second starts out, “Seven years ago at Burning Man, while wearing a homemade robot costume, Chris Hirst had a transcendental experience.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with giving away your service for free. There’s a little company called Facebook that does the same thing. But when it comes to guys who fix windshields or spark “Robot Dance Parties” free of charge, these aren’t businesses. They’re hobbies.

Not every chapter is so exhausting in its arbitrary twee-ness. My two favorite entrepreneurs here are Dan Abramson and Andy Huot. Abramson has two flagship products: Brogamats, which are yoga mats shaped like “burritos, downward-facing logs, quivers of arrows, and other manly things,” and Yoga Joes, little green army men that Abramson has shaped into yoga poses. Among the biggest challenges Abramson faces day to day is “scouring for a decent butt” – apparently little green army aren’t all that gifted, posteriorally-speaking. Here again I'm reminded of Sedaris, who in one of his performance art pieces sought to “symbolize man's inhumanity to man by heating up a skillet of plastic soldiers.” Both Brogamats and Yoga Joes are funny and artistic endeavors that Abramson has been able to sell for a little bit of money. This, I dare say, is legitimately a "hipster business model."

Unlike Abramson, Huot makes no money, but his concept is even funnier. One day a week, Huot opens up a bag of Cheetos and looks through them for powdery, processed morsels that look like famous figures. His Sasquatch Cheeto sculpture and his Mark Twain Cheeto-bust have helped Huot attract 40,000 followers on Instagram. The photographer offers prints of his work for $25 but has yet to make a sale. Huot’s business, while not so inspiring from a revenue standpoint, does offer one of the book's few valuable lessons about entrepreneurship: You can’t always monetize virality.

There's one more “hipster business model” worth recognizing here, thanks to how closely it resembles the manner in which so many companies in Silicon Valley are built today -- and doing so in the most insidious way imaginable.

The company is called Pirate Joe’s and consists of a Canadian dude named Michael Hallatt who buys products from Trader Joe’s and resells them to his friends in his home country. Just like the new breed of tech industry software platforms like Uber and Airbnb, Hallatt doesn’t build or grow anything himself -- instead he's a facilitator of transactions. Also like Uber, his business is often illegal. Hallatt is simply a middle-man who drives across the border to buy thousands of dollars worth of goods from Trader Joe’s so he can resell them in Canada -- where there are no Trader Joe's -- at a $2 to $3 markup. It’s so shady he literally uses an “unmarked van.”

This is a really dumb business. The whole value proposition of Trader Joe’s is that it’s able to sell high quality organic goods for… $2 to $3 less than your average organic market. And let’s not forget that the reason Trader Joe’s was able to scale while selling goods at such low low prices is because it's made a number of ethically questionable food-sourcing choices over the years – like allegedly employing actual slaves. Meanwhile, Pirate Joe’s does little more than add a layer of inefficiency and expense to an already questionable business proposition. Fucking hipsters.

Instead of calling the book Hipster Business Models, a more fitting title might have just been Hipsters. The book is simply a collection of anecdotes about unconventional hobbyists, some of whom are making a little money off of their activities. That’s all well and good, but entrepreneurs looking for lessons or business advice should look elsewhere. And cultural observers looking to catch some hipsters in action should, as long as they live in a city, simply step outside.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go start a rock band. I just need to talk to some VCs first.


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