What Business Would You Start?
Once, everybody kept a fresh resume in the top desk drawer. Today it's a business plan. Inc. asked dozen of likely and not-so-likely observers of the economy to name the enterprises they'd start today -- and their answers paint a picture of our collective economic future
It's another sleepless night in the year 2007. Those fat-free restaurant repasts don't go down as easily as they used to, and the neighbor's blasted dog alarm keeps going off. You could flip on the teleputer, but according to your personal-entertainment consultant, there's nothing on now that you'd like.
Why not sleep in a little late, anyway? The commute never takes long -- especially since the kids agreed to sweep their toys from the hall leading to your study. And the morning telemeeting can't take place until after the doctor checks in to perform those remote tests she's been after you about. Sometimes it seems that life was so much easier in the old days, back when people drove to offices to do their familiar jobs and then came home and blissfully forgot about them. Who on earth saw all these complications coming?
Almost everyone, it turns out.
If the above scenario sounds strange, then ask yourself this: If today you had to start a business other than the one you're in, what would it be?
That's the question Inc. posed to the 60 or so folks whose new-business ideas are shared in the pages that follow. What do their answers -- which include all the products and services mentioned above -- say about where our lives are headed?
You'll be on your own. The obliteration of so many management jobs has understandably led people to conclude that no one will take care of them economically. So they'd better take care of themselves.
Life's increasing complexity is itself an opportunity. "I would look for an area where customer needs are changing very rapidly," says reengineering guru Michael Hammer, echoing the thoughts of many we spoke to. Examples? Hammer cites electric utilities, health care, and telecommunications.
Work life and private life will move in together, if not actually get married. The merger between work and life will offer opportunities to companies that can help people -- or their own employees -- manage the blur.
But what makes us so sure, in the end, that these are indeed the businesses of the future? Simple. We asked only topflight economists. Big names, too -- like Ivana Trump and G. Gordon Liddy, Philip Crosby and Georgette Mosbacher. No, those aren't the folks we traditionally think of as the Keyneses of our time. The fact is, though, as each of us is forced to take more responsibility for our own economic welfare, we all need to be economists now. Even Ed McMahon. (See page 2.) Especially since Johnny's retired.
Of course, professional economists do have opinions on these matters as well. But their reputations rely on being correct, not on being specific. Allen Sinai, chief economist at Lehman Brothers in New York City, says he'd start a business built around "a usable product, especially one that saves people money." It's hard to argue with that.
But then, we aren't kidding ourselves about all the ideas people offered. "If I had a specific idea," says MTV creator Robert W. Pittman, "I'd be crazy to tell you." That means the very best ideas are still out there, known solely to a chosen few who will share them only when they are ready. Of course, there are some folks who don't yet realize that they have an idea that could grow into a big business by 2007. All they need is some inspiration. Well, there's plenty of it here.* * *
Now You Know Why They Never Wrote a Sequel
Tom Peters, author and guru: Dark corner of mundane industry
Robert H. Waterman Jr., coauthor and coguru: Information technology
Tom Peters, coauthor of In Search of Excellence: "My theory is actually reducible to one line: look for crappy industries led by crappy companies -- whatever isn't software, multimedia, or biotech. The better mousetrap can be effective in businesses like garbage, paper products, and pallet racks. At some level anything Wall Street is interested in is fundamentally going to become overpopulated."
Robert H. Waterman Jr., coauthor of In Search of Excellence: "I'd do something related to information technology. It could be software. All the big guys are throwing a lot of money into the information superhighway. The fact that they are spending money means there is a lot of loose change I could pick up."* * *
Debbi Fields, gourmet-cookie retailer: Health spa
Far be it from us to suggest that Debbi Fields has anything to feel guilty about. We'll let her do it.
Fields, chairman of Mrs. Fields' Inc. (average calorie count per cookie: 180), says she would open a spa that helped people learn to "lead a good, healthy life." Among its offerings: advice on cosmetics, fashion, and relaxation techniques, such as yoga. And did somebody say nutrition? "People aren't going to learn to lose weight unless they learn how to love the foods they eat," Fields says. "We'd have to create special recipes and things that they can make at home and things that they could even buy."
Such prepackaged food products, Fields says, would fuel the company with an ongoing revenue stream. While such add-ons might be sold nationally, the spa itself would have just one location. "Eighteen years ago I thought what really mattered was quality," she says. "Quality is still really important. But today you have to add phenomenal personal service. People want to be nurtured."* * *
The Next Big Thing? Personal Protection
Georgette Mosbacher, cosmetics consultant: Personal alarms
Victor Kiam, entrepreneur: Travel alarms
Georgette Mosbacher's business idea will alarm you -- literally. Mosbacher, the 47-year-old founder of Georgette Mosbacher Enterprises, a marketing firm that also houses a cosmetics company, proposes to launch a business that sells security devices door-to-door and by mail order. "I mean everything, across the board, very popularly priced, so that for under $100 you could have an alarm system for your trailer if you lived in a trailer park," she says. "And protective devices for your home, your car, your business. . . from helmets for riding bicycles to devices for your children when you are in a shopping mall."
Mosbacher, who propounds a philosophy she dubs "feminine force," believes that much less savory forces are lurking everywhere. "A decade or so ago we thought that alarm systems were only for the rich, but that's not true anymore," she notes. Mosbacher would also market devices that protect users from all manner of threats besides crime, such as a product that could be put on a hot-water tap so children couldn't be scalded. "You are already seeing dogs being hooked up to alarm systems," she claims, "and you will be seeing more of that."
Feeling equally insecure, apparently, is Victor Kiam, the entrepreneur who liked Remington Corp.'s shavers so much he bought the company in 1979. He envisions a market of "travel security items." An example? A product "you hang on a hotel door. When you leave, if anyone touches the doorknob, the alarm will go off."* * *
Good Idea, but Have You Considered Hiring Outside Management?
Tim Zagat, restaurant-guide publisher: Customer-service training
Tim Zagat's concept: a consulting firm that provides training in customer service to such nontraditional clients as doctors and lawyers. "I don't feel that it costs any more to smile and to be hospitable," says the founder of Zagat Survey, the guide publisher.
Tim Zagat, speaking later to an Inc. reporter who returned a call from his company: "There is nobody here who wants to talk to you."* * *
Do We Detect a Pattern Here?
A spokeswoman for H. Ross Perot first told us that he might be able to grant us an interview. Two weeks later she said he would consider participating. A week after that, Perot pulled out.
Then Again, Ed, Maybe You Should Keep That $10 Million for Yourself
Ed McMahon, former Tonight Show announcer: Home remodeling
Is anyone out there surprised to hear that famous sidekick Ed McMahon has been frustrated all these years? To be specific, "I'm a frustrated architect," admits the current host of Star Search. McMahon would like to remodel homes in California and resell them. "In other words, take a house that didn't have a good kitchen, that didn't have a good bathroom, and remodel it," he explains. "You put in a really lavish bathroom and functional kitchen. The kitchen need not be exceptionally large, but it must function well."
Not that McMahon would undertake such a business right away. After all, he notes, the California real estate market is pretty bad just now. To which we can only ask, "How bad is it?"
And After We Finish, We'll Solve That Health-Care Thing
Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise: Inner-city reconstruction
"The rebuilding of the inner cities is not going to get done all by itself," says Earl Graves. "The water systems are antiquated, the train and transportation systems are antiquated. We're talking about the subway systems, too. I think there continue to be enormous opportunities, especially for minorities, in the area of construction and rehabilitation. It would be an exciting business to get into."* * *
The Next Big Thing? Educational Innovation
Stephen R. Covey, best-selling author: Character-building schools
Seymour Merrin, pioneering computer retailer: Educational software
When are we going to learn?
Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, believes there is a profitable opportunity in starting private schools that provide "character education" -- teaching such qualities as integrity, courage, and humility. "There's a growing awareness of the need for character," he says. "The biggest challenge that we see companies having is building high-trust cultures. Most cultures are duplicitous and adversarial. People have not been trained in how to cooperate."
Covey contends that positive traits can be imparted through modeling and mentoring by teachers and administrators, and that such schools could pay for themselves. "The tuition would be lower than that of most private schools because of the endowment and foundation money we would get."
He believes that attracting students would not be a problem. "There's a growing disillusionment with public education," Covey says. "And the next generation is being fed a diet of the low road through the media: violence, fighting, selfishness, hedonism, promiscuity, and drugs. We need to get back to fundamental principles."
Seymour Merrin, who was visionary enough to open a now-fabled retail computer outlet back in 1978, argues that educators too often use the machines to "take over classic teaching techniques, either by doing repetitious stuff -- training for the SATs, or doing grammar and math -- or to automate tasks such as physics and mathematics calculations."
Instead, he envisions a company that makes software that "allows students to rise to their own level, as opposed to being dragged down to the common level. The software technology is capable of it, and the machines are fast enough to handle it. There is nothing lacking but a visionary to put it together."* * *
Robert W. Pittman, MTV founder: Interactive entertainment
Back in 1981 Robert W. Pittman created a cable-television service aimed squarely at a hip generation that had grown up with TV: MTV Networks. Now, he says, he'd target the generation -- his 11-year-old son, for example -- that has grown up with interactivity. "He's grown up with a computer at school and at home. He's grown up with video games," notes Pittman, now president and chief executive of Time Warner Enterprises. "For a while I said, 'Wow, we TV babies are really in the know. We've got it over our parents. They are slow.' Now I realize that we are the outmoded ones."
Pittman, 41, says he would launch a business that incorporated interactivity into video games, theme parks, and video programming. "It's as right a place to be right now as MTV was in 1981."* * *
Earn More, Work Less!
John Tishman, bigwig developer: Vacation and leisure services
"The workweek will continue to get shorter, and there will be more time for leisure. I think people will probably be paid the same amount for a four-day workweek as they are now for a five-day workweek."* * *
The Next Big Thing? Basic Businesses
Ken Hendricks, roofing-materials entrepreneur: Consolidating fragmented industries
Pat Lancaster, packaging-machinery maker: Better packaging material
Ken Hendricks, founder of ABC Supply, at one time the #1 company on the Inc. 500 list, says that both wholesale plumbing parts and wholesale auto parts are ready for the same kind of consolidating that he brought to roofing supplies. There are no national companies in those industries yet, he says.
Hardly as grimy but equally unglamorous is Pat Lancaster's notion: a company that would devise "a better way to pack small things in big boxes." Lancaster, founder of Lantech Inc., a maker of packaging machinery, believes that too many products that are being shipped -- especially mail-order computers -- are being damaged during shipping. "There is an opportunity there if you can come up with a packaging process that not only reduces damage but also cuts down on solid waste," he says. "All of that damaged product ends up in solid waste."* * *
From the Pioneers of Retail
Stanley Marcus, Neiman Marcus chairman emeritus: Narrowly targeted direct marketing
Thomas Stemberg, founder of Staples office-supply superstore: Children's shoes
Why is it you can never find a rich person when you need one?
Stanley Marcus suggests that there's a healthy business to be had in manipulating databases to unearth small -- but rewarding -- groups of customers.
"Wherever it looks as if your requirements are to find 300 or 3,000 or 30,000 customers with specific tastes and needs, and their spending habits have indicated that they have discretionary income, and interest, this can be used," explains the 89-year-old.
Traditional mass-marketing tools -- newspapers, radio, TV -- are simply inefficient for businesses "with a specialized product that needs a high-income customer," which could include a jeweler or a landscaper or a retail store, Marcus says.
Thomas Stemberg would go after a much, much smaller group -- children.
He says children's shoes might be ready for the "category killer" approach. "My business would be a store where you could buy children's shoes in the style you wanted, in the size you wanted, orthopedically well-designed, and at a price less than 50 times manufacturing costs," says Stemberg, the father of two. "It's just a chronic problem that hasn't been solved, and it's about time somebody solved it."* * *
So It's Unanimous, Then? (A Virtual Roundtable)
Donald Burr, People Express Airlines founder: Regional airline
Donald Trump, former airline owner: Anything but an airline
Bruce Williams, syndicated radio adviser: No-frills regional airline
Wanna start an airline? You're not alone -- but to judge by this pieced-together give-and-take, your ranks may be shrinking.
Bruce Williams: "I'd like to own an airline. There's one place where you can still make a buck. People Express had a hell of a good idea."
Donald Burr: "There have been roughly 500 airlines created since deregulation, most of which have not been durable. But that will change as people learn to take care of the customer better."
Donald Trump: "A lot of businesses aren't worth the effort. No up-side potential. The airline business is like that."
Williams: "There are still niches out there. You just can't invade a major market. If you start going to St. Paul, you think Northwest Airlines is going to allow that?"
Burr: "One thing that has become more important is the modern use of information technology to build a competitive advantage -- I'm talking about reservations and fleet maintenance and customer care."
Williams: "Do a no-frills approach. Why in heaven's name do you have to provide a meal on an airplane? I am a rugged type. I can go for two whole hours without eating. And you've got to make everybody an owner."
Trump: "If you look at the airline business, it has always been a lousy business -- from day one."
Burr: "I did People Express to see if people could have harmony in the workplace. I would again attempt to improve upon that work."
Williams: "I'd charge you for carry-on luggage so that turnaround time would be diminished. I'd sell you a drink. And I'd go places where no one else is going."
Burr: "I'd do it again because I enjoy it. It has nothing to do with where the hot opportunities are."
Trump: "The airline business has got every possible problem you could have -- high expenses, not enough of an up side. I'd stay away."* * *
Thanks, but We'll Wait to See the Business Plan
Joseph Granville, former Wall Street trend spotter: Mail-order doodads
Joseph Granville, publisher of The Granville Market Letter: "The best suggestion I could give is to think about the economy and the cheapest way to enter a new business. I think the best way is to get a good product, a different product, and go mail order with it."
Inc.: "Mail order?"
Granville: "Mail order, definitely mail order! Where you can work at home. Anything that the public can use. Not frivolous things. A new type of can opener, a bottle opener, what have you. And the cheaper the better. You work at home so you don't need to rent an office. There have been many books about successful products that started on somebody's kitchen table or in their basement."
Granville: "Henry Ford started in his garage."
Inc.: "Do you have any particular product in mind?"
Granville: "Just something like the safety pin, the thumbtack, and the wheel. I mean, gosh, look how far we've gone with the toothpick."* * *
Casual Observer or Well-Suited Spokesman? (A Virtual Debate)
Irving R. Levine, NBC News chief economics correspondent: A low-priced line of bow ties
Ron Shaich, Au Bon Pain restaurant chain founder: Sweater superstores
Irving R. Levine: "Right now, there is a widespread trend toward casual clothing in the workplace. Because fashions swing back and forth in a pendulum way, it's a fair guess that we'll see the pendulum move back to more formal wear in the workplace."
Ron Shaich: "I think what you have is the world changing. Men are no longer wearing ties and jackets. Women are wearing more comfortable attire. The whole dress code in the office is breaking down. It started with the Friday casual day, and it's going backward."
Levine: "The bow tie is a perfect accessory for men, who increasingly want to make a personal statement of individuality and nonconformity. I'd launch a quality, fairly priced line of signature bow ties."
Shaich: "People still need something to wear to the office that allows them to express their personality. There is a phenomenal opportunity in sweaters."
Levine: "Bow ties are overpriced, running from $25 to $40 with less than 10 square inches of material."
Shaich: "There's a market for better men's and women's sweaters that range in price from $100 to $300. We're not going to have ties for a lot of people anymore. The sweater is going to become the tie of today."
Levine: "I think the time and the market are ripe for bow ties."* * *
Some of the Presidents' Men
G. Gordon Liddy, Watergate plumber: Vending machines
Caspar Weinberger, former defense secretary: Something fun
Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, who spent nearly five years behind bars, apparently can't get enough of them. At least of the confectionery variety. Liddy, who now hosts a syndicated radio talk show, contends that there is "a lot of money to be made" in breaking into the vending business. "There are very big vending-machine companies that rent space for their machines in certain locations," he explains. "But a lot of locations are not economical for the big guys and can still make money. I'm talking about places that don't have room for five or six machines but have room for one, and one can make money."
Perhaps it was Caspar Weinberger's eight-year stint as secretary of defense that convinced him that "nothing is worse than having a great number of hours spent in a distasteful activity." Weinberger, now chairman of Forbes magazine, says that in launching a business "you shouldn't hunt around for what's going to be the coming trend, because it might be something that you find boring or uninteresting." Doing something that "you get pleasure out of doing," he says, "would come far ahead of guessing what the market is going to be."* * *
The Next Big Thing? The . . . Well . . . Oldest Thing
Harriet Rubin, book editor: Business pornography
Ed Krol, Internet expert: Simulated-sex toys
Feel under the mattress of every adolescent boy in America, and you are almost guaranteed to find a copy of it. That's right -- the latest hot business book.
Well, perhaps not yet. But Harriet Rubin, executive editor of Currency/Doubleday, a line of business books, contends that there is room for a new category of R-rated reading: business pornography. "Business is the most asexual, monastic pursuit for so many people," Rubin says. "It should be as full of life as everything else is."
With soft-core pornography "selling like crazy," Rubin believes that the baby boom generation is in the grips of what she diagnoses as "the last rage of the hormones." The books she would launch would come swathed in brown-paper wrappers and would find spicy ways to cover such familiar turf as motivation.
Of course, those seriously in search of sexcellence will find enticing possibilities in multimedia technology. "This would all work better on CD-ROM," Rubin says. "People could go as far as they wanted."
And how far might that be, exactly? Ed Krol, author of The Whole Internet User's Guide & Catalog and assistant director for network services at the University of Illinois, suggests that somebody will cash in big-time by developing a remote palpator that can be used for virtual sex via interactive TV. Such a device, he predicts, will initially be invented so that physicians can make remote diagnoses. Put the palpator over your liver, for instance, and the doctor will squeeze it from afar to check if the liver is enlarged. After that, he says, "you develop a cheaper version for the uh . . . the uh . . . network sex operators."* * *
The Next Big Thing? Home Improvement
Henry Bloch, H&R Block Inc. founder: Home-repair service
Anne Robinson, Windham Hill Records founder: "Lifestyle support" service
It sounds like the premise of a feeble sitcom: one's New Age, one's old school -- but they live under the same roof.
Well, based on their business ideas, it certainly sounds as if Henry Bloch and Anne Robinson live in similar houses.
Bloch, 72, sees a need for an all-purpose house-repair business, which would handle painting, plumbing, electrical work, and so forth. "Today there are so many people who don't have time to repair things because they are always working," he says. "The business could be organized around a team, in which a number of industry-specific specialists come in together or where a few multiskilled workers perform the majority of the labor. This would be the basis of a business I would start if I didn't have a great deal of capital."
Robinson agrees that because of the increase in households with two wage-earners, "people need a service that can make the home more palatable." Besides maintenance, her "lifestyle support" business would include services like pet care, food delivery, and security.* * *
All Politics Is Vocal
Rudolph W. Giuliani, current New York City mayor: Opera company
Edward I. Koch, former New York City mayor: Low-fat restaurants
New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has built his reputation as a tough-on-crime conservative, but he has his libretto side as well. "One of my dreams is to launch an opera company," he admits. "We're one of the few cities that support two major opera companies. Both of them are doing quite well -- and it's possible another opera company would do well, too."
A partisan of traditional opera, Giuliani sees growing consumer interest in such music. "One of the top-selling classical records right now is a Gregorian chant," he points out, and The Three Tenors in Concert 1994, a PBS special and recording, has also proved astoundingly popular. "There's room for growth," he says.
But not every kind of growth is unlimited, notes the garrulous Edward I. Koch, a predecessor of Giuliani's in the mayor's office. "The business I would go into would be a chain of restaurants that would provide as near to fat-free gourmet menus as it is possible to do, with takeout as well," says Koch, now an all-purpose commentator for radio and TV as well as in books and newspapers. "We would scour the recipes and menus worldwide to have truly good-tasting food with minimal fat content. It would be called Ed Koch's Fat-Free Factory."
Naturally, the location of such an eatery would be key. And Giuliani has a proposal regarding that aspect. "Maybe he could put it next to my opera house," Giuliani says. "As long as he has a tasteful sign."* * *
Promotion? No Thanks. I'll Lose My Window
Jack Kahl, Manco Inc. founder: Office redesign
Jack Kahl's business would be designing buildings that foster communication. His secret? "You do not put executives in the corner office because that's the good view," says the founder of Manco, best known as a maker of duct tape. "You save the best views for the secretaries; they are there the most, while executives are running around the world. Let the sun shine on them."* * *
Help! (Instructions Not Included)
Donald Keough, former Coca-Cola Co. president: Service for home electronics
Edith Weiner, futurist: Personal-entertainment consulting
B. Thomas Golisano, Paychex Inc. founder: Electronic bill-paying service
Philip B. Crosby, quality czar: Human bill-paying service
Michael Hammer, reengineering expert: Providing information to help consumers understand changing industries
Nobody needs to tell you how to program a VCR or get on-line via personal computer. We know that. You're too suave, too intelligent, too self-reliant. In other words, you're no dummy: you gave up trying years ago.
But facing the threat of a new generation of electronic gear that demands you interact with it, you will probably feel obliged to at least make a gesture toward having some sort of relationship. When you do, it's likely that someone will be there to help -- and to profit. "The hard reality," reasons Donald Keough, 67, former president of Coca-Cola Co., "is that people are just sort of illiterate when it comes to electronic equipment, and I am a member of that fraternity."
That may help explain why Keough insists there's a pretty good business in dispatching humans to homes to help just plain folks understand their plain-paper fax machines or learn to love their laptops. "More and more information is flowing into the home, and I don't think there is a lot of thinking about how all that equipment is going to be serviced," he says.
Once you've got that interactive TV juiced up, though, how on earth do you tame it to do your bidding? Well, in Edith Weiner's vision of the coming 500-channel world, you would hire a company to map out your entertainment menu week by week. Weiner, the forward-looking president of New York CityÑbased consulting firm Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc., says that such a "personal-entertainment programmer" would pick up on your preferences by conducting a "very extensive personal interview" twice a year. "Every week I'd give clients their first three hours, their next two hours, and so on, depending on how much leisure time they had that week," Weiner says. "I'd program what you read, listen to, watch, and even go to. I'd really get to know somebody and what they are like."
Weiner's consultants would be paid via monthly retainer. And if B. Thomas Golisano's projections are correct, that payment likely would be made using electronic blips. Golisano, founder and chairman of Paychex Inc., a $220-million payroll-processing company in Rochester, N.Y., sees the financial-services industry "going through a rapid change in the next couple of decades. Because of electronic technology, consumers and businesses will be able to move money around themselves. The consumer is becoming more and more aware of these opportunities."
Golisano imagines a business in electronic loan fulfillment or on-line loan applications, as well as in handling accounts payable for small companies. "There probably would be a long start-up period to overcome consumer and commercial objections," he warns.
Not that quality guru Philip B. Crosby, now chairman of Career IV Inc., believes such a business need rely on whiz-bang technology. Crosby, whose books include the seminal Quality Is Free: The Art of Making Quality Certain, sees an immediate opportunity in the area of personal service. "I have a guy who pays my bills," he explains. "I receive them, initial them, and send them off in a big envelope, and he pays them and sends me back an invoice. I think people would be happy to pay for that kind of service."
Getting to that point, though, will not be easy. Consultant Michael Hammer, coauthor of Reengineering the Corporation, argues that with so many industries in upheaval -- from electric utilities to health care to telecommunications -- consumers are going to need information to help them search out, for instance, the best electric rates. "There are opportunities in those industries," he says.* * *
OK, but Can't We Sell Them Their Harleys First?
John Naisbitt, megatrend-setter: Art retailing in Asia
Concept: A retail art business based in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.
Management team: John Naisbitt, 65, coauthor of the best-sellers Megatrends and Megatrends 2000.
Rationale: "As countries move from poor to rich, their people first of all start eating out. Second, they start to buy clothes. Third, they start to buy appliances -- air conditioners, refrigerators. Then they buy cars, motorcyles, and apartments. The next stage is overseas travel. After that, they start to buy art. Various people in Asia are at any one of those stages. Geographically, Kuala Lumpur is at the center of southeastern Asia."
Scope: "I'd build a network throughout Asia, and I'd operate in about 20 cities . . . I would not target Japan. That market is saturated."
Market size: "A little after the year 2000, there will be half a billion people in Asia who will be what we generally understand as middle class. The whole center of the world is going to be in Asia."
Competitive strategy: "I'd get there now, and I would preempt everyone else."
Personal commitment: "My greatest interest in the world is art. It would be a fun business."* * *
From the Pioneers of Computers
Dan Bricklin, spreadsheet creator: Desktop video
Edson de Castro, Data General Corp. cofounder: Biotechnology
Dan Bricklin created revolution-launching VisiCalc, the first software spreadsheet, in 1978. Now 43, Bricklin sees another opportunity in enabling new technology to become truly useful. With faxes and voice mail, "people are getting used to conducting business where they don't meet face-to-face. But people have not yet started building businesses assuming that. They will."
In particular, the chairman of Software Garden Inc. envisions using desktop video to transmit training films or maintain a stable of doctors and lawyers -- or even mechanics -- that would be available to answer consumers' questions face-to-face over a computer monitor.
Edson de Castro, who is 56, cofounded minicomputer giant Data General back in 1968. Like the minicomputer of 25 years ago, de Castro says, biotechnology is a "cutting-edge technology" that is ripe "to be reduced to uses that mortals can appreciate." For example? "People are talking about a genetically altered banana that would allow for a longer time for transportation before it rots."* * *
The Next Big Thing? Demographic Exploitation
(Or, You Can Turn This Page or You Can Help a Boomer Age Gracefully)
Joseph Mansueto, mutual-funds-data publisher: Retirement advice
Charles Leighton, founder of the company that sells NordicTrak: Home wellness products
George Hatsopoulos, founder of Thermo Electron Corp. technology conglomerate: Body parts
Suddenly, the baby boomers are so busy running the world that they need someone to manage their lives.
Morningstar Inc. founder Joseph Mansueto says he would start a business that would advise boomers on how to invest their retirement funds. Charles Leighton, whose CML Group runs a handful of businesses, would look at ways to "develop wellness" at home. "People will take charge of their own health rather than worry about health costs and insurance," he says. "They will not only exercise but look for other stress-reduction techniques."
But for some it may be too late to save themselves with a few hours in the home sauna. Sooner or later, the parts will wear out -- no, not of the machines, but of the boomers themselves. That's where George Hatsopoulos sees a niche. "In the next 10 years there will be tremendous opportunity for biomedical devices," he predicts. One example: the artificial heart. According to Hatsopoulos, "it is typically demanded by people between the ages of 45 and 55 -- those people in whom society has invested a great deal and who are in the prime of their productivity. If you can make them productive again, the cost of the service is insignificant."* * *
What Kind of Business Would They Start?
Go ahead, it's your turn to guess. Simply match the correct entrepreneur with the response he or she gave. The answers are below.
1. Nicholas A. Buoniconti, former all-pro linebacker for the Miami Dolphins
2. Mo Siegel, founder of tea maker Celestial Seasonings Inc.
3. Richard Thalheimer, founder of retailer the Sharper Image
4. Ruth Owades, founder of flower distributor Calyx & Corolla
5. Arthur Imperatore, founder of trucker A-P-A Transport Corp.
A. "I would start a company that would help large corporations learn to think like small businesses."
B. "I would create an upscale gourmet-sandwich-type franchiseable concept," including such sandwiches as Brie with tomatoes and chicken breast glazed with honey-mustard sauce.
C. "I am arid of ideas, bereft of ideas. Can I swear a little?"
D. "Women's health care, focused specifically on menopausal and perimenopausal women, is the most prime area in which to start a business. I would develop products for women who are going to have problems such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular problems."
E. "I would do something in the world of arts and entertainment. I just like making people happy."* * *
Answers: 1-D, 2-E, 3-B, 4-A, 5-C* * *
Do the Right Thing
Sheri Poe, sneaker maker: Battered women's shelters
James W. Rouse, developer: Low-income housing
Sheryl Leach, inventor of Barney, the purple dinosaur: Medical treatment for children in developing countries
Maybe they aren't just capitalist tools after all.
Sheri Poe, president of sneaker maker Ryka Inc., says that if she had to start a business, she "would get involved on a full-time basis with addressing a different kind of need. The issue of violence against women is not being addressed in a way that is in line with the level of need. There are three times as many animal shelters as there are battered women's shelters in this country."
Speaking of shelter, James W. Rouse, the developer behind such inner-city festival marketplaces as New York City's South Street Seaport and Underground Atlanta, says he sees an opportunity in "assisting nonprofit entities across the country in funding low-income-housing development."
And Sheryl Leach, creator of Barney, says she would start a business that traveled to developing countries to remedy such problems as clubfoot, cleft palates, or eye and ear defects in children. "These traveling physicians would be packaged in such a way that people would grab onto them," she says. "Monied people all over the world care about children. If you tapped into that current, you could receive tremendous support."* * *
. . . Or Don't
Jackie Mason, comedian: Vaporware
"I would launch a business where I could hire politicians, who are accustomed to making speeches and collecting money," says Jackie Mason, star of Politically Incorrect. "We'll just announce a business and talk about it, and people will send us their money. We'll tell them, 'A new car is coming; when, we don't know.' Then when it doesn't show up, we'll tell them, 'We decided not to make cars, we decided only to talk about cars.' When you come to get your money back, we'll tell you, 'You can't disturb us. This is how we do business.' Politicians do this all the time. They raise money, then they decide not to run, then they keep the money. It's the most disgusting thing I ever saw. There's no reason, in this country, to work for a living."* * *
And Now for Something Completely Different
Pierre Lamond, venture capitalist: Information-superhighway gambit
Bill Davidow, venture capitalist: Information-superhighway gambit
Ann Winblad, venture capitalist: Information-superhighway gambit
Remember how, during the 1980s, venture capitalists used to all stampede into the same industry, like disk drives and artificial intelligence? We're here to tell you that the herd-on-the-street phenomenon is now definitely deceased. Kaput. History.
No, they are never going to move en masse from one industry to another. That's because they are all going to settle -- forever, from the way they talk -- on the median strip of the information superhighway. Pierre Lamond, general partner at Sequoia Capital, sees a fortune to be made by starting a company that develops software that can compress video signals so they can be transmitted through a copper wire to every couch potato's inner sanctum.
Bill Davidow, the general partner at Mohr, Davidow Ventures, would go into business as an "information packager" for those product-starved 500 channels of the TV future.
Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, "would be the Fox network of interactive communications."* * *
Geez, Rush, Can't You Just Make One Up?
Kit Carson, a spokesman for Rush Limbaugh, told us that Limbaugh simply did not have any ideas for new businesses.
The Next Big Thing: . . . Er, Nothing?
Mel Ziegler, serial entrepreneur: . . . Er, nothing?
Mel Ziegler is hardly ever wrong about the shape of things to come. After all, he founded and sold the Banana Republic and the Republic of Tea. So toward what activity would he point his instincts these days? "I'd do nothing," he says. "What this world needs more of is less. We need to focus on what's happening, what's here, what we are, what we have. We fail to pause and realize that doing nothing may be the right thing to do."* * *
From the Pioneers of Cyberspace
Howard Rheingold, information-superhighway chronicler: On-line publishing
Stephen Case, America Online Inc. founder: On-line programming
What Lotus 1-2-3 did for personal computers, what MTV did for cable, what Heather Locklear did for Melrose Place . . . somebody will do for the emerging world of interactive communications. That is, make it enormously popular.
"There will be plenty of opportunities for creating specialized on-line content," says Stephen Case. "It will have a transforming impact on the industry." Such new content, Case suggests, might be built around specific audiences -- for instance, those interested in personal finance -- or specialized transactions, like buying groceries.
Howard Rheingold, author of such books as The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, sees similar possibilities in a specific sort of content: on-line publications. "They would offer low production costs, quick distribution, and irresistible novelty," he says.* * *
How to Come Up with Your Own Business Idea (Right Now)
Brian Lamb, C-SPAN founder: Bagels and coffee
Nolan Bushnell, Atari Inc. founder: Home robotics
Ivana Trump, former Mrs. Donald Trump: Luxury spa
Stanley Kaplan, educational-testing giant: College-entrance advice
Fred DeLuca, Subway Sandwiches & Salads founder: Long-distance phone service
Oh, come on, it's easy for these glib, high-profile businesspeople to respond to a question about what business they would start. They get asked this stuff all the time; besides, they order someone else to do any requisite original thinking.
Nevertheless, with the play-at-home version of our game, you too can appear as instantaneously insightful as you've ever dreamed. Just follow one of these simple -- yet rewarding -- techniques. And please remember, you only have to name an idea for a business, you don't actually have to start it.
1. Assume everybody has the same problem you do. For breakfast each morning, Brian Lamb gets a business idea. "I stand in a place over here at Union Station in Washington and get my morning bagel, and the guy will stand with his back to me for five minutes until a manager comes along and says, 'Wake up and smell the coffee," says Lamb. "I notice this time and time again, and my reaction is, 'If I wanted to get into something new, I would beat the pants off you by paying these people a little more, and then I would give them incentives.' There is a market there."
2. Name something you have already tried. Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, gamely suggests that the "home robot" would be a nifty new business. "The technology is very difficult to drive to a low cost, but once it's there, it's going to be really fun," he says. In 1983 the selfsame Bushnell told Inc. that he foresaw a vast market for consumer robots by 1990.
3. Assume everybody has the same amount of money you do. Having endured great hardships since her split from the Donald, Ivana Trump knows what the average working stiff needs. He needs to "be pampered and spoiled, looked after and waited upon," she says. "I'd create the spa to end all spas, where people from around the world would come to leave all their stresses behind. I'd offer my guests the best of everything. The finest service. The most succulent low-calorie food ever created. My retreat would be paradise."
4. Name something you are (sort of) already doing. A quick quiz: when you hear the name Stanley Kaplan, what comes to mind? Preparing for those dreaded college-entrance exams, of course -- which has been the business of Stanley H. Kaplan Education Centers since 1938. Guess what opportunity grabs Kaplan these days? "The college-admissions process is becoming a lot more difficult, and I'd help students with it," he says. "I'd go into career advisement. There are students in high school who are not sure of the best college for them."
5. Follow the example of the proverbial "this guy." Like many an entrepreneur, Fred DeLuca knows this guy -- no names, please -- who has struck it big in a "very simple" business in which "you don't have to be a technological genius." Thanks to such irrefutable testimony, DeLuca knows exactly what his next venture would be: reselling long-distance services. "Basically, you buy a phone switch, and you make some government filings, and then you make contracts with services like MCI and Sprint," explains DeLuca. "Then the only thing you have to deal with is getting customers." DeLuca says he would do that by targeting specific immigrant groups -- such as the Chinese -- and hiring Chinese-speaking telemarketers to offer them discounts on calls to home.* * *
Research assistance provided by Christopher Caggiano, John Dobosz, and Elizabeth McCullough.
WHAT THE (INVESTMENT) EXPERTS SAY
Whose ideas should you invest in if you could? We asked our panel of esteemed venture capitalists to tell us
Granted, the business ideas in these pages are hardly ready for early-stage investment, but we asked six well-known venture capitalists to ruthlessly pick or pan them anyway. In the spirit of good clean fun, of course.
The big winner, as the table shows, was John Naisbitt's Asian retail-art concept. The big loser was Don Burr's airline, though it was the only proposal that made both the thumbs-up and the thumbs-down lists. "I can't believe anyone would want to start an airline," barked Fred Beste, speaking for the majority. "It's all ego -- the business-world alternative to owning a baseball team. A business suicide wish." But, insisted John Hodgman, "there are opportunities for airlines. And I'd want someone who's done it before."
In all, nearly half the proposed ideas drew comments. A sampling:
-- George Spencer commenting on Stanley Kaplan's college-choice advisory service: "This works because the need is real. Just think about how much you are willing to pay for your child to go to college, and tell me that you would not be willing to pay $5,000 if it would ensure that your child is going to the absolute right school."
-- Fred Beste on Georgette Mosbacher's personal-security products: "She's right that most people live in fear. And I couldn't tell you where to go or what to get that would alleviate it. If you could conveniently offer security devices that people believed would protect their own and their children's safety, they'd sell. And the multilevel-marketing approach is perfect."
-- Beste on Tim Zagat's customer-service consultancy for doctors and lawyers: "How many doctors do you know who would say, 'I really need to work on my customer service?' Let's face it, we're looking at a customer base that doesn't know it needs you."
-- Kevin Compton on Stephen Covey's character-building schools: "As technology becomes more commoditized and services become harder to differentiate, companies that have smart people with high integrity will have an edge. 'I want to do business with these guys because of their integrity,' you'll hear. People are going to want to send their kids to schools that teach those kinds of standards."
-- Beste on Irving R. Levine's bow-tie company: "He fell into the classic trap of thinking there's a business opportunity in something that appeals to you. 'I love it, so everyone will love it' -- forget the question of identifying a market need. That is why people start Italian restaurants. Levine is right, there is definitely a trend toward casual clothing in the workplace; I'm in a golf shirt right now. But I can go months without seeing a bow tie."
More comments, along with how many of the venture-capitalist panelists weighed in for or against each prospective business, are summarized in the adjacent table.
|Founder and Idea||What the VCs Say|
|Naisbitt (3 backers) Art dealers in Asia||Well-focused and pitched to the hottest geographic market|
|Bloch (2) One-stop repair service||"Home manager" would meet real need in increasingly overwhelming world|
|Covey (2)Character-building schools||Integrity will become key business differentiator|
|Marcus (2) Customer-targeting service||"Narrowcasting" is the hottest trend in marketing|
|Winblad (2) On-line version of Fox||Network would offer leverage and access to multiple markets|
|Burr (1) Airline||Not a place for a rookie|
|Crosby (1) Personal bill paying||Another good "overwhelming-world play"|
|Golisano (1) Electronic bill paying||Technology gains make this inevitable|
|Hendricks (1) Plumbing, auto parts||Consolidating "dirty" businesses is a proven strategy|
|Kaplan (1) College-choice advice||Costs of college make this valuable|
|Keough (1) Personal technology aid||Need will only grow|
|Mansueto (1) Retirement planning||People will pay to hike the yield on self managed money|
|Mosbacher (1) Personal alarms||People would pay to feel more secure|
|Pittman (1) Interactive theme parks||Virtual-reality technology will dramatically cut theme-park costs costs|
|Founder and Idea||What the VCs Say|
|Burr (4 detractors) Airline||Too much risk, too little hope of profit|
|Levine (3) Bow ties||Faulty analysis of trend to casual wear|
|Zagat (2) Customer-service training for doctors||A problem that doesn't want to be fixed|
|Granville (1) Mail-order doodads||Mail-order needs high-margin items, not low-margin ones|
|Giuliani (1) Opera||Opera companies never make money|
|Hammer (1) Utility-service buyer||Utility companies don't want to change|
The Panelists: Fred Beste, NEPA Venture Fund, Bethlehem, Pa.; Kevin Compton, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Menlo Park, Calif.; John F. Hodgman, Massachusetts Technology Development Corp., Boston; John H. Martinson, Edison Venture Fund, Lawrence-ville, N.J.; Gina Rogers, Applied Technology, Lexington, Mass.; George H. Spencer III, Boston Capital Ventures, Chicago.
-- Christopher Caggiano