Though this is a 2006 economic outlook story, we promise to avoid adjectives like mixed, cloudy, and hazy. You don't need us to tell you that next year will be unpredictable. (And, come on--if we really knew how next year would shake out, we'd be running a hedge fund.)

Standard economic outlooks are based on economic indicators. But entrepreneurs have a distaste for these gauges. Which ones does Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich track? "None," he says. "Because they've never proven to correlate materially with our business." Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy agrees: "We don't really look at economic trends or whatever." Neither does Mike Pierce, CEO of procurement company Xpress Source, who focuses first and foremost on what his client base is up to: "We see things happening much quicker than the analysts."

Which should come as no surprise. Who knows better what's ahead in business than those on the frontlines? With that in mind, we asked dozens of CEOs, in all types of industries, what kinds of shifts, trends, and challenges they were observing. "There's all kinds of noise that occurs in the marketplace," says Shaich, "and the real role of the CEO is to separate the noise from the deep and fundamental trends."

We've tried to do the same. On the following pages, we outline seven challenges entrepreneurial companies can expect to face in 2006--and offer strategies to overcome them.

2006 Outlook