In her 20 years at Inc., Leigh Buchanan has had some time to cook up a few business ideas. She ran one past an expert.

Buchanan: My kitchen cabinet is full of spices that are years old. I cook a lot, but not often enough to use up the standard 1.5 ounces of paprika, mace, or turmeric before it goes bad. (Old paprika, in particular, is a real downer.)

I'd like to lease spice dispenser units (similar to coffee bean dispensers) to gourmet shops and high-end grocery stores. The units would store whole spices and grind them in tiny increments into small, recyclable bottles. Preprinted peel-and-stick labels next to each spice dispenser would ensure cinnamon is not confused with nutmeg.

The price-per-ounce would be slightly more than buying a standard bottle, but smaller quantities means the consumer would actually spend--and waste--less. Units would be restocked using client feedback and data analytics to predict what each store will need. This business will be hard to scale, so the goal would be to build the brand quickly and then sell to a grocery chain or a spice manufacturer and retailer like Penzey's.

The Expert

Emily Heyward is the co-founder and chief brand officer at Brooklyn-based Red Antler, where she's helped form strategies for brands like Casper, Allbirds, and Boxed.

Heyward: You passed the first test with flying colors, which is that you are solving a real problem. I am constantly throwing away old spices, which is such a waste.

But your solution has fatal flaws. Floor space in grocery stores is the hottest real estate in the world--they measure every square inch in terms of profitability. If you did get in, it would be hard for someone to attack you because you have the home field advantage. But that would be tough without a preexisting relationship with a chain of groceries willing to pilot it. And for at least a few years post-pandemic, people are going to be squeamish about touching handles to get something edible.

But what if you took a direct-to-consumer approach? Forget bottles--they're too expensive to ship. Seed packets, on the other hand, are lighter, greener, more customizable--and they can fit in an envelope. One puzzle to solve is home storage: I don't like the idea of disorganized envelopes in a drawer, but that's another business opportunity. You could learn a lot from looking at the seed market.