Determining Which Business Idea to Pursue

What business ideas have the greatest potential for success these days? —P.B., Montreal

One of the essentials for achieving business success is finding an unmet need—a stubborn problem that many people experience—and filling it or solving it through a profitable business model.

Rather than look for ideas and solutions, start by looking for problems and figuring out ways to solve them. Just remember something many eager entrepreneurs overlook: Not only must you relieve customers' pain, you must do it in a way that can be monetized and turned into a profitable enterprise.

So where do you find problems that affect large numbers of people or strongly defined niches? Start studying trends: lifestyle trends, demographic trends, and business trends. Talk to your friends and colleagues about trends they've spotted. Look for empirical data, not just random anecdotes.

David Snyder, an independent consulting futurist at Snyder Family Enterprise in Bethesda, Md., and a contributing editor at The Futurist magazine, says he will be watching closely for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 10-year employment projections, set to be released this spring.

The BLS develops information about the U.S. labor market from myriad sources and makes a wealth of projections about which sectors will grow fastest during the coming decade. "The next report will cover 2010 to 2020 and it always reveals fundamental data and forecasts earlier than anybody else," he says.

Service-Sector Startup Opportunities

Joyce Goia, a strategic business futurist and president of The Herman Group in Greensboro, N.C., says that startup opportunities in the future are most likely to come from the services sector: "As the economy recovers, busy working moms with more money than time will need help—and once more be able to pay for it."

The service sector has been lucrative for Belinda Fuchs, a CPA who founded OwnYourMoney as a home-based business in Boston. She recognized that many people had emotional barriers that kept them from implementing common sense, oft-advised strategies for saving money and reducing debt. "I took this on as my mission and my passion. Not only has it been rewarding for me, the results for clients, audience members, and subscribers have literally been saving marriages and changing lives," Fuchs says.

Seena Sharp, principal at Hermosa Beach, Calif., business research firm Sharp Market Intelligence, recommends that you investigate areas where things seem stuck at the status quo. Can you update a tired product or service for which the "way things have always been done" is getting stale? She cites the "Minute Clinics" that operate in many pharmacies, at which nurse practitioners administer vaccinations, test for strep throat, and conduct other basic health-care functions on a walk-in, cash basis, eliminating long waits for physician's appointments.

Don't be hampered by the idea that your business idea must be a home run. "Not every idea is scalable to a million customers, but if you can capture even 1 percent—or 1/100th percent—of the market, that might be just fine," Sharp says.

Once you settle on a promising idea, put it to the test with a rigorous feasibility study and monetize it in collaboration with a "community of practice," Snyder advises. "All these people who have been laid off are getting together online or at 'meetups' and figuring out how they can collaborate to make an idea happen. Sometimes the collaboration only lasts a short time. You squeeze whatever money you can out of the idea and then the partners break up and find other entrepreneurial outlets," much as Hollywood production companies do in the film industry.

Here are some ideas that Snyder, Sharp, Goia, and home-based business consultant and author Paul Edwards dreamed up in response to your question:

Coaching. Almost every niche can use a coach, from career-seekers to laid-off workers and on to dieters, older drivers and grandparents raising grandchildren.

Prosthetics. With two wars, an increase in diabetes, and improvements in medical technology, more people than ever are learning to live with prosthetics. Can you distribute the devices, train people in their use, or help them adapt over the long-term?

Immigrants. They used to land in big cities, but increasingly they are settling in suburbs and small towns. Find ways to provide services that help them with the transition.

Food Service. Interest in organic, healthful, locally grown food is booming. Make and/or deliver organic baby food, install and maintain backyard vegetable gardens, or make cardboard boxes embedded with seeds for super-easy planting.

Booming Elderly Population. Provide services or housing solutions that allow seniors to age in place, with dignity. Provide delivery operations for businesses with many home-bound customers, such as local grocers and drugstores.

Snyder recommends these books: Action Trumps Everything: Creating What You Want in an Uncertain World and Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World.

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