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Lamentable Enterprise


Giancarlo Buono-Pannini

For some reason I’ve always been involved in quite serious discussions over innovative and potentially lucrative business ideas. I suspect its partly cultural inheritance – a search for an easy alternative to the normal world of work, which, according to the relatives, is basically a holding pen for simpletons yet to engineer a dubious ‘pension’ from the old country or a premature, WorkCover funded retirement (and preferably both). Perhaps the types of values once championed by Baroness Margaret in her attempt to turn Britain into a nation of grocers have in fact deeply permeated liberal democratic societies. Or perhaps, like many people, I’ve just yearned for an easy dollar. Whatever the reasons, the business ideas have come and without exception, been consigned to the ashcan of perpetuity. For the most part it’s just as well.
The term, ‘Choc ‘N Bits’ refers to a supposed small business venture in the Victorian Wimmera where an energetic and ambitious single parent with many kids (and allegedly as many partners) and obviously far, far too much time on her hands, decided to open her very own business. Perhaps she’d watched something on Oprah (had a vision, transcribed it into a dream diary), or had been conned into a set of Anthony Robbins videos while watching late night TV, eating micro-waved Bi-Lo pizza. I don’t know. But, fuelled by zealous self belief and entrepreneurial spirit, she proudly opened a gleaming new town store - launched right in the middle of one of the very worst rural recessions on record. Moreover, her brilliant idea was to supply the impoverished and increasingly desperate farming community with all the raw materials and equipment they needed to make their own chocolates. Now that’s what I call niche marketing. She called the business ‘Choc ‘n Bits,’ probably thinking it was snappy and a bit cute at the same time. Needless to say it was just plain naff, and died a quick and pitiful death. Poor thing. The townsfolk probably started calling her ‘Choc n Bits’ after that. Don’t look now Joyce, here comes Choc n Bits. A least she had a go. Good on her I say. If I’d been a fourth generation wheat cocky with the arse out of my trousers and needed to whip up some dark truffles, then she’d have my business. But ever since every business idea that we’d thought which has carried a fundamental, fatal flaw or was just screwy earned the title of a ‘Choc ‘N Bits’ idea. I’ve contemplated many. Here are just a few.    
One involved selling sub-standard furniture. Nothing unique in that, except that this plan was to market it as having been hand-made by Saint Joseph himself, and just may have been used by the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus Christ. There were some irrefutable facts. Clearly, Joseph had been a carpenter by profession and surely would have knocked up quite a few items over his lifetime. Isn’t it at least possible that some of this had survived, and if so, why couldn’t it be offered to a god-fearing Christian plus GST? We were convinced that the average blue blooded American bible-belt god botherer would part with some very serious money indeed if they believed that the very chair straining to support their fried chicken ass may have once cradled the arse of Christ. And it would be cheap to make. In fact, you wouldn’t expect it to be much good. In fact you’d expect it to be pretty crappy. First year apprentices would knock them up, even really terrible first year apprentices that clearly had no future in furniture making, or you could outsource it to a collective of partially blind furniture makers. Whatever. Initially we’d planned to offer just the basics – perhaps just a roughly hewn stool, and perhaps a rickety old table. To that we thought we’d possibly add a couple of old chairs some boxy things that looked like beds, that sort of thing. Made out of pellets and packing creates. Then it got a bit much. Kitchen buffets, whole nests of occasional tables, entertainment units, cabana style mini bars, modular lounge suites, porch swing-sets, and pool-side deck chairs. It was ridiculous. It had degenerated into a whole catalogue of supposedly genuine St. Joseph furniture.
Then there was a notable variation on this theme - a plan to sell genuine Lourdes Water (actually from a tap in Airport West) in one-litre plastic bottles in the shape of the Virgin Mary (you screwed off her head). We were going to take out large, full colour ads in the back pages of The Australasian Post, which boasted about being ‘in full colour,’ and we planned to lure customers by having convincing real life testimonials. We were going to use a mug-shot we’d found of some wrinkly old pensioner we’d lifted from an old trucking magazine. She looked like a transvestite version of Prune Face from Dick Tracey, pulling the sort of weird facial expression that a severe electric shock might produce. Underneath we were going to add the following endorsement. Thank-you Aussie Virgin Mary Lourdes Water. I’ve suffered from crippling arthritis for seventy-two years, but now thanks to you, I’m now back at the sink, peeling carrots for Shepard’s Pie. You Beauty! Regards, Joyce ‘Aussie Battler.’ You could almost see the crates of mildly affordable Aussie Virgin Mary Holy Water empties by the fly wire door. But, sadly the Post folded, and there were problematic issues of ethics. One of us suffered a recurring nightmare, where, on a nightly basis, Joyce would morph in a highly disturbing version Mr Magoo, and severely scold him over the plan. That was the end of Aussie Virgin Mary’s Lourdes Water.
Not all the ideas were as inherently stupid. Some just ended up that way. Chops O’Hallahan, Dog Detective was a case in point. It was a cute idea. Chops was to be a children’s book - basically a self styled Raymond Chandler rip off for 8-12 year olds which was to stand apart from the prevailing fluffy rabbit, cutsie-pie, Hello-Kitty books current on the shelves. It was to stand apart because it was to have a 1950s Beat era, film noir, James Ellroy feel in the storyline and illustrations. All the characters were dogs. Chops was the witty Christopher Marlow anti-hero, T-Bone was the numbskull offsider, Fifi LaRue, the chanteuse in distress, Fleas Fernandez, the nightclub owner and so on. The idea was that this would instantly appeal - not so much to kids - but to  the parents, uncles and aunts who were 100%, genuine, paid up, card carrying members of the vegan, uni educated, multilingual, PBS listening, drugged up, poly-sexual, black skivvy wearing, café latte, inner-city, Brecht set. And they had the cash.
But there were problems with the initial draft. The plot line and dialogue were too sophisticated for a kid’s book - too adult. Unable to fix this, we decided to make the book even more adult, figuring that it could feasibly be a kid’s book which parents could use to educate them about adult relationships. When even that failed, we made it even more adult, and decided that it could actually be illustrated erotica - for an adult audience, that just happen to look like it was a kid’s book. It was at this point that we were suddenly hit with the realisation that what we were proposing to do was to produce illustrated soft porn, in the style of a book designed for 8-12 year olds, where all the characters were dogs. It was just wrong. And not only that. It was only a matter of minutes that, having rejected the book idea, each of us confessed to having mentally considered whether there were enough dog owning nutters to constitute a viable market for dog porn. Actual videos, of dog sex, bought by lunatic dog owners, for their own dogs. Capitalism takes you to some dark and terrible places.                    
Finally, one of my particular favourites was Aussie Dickhead Cola. The stunning thing about the Aussie Dickhead Cola plan was that it was pretty simple. Step 1. Buy several second-hand vending machines, preferably cheap, you know, off the back of that truck. Step 2. Get a graphics company to design some snazzy Dickhead Cola graphics and a logo, and plaster it over the machines (a picture of a cross eyed kangaroo, playing a banjo, something like that). Step 3. Place said vending machines in various boarding gates and transit lounges across all Australian airports (and/or anywhere in Queensland). Result? Sit back and watch the cash roll in as daily waves of overseas travellers, captivated with this wholly manufactured Australian idiosyncrasy, line up for a can of good old Aussie Dickhead Cola. And you could charge an outrageous amount; say twenty dollars each since this would only add to the mystique. A soft drink calling itself Aussie Dickhead Cola and costing twenty dollars! I had to admit it was an intriguing plan. The original concept was even more outlandish. This rejected the need for actual cans of cola. Individuals would simply insert bills, trigger a red LCD light, and an automated voice would deliver a long, slow Australian accented drawl, “ya dickhead.” But as appealing as that was, it would do nothing as the first impression of Australia. Imagine. Even before reaching passport control, travellers would be ripped off twenty dollars and called dickheads. It just wasn’t on.  
So these have all been sad, dismal failures, and really, it’s just as well. The world is probably a far better place without shoddy home-ware made by stoned teenagers in Frankston masquerading as Holy Relics. Tap water isn’t likely to fix arthritis. Kids books probably should be about fluffy rabbits, and dogs probably aren’t interested in porn. Come to think of it, I’d rather have some half balding, white socked taxi driver with sweat patches under his arms and bad breath, greeting our international visitors with a friendly, g-day mate, then have them summarily abused by a vending machine after having stolen from them. Mostly. But, then again, sitting on my sideboard is a junk mail catalogue proudly offering a set of unlikely looking salt and pepper shakers that farted when you lifted them off the table, and I just have to think to myself that perhaps it’s just a question of timing.     

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