From the March 2008 issue of Startups

Opportunity: College-Planning Consultants

When we say college students are hot, we don't mean the girls of Delta Gamma or the guys of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. We mean that the more than 17 million students who apply to college every year are a hot market for entrepreneurs.

Thanks to the complex application process, more students applying to multiple schools, skyrocketing tuition fees and parents in desperate need of information, there aren't enough high school counselors to keep up: The National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that the ratio of students to counselors is 315 to 1. "Given the challenges families face, there's tremendous growth potential for advising college-bound students," says Monisha Perkash, 33, co-founder with Paul Wrubel of San Mateo, California-based TuitionCoach.com, which provides college-planning consulting services.

That demand has prompted an entire industry of college-planning consultants, specialized tutors, application experts, financial planners, publications and networking sites "all geared toward helping incoming students find the college of their choice and succeed once there," says Justin Baer, creator of college-prep DVD Cracking College. He points out that today's parents are willing to pay top dollar to help their children succeed.

Although Perkash agrees--families spend $5 billion annually researching and applying to colleges--she sees affordable college admissions and funding advice as an untapped area. Sites like hers--which expects six-figure sales this year--can tap that market at no cost to the customer.

Ready to help out some of the students applying to college every year? Consider these startup tips:

  • Understand your audience. Your clients have one thing in common: They're college-bound and don't know where to start. Aside from that, their demographics can run the gamut. Maybe they need help finding loans or scholarships, or maybe they're financially set but are struggling with the application process. Perkash says you need to understand your clients' needs and how you are poised to meet those needs.
  • Create a professional image. Because your college-planning services won't require a brick-and-mortar location, Baer advises building a professional website as your business's first impression on the public and then renting a small office in a professional building for meeting with clients.
  • Offer free services. TuitionCoach.com provides much of the advice on its website for free, as well as some complimentary workshops and services for schools and nonprofits. This gets customers interested in the company's premium services, such as e-mail consultation and personalized reports, which require a yearly fee. If you can't provide free services, help students and parents understand why they should pay for yours when they could get them free elsewhere, says Baer, who compares this to the hand-holding experience of shopping at a clothing boutique vs. the chaotic experience of shopping at a discount liquidator.
  • Don't do it alone. "Work collaboratively with partners who can help you reach large numbers of families," says Perkash, citing examples like schools, employers, nonprofits and other companies that provide services that complement yours. "Other companies have vested interests in helping families with college students," she explains. "Find and leverage them."
  • Follow up. Baer suggests checking in with past students and parents and sending a card, gift basket or even a care package wishing the students well on their upcoming year at school. "This is a service business," he says. "Going the extra mile will get the extra referrals."

College-Planning Franchise:
College Assistance Plus LLC
collegeassistanceplus.com

Opportunity: Health-Care Staffing

You can't stop Father Time. Along with a growing aging population, we're seeing an increasing amount of ailments. With all those extra health issues, we need as many medical professionals as we can get. But 2006 projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed an expected shortfall of more than 1 million nurses by 2020. That's a clear call for staffing professionals to step into the health-care realm and help companies deal with the shortage. Lisa Dearborn, vice president of health-care services with staffing firm Response Companies, also sees a growing demand in pharmacy staffing and preventive health care and disease management.

For entrepreneurs thinking about entering the field, it helps to have more than just recruiting and staffing experience; you need to have your finger on the pulse of the medical community. "At the end of the day, you have to have a genuine interest in your candidates' lives. You have to understand where they're coming from, and you have to be able to relate to them," says Dearborn. That means hiring recruiters with medical backgrounds who can communicate effectively with potential candidates and clients. Demand is booming in the health-care staffing sector. Here's a prescription for getting your business off to a healthy start:

  • Creative hiring is a must. "You can't recruit someone who just has recruiting experience," says Dearborn. She suggests hiring candidates with health-care industry experience for their backgrounds and knowledge, then training them to recruit.
  • Prepare for competition. You're not the only entrepreneur contemplating a health-care staffing startup. "Five or six years ago, we did not have the competition we have now," says Dearborn. "All of these companies are getting into health care because they see the demand."
  • Look to the nursing area. There is need in all areas of health-care staffing, but the nursing shortage is particularly acute. Says Dearborn, "There aren't as many nurses coming out of nursing school. With the baby boomers, we're going to need a lot of long-term care, and companies are preparing for that and expanding their businesses, but they don't have the nurses to fill the jobs." If you can successfully fill nursing positions, you'll be in demand.
  • Don't overlook pharmacies. Nurses and doctors might come to mind first when you think of health-care staffing needs, but there's also a squeeze on the availability of pharmacists. Large chains, local pharmacies and hospitals often need help finding workers to staff their pharmacies. It can be another niche for your new business to focus on.
  • If you don't have a medical background, find someone who does. You don't need to have an M.D. degree to work in health-care staffing, but you will need the experience and help of a partner or an employee with a medical background. As Dearborn points out, "The only way to be successful is to bring someone onboard who has experience and knows how to speak with the candidates and clients."

Health-Care Staffing Franchises:
AtWork Medical Services

atworkmedical.com

BrightStar Healthcare
brightstarfranchise.com

Opportunity: Wine

Whether sealed with a cork or a screw cap, consumers can't get the tops off wine bottles fast enough. Continuing in its popularity, wine has gone mainstream and is being sipped, savored and outright guzzled at such a rate that by 2010, the U.S. could actually uproot France from its perennial seat as the world's largest wine consumer, according to the Wine Market Council.

The explosion of the culinary category and the employment of more effective marketing strategies have made the wine market fruitful and the opportunities ripe, says wine consultant Michael Green. And the rise in direct-to-consumer wine sales and online sales is also creating buzz. Says Deborah Brenner, author of Women of the Vine, "There are many opportunities for entrepreneurs to get involved by providing necessary tools for wineries, such as shipping and fulfillment centers, software tools, e-commerce tools, etc."

Cameron Hughes, 36, founded San Francisco-based wine-trading company Cameron Hughes Wine in 2001. By buying small lots of wine in bulk from high-end producers, eliminating middlemen, cutting his own costs (he doesn't own a single tank or barrel) and selling to Costco Wholesale Corp., Hughes has been able to stake his spot in the flourishing $10 to $15 bottle category and will grow sales to a projected $20 million by this June.

Wine might be enticing enough to draw customers on its own, but to ensure your business gets off to a smooth start, check out these pointers:

  • Evaluate your startup capital. How much you're starting with will determine your game plan, according to Hughes. If you're not well capitalized, set your sights on higher price-point wines where you can command a higher profit margin and build a niche for yourself.
  • Tap into the available resources. If you lack extensive startup capital, try turning to microcrush facilities like Crushpad and Judd's Hill, Hughes advises. "They set you up on their licensing and you can pick your vineyard, your varietal and the style of wine that you want to make," he says. "You basically come up with a recipe. They execute it, and you can help out to whatever degree you want."
  • Arm yourself with experience by working in a wine shop. "Whether you do it just for a Christmas season or a few hours each week, there will not be a better way to experience a wide range of wine selections in a short period of time," says Green. "Perhaps equally, if not more, important is [the opportunity] to get to the end user. What are their questions? What are their concerns? Why is the average consumer still completely intimidated by wine?"
  • Get educated. It doesn't take a lot of effort to start learning about the industry. Green recommends subscribing to monthly wine magazines. This will give you insight into the trends in wine and might even open the door to a new entrepreneurial opportunity, he says.
  • Learn by taste. "Grab a bottle and a corkscrew," says Green. "There's no better way to really learn about wine and its possibilities than to pour yourself a glass."

Wine Franchises:
Borvin Beverage Franchise Corp.
borvinbeverage.com

Water 2 Wine
water2wine.us

WineStyles Inc.
winestyles.net

Opportunity: Special Needs Food

Think simply having organic, fair trade or nutritionally enhanced menu items means you're ahead of the game? Think again. There's a growing category of special needs food that means adding terms like gluten-free, low-glycemic and allergen-free to your vocabulary--and your offerings. Even Anheuser-Busch has contributed to the movement with Redbridge, a gluten-free beer.

The Food Products Association reports that about 6 million to 7 million Americans have a food allergy, and market research firm Packaged Facts estimates that low-glycemic food sales will grow at a compound annual growth rate of more than 45 percent from 2007 to 2011, at which point sales are projected to reach a whopping $1.8 billion. "The people who are paying attention to [the organic movement] will look more deeply into what it is they're eating, and they'll probably find that they're allergic to stuff that they didn't know about," says Stephen F. Hall, a specialty food business development consultant.

The dietary needs may be different, but the sweet tooth is the same. According to Anne Muñoz-Furlong, CEO of The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, "Combinations of allergen-free foods such as milk-, egg- and wheat-free baked goods will be a natural growth area because Americans love desserts."

Not surprisingly, food allergies represent a golden business opportunity. Here's our recipe for success:

  • Remember that it's all in the positioning. Pay special attention to how you position your brand, as it is probably the most important element in the entire industry, says Hall. In other words, what differentiates your product from others? One common way of positioning is through promoting the health benefits of your product.
  • Be ready to adapt. Because consumers' needs and diets are always changing, you'll have to be nimble if you want to succeed in this industry. Says Hall, "If you end up going down this road where you become an expert at one aspect of gluten-free products and it turns out it's not sellable, you need to refocus your efforts."
  • Don't stop at just one product. According to Hall, you have to be prepared to "innovate like crazy." Hall recounts how trade show attendees are always keenly interested in what's new. So if you want to stick around for a while and keep your customers' attention, developing new products must become a regular task.
  • Make your products easily accessible. Please your customers by giving them what they want, when they want it. If you can develop ready-to-eat meals and get your products on supermarket shelves, you'll be doing your part to meet market demand. Scott Adams, 40-year-old founder of Celiac.com, a Santa Rosa, California, company dedicated to celiac disease and gluten-free diet information, says, "The current trend in gluten-free foods is value-added, finished products like frozen pizzas and entrees."
  • Keep an open mind. Be careful not to focus your attention only on customers with food allergies; family members and friends are also potential customers. Says Muñoz-Furlong, "Unlike other diseases, because of the life-threatening nature of food allergies, most families follow the restricted diet of their loved one."

Opportunity: Senior Products

As Americans age, they become more concerned about brain health. Five million Americans already suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and that number is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050, according to data from The Alzheimer's Foundation of America. Naturally, products that help seniors keep their mental edge are growing in popularity.

Dan Michel founded Dakim Inc. in 2001 to provide such a product and came up with the mPower Cognitive Fitness System. He got the idea after designing games for his father, who was suffering from Alzheimer's. "The more I engaged him in things that turned out to be cognitively stimulating, the more 'with it' he was," recalls Michel. The staff at his father's senior living community loved the games, too, and asked Michel to create a product they could use with other residents. The resulting touchscreen system lets seniors play games, puzzles and other challenging and fun cognitive activities. The response from senior centers has pushed sales into the seven figures and inspired this Santa Monica, California, entrepreneur to create an at-home version, set to launch this year.

To enter this market, start by approaching caregivers, says Jacqueline Marcell, an elder-care and Alzheimer's expert and author of Elder Rage. "There's a growing need for products and services that fit the marketplace," she says. Check out what's already available and think about what would make life easier for both patients with dementia symptoms and their caregivers.

Eager to launch a product to help seniors deal with Alzheimer's and dementia? Check out the following tips to launch:

  • Get to know them. Spend time in senior communities, engaging with and learning from the seniors you hope to serve. "I realized, based on observing the world of senior living communities, that [my] system would have to do all the heavy lifting," says Michel. "You couldn't expect caregivers to know about technology and computers--the system had to do everything by itself."
  • Take your time when developing your product. It took five years of R&D before Dakim brought its product to market. "The bulk of that time was in the refinement of our prototype," says Michel.
  • Market to the right people. The decision-makers for seniors with memory issues are usually the caregivers. Says Michel, "Our customers are the senior living providers or the adult children of seniors living at home, or a spouse caring for a senior at home, but the end users are not always the same people."
  • Give free trials. It pays to give target customers hands-on experience with your product. When Michel invited prospective clients to try the system, it often resulted in a deal. "Sometimes seeing is believing," says Michel. "When you do something that is so remarkably different, you need to really let people experience that firsthand."
  • Watch the price. Consider how cash-strapped many seniors and their caregivers are, says Marcell. This is especially important if the product will be used in the home. Customers will flock to a product that is both helpful and affordable."

Senior Products Franchises:
American Ramp Systems

americanramp.com

Amplifon Hearing Aid Centers
amplifonhearing.com

Foot Solutions Inc.
footsolutions.com

Relax The Back Corp.
relaxthebackfranchise.com

Silver Cross
silvercross.com/franchise

Opportunity: Green Apparel

Whether it's dubbed fashion-forward, eco-chic or conscious clothing, one thing is certain: Green clothing is hot. Bo Breda, academic director for fashion design at The Art Institute of California, San Francisco, says, "Green clothing will be more and more a part of ordinary life choices for everyone. Each process, each material used is being looked at with new eyes."

Organic cotton debuted first and remains the biggest seller. Organic Exchange expects the organic cotton industry to hit sales of $2.6 billion this year. A 2006 Organic Trade Association survey pointed out that "organic nonfoods are still emerging as a category"--which means lots of fresh opportunity. "Developments in fiber science have been explosive lately," adds Breda, so clothing designers are increasingly looking to other natural fibers like bamboo, soy and corn. While fabrics become more accessible, brands are becoming more aware of their environmental impact. Big names like H&M, Nike and Target now carry green apparel lines, but there's still room for entrepreneurs, too.

One entrepreneur reaping the green harvest is Callie Smith, 26, who launched Envi, a Boston boutique that carries only green apparel and accessories, in 2006. Though starting Envi required more research than a conventional boutique and meant limited green designers and apparel lines, "today we turn them away," says Smith. Envi earned sales of $500,000 last year.

As Ursula Stahl, the 26-year-old co-founder of Envi, points out, "It's unlimited--to the point where nongreen is going to be passé."

If stitching up your own green clothing line or boutique interests you, consider the following five tips:

  • Don't just jump in.For Smith and Stahl, launching Envi required extra research. "It's really important to understand what you're doing," says Smith. "Know the fabrics, keep your eye on new designers and visit the green section at trade shows."
  • Have a passion for your business. Both Smith and Stahl were brought up with a concern for the environment as well as a passion for fashion. So the pair has managed to combine their shared passions and stay true to them.
  • Educate people. Help your customers understand that something as simple as buying organic cotton shirts can have a positive impact on the environment. "[Give people] the comfort and feeling that even the most ordinary part of life can be part of a practice that improves life for everyone," says Breda.

    Adds Smith, "It's showing them that there is another choice, and then helping them make that choice."
  • Think green. Envi not only sells green clothing and accessories--the boutique itself is also environmentally friendly. The store has bamboo flooring, environmentally friendly paints and wallpaper, vintage furniture and 100 percent recycled packaging and hangers. "Any little thing that we can do, we've done," says Smith.
  • Commit long term. While trends in fashion come and go, green apparel is not a passing fad. "It's something that's here to stay," says Stahl. "So our business is about a lifelong commitment."

Opportunity: High School Athletes

Aside from touchdowns, home runs and photo finishes, a lot is happening in the world of high school sports. With more than 7 million participants, high school athletics is a hot market that's scoring big for entrepreneurs.

"The demographic is compelling: young, influential and impressionable with big spending power and developing brand loyalties," says Jim Kaufman, CEO of Rise, a national teen sports magazine. The market has seen lots of activity recently: a growing number of participants, including female athletes; a move toward mainstream media coverage, with the likes of ESPN, MTV and NBC featuring high school sports programming; the emergence of more national events like all-star games and camps; the increase in networking with sites such as Sportsvite.com and Takkle.com; and the recognition of a wider variety of sports, not just the old classics like football and basketball.

All this serves up opportunity in everything related to high school sports, including injury management, transportation services, apparel, sport- and gender-specific products, recruiting, networking and more. So whatever area you specialize in, you're bound to make the team.

We asked Kaufman for his top five tips on getting into the game:

  • Understand the high school sports market. For example, female athletes are a growing demographic within the market. And, Kaufman says, sports other than football and basketball (lacrosse and running, for example) are being picked up on a national level and becoming increasingly important for marketers.
  • Raise more money than you need. Whether you've got a popular energy drink, innovative running shoes or a high-traffic scouting website, unknown obstacles can arise and require additional funds ASAP. Says Kaufman, "If your concept works, don't be left out in the cold because you couldn't withstand the storm."
  • Avoid fads. Teens will be teens and fads will come and go, so know this audience inside and out, says Kaufman: "Make sure your product [or service] caters to their general interests and tastes but doesn't chase their whims." First understand the core of your business offering and then use market research to support it.
  • Be prepared. Don't limit yourself with services that are too targeted or products that will become obsolete. "It's much easier to adapt your business model than to adapt consumer demand," says Kaufman. "And thinking through scalability early on will be critical to long-term success."
  • Stay one step ahead of the curve. "It doesn't take long for entrepreneurs to identify untapped markets, and high school sports is no exception," says Kaufman. To get a piece of the action, dig deeper and look ahead to identify the needs within the market that are not currently being met.

Youth Sports Franchises:
Extra Innings

eifranchise.com

Parisi Speed School
parisischool.com

Velocity Sports Performance
velocitysp.com

Opportunity: Green Business Services

It's reasonable to assume that most entrepreneurs start businesses to see the green--the big bucks. But as more business owners consider their impact on the environment, entrepreneurs are seeing the importance of going green, from working with recycled materials and eco-friendly suppliers to using green packaging and PR.

According to a recent study for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 85 percent of U.S. consumer business companies have active sustainability initiatives. "The demand [for green business services] is there, but the supply is minimal," says Chris Manning, executive director at The Green Chamber, a national organization focused on environmental stewardship. "It's a young industry, [so there's] tremendous opportunity." Manning, 39, founded Manning & Associates Financial Services five years ago because he saw the need for green investing. This year, the Houston-based business projects sales of $545,000.

Seri McClendon, 40, and Ken Eskenazi, 52, saw that opportunity back in 2002 when they started Clean Agency, their green marketing firm in Pasadena, California. "We believed the environmental component was going to be a factor for businesses to consider very soon," says McClendon, whose $1.4 million company serves green or soon-to-be green clients. "Businesses need professionals [who] understand the sustainable values of their companies."

Whether you're launching a consulting firm or a green consulting firm, offering shipping services or eco-friendly shipping services, you're starting a business. Here two experts offer some tips for doing the latter:

  • Do your due diligence. Says Manning, "A green business adheres to the same basic business principles as any other business, so do your research first."
  • Be passionate. "Be sure that you really care about [being] green and pick an area within green that you are really passionate about," says Graham Hill, founder of Treehugger.com, a green media outlet and information resource. Manning warns against "greenwashing"--putting more time and money into advertising the greenness of your business services than actually implementing green practices.
  • Do less, better. Focusing your time and energy on the core of your business service company and its green efforts is more effective than taking on numerous tasks with little end result, explains Hill. "Be very clear about what problem you're solving," he adds, so that you'll know where to focus your efforts.
  • Practice what you preach. You can offer eco-friendly printing or packaging services, but the meaning is lost if your company doesn't use those services, too. "Integrate green principles deep into your business strategy," says Manning, who also suggests getting involved in both your local and national green communities.
  • Think long term. Global climate change and concern for the environment aren't going away, and being green isn't just a fad, so your green business services will increasingly be in need. Make sure you're in it for the long haul, says Manning, and "realize both the tangible and intangible benefits of a green business."

Opportunity: Tech Consulting

If the thought of building out a network or setting up e-mail services gets you excited, then we've got an opportunity for you. According to recent reports by AMI-Partners, about one-quarter of small and midsize businesses are increasing their spending on outsourced IT. "There is room for startups that are focused and have a really clear value proposition for customers," says Laurie McCabe, vice president for SMB insights and business solutions at AMI-Partners. "Whether it is consulting or software support or network management, there's definitely a need."

Larry Velez, 33, founder of managed solutions provider Sinu in New York City, knows firsthand what it's like to cater to growing businesses and nonprofits. Velez takes what he calls a holistic approach: Instead of obsessing over what hardware it sells or hourly support rates, Sinu charges a flat rate per person and focuses on the needs of the workers in an organization and what can be done to keep the tech running smoothly. With 2007 sales of about $5 million, Sinu has outgrown its office space twice in the past year. Looking ahead, Velez says, "We're going to really see the mainstreaming of this approach to outsourced IT."

You don't need a consultant to learn from these tips on starting your own tech consulting business:

  • Set yourself apart. Sinu, for example, caters to small businesses and nonprofits with its unlimited tech support and flat-rate fee model, which gives his company a lot of incentive to keep its clients' tech shipshape.
  • Do your research. You can't be all things to all people, so choose your target market before you launch. Says McCabe, "Research what customer segment you're going to sell to in terms of the kinds of needs they have relative to the kinds of services you're going to provide."
  • Don't underestimate your costs. "Don't kid yourself about your costs, and make sure that every role in your company has a competitive salary and benefits behind it," advises Velez. There is still competition to attract and retain talented IT workers, so budget accordingly to bring in the best personnel you can get.
  • Talk to your customers. You don't have to guess about what your potential customers are looking for in a tech consultant. Just ask them. Says McCabe, "Have some of these conversations so that when you package up your services and put them out there, you're going to hit the right notes." Find out what they like or don't like about their current provider and ask what services are the most important to them.
  • Price carefully. Proper pricing is especially important if you cater to small and midsize businesses or to nonprofits. "You have to come up with a pricing strategy that is really going to dovetail with these businesses because the SMB market is a cost-constrained market," says McCabe. Sinu's flat-rate approach is a great example of how this can be done.

Tech Consulting Franchises:
CM IT Solutions

cmitsolutions.com

Computer Troubleshooters
comptroub.com

Concerto Networks Inc.
concertonetworks.com

Fast-teks On-site Computer Services
fastteks.com

Friendly Computers
friendlycomputers.com

1 800 905 GEEK
1800905geek.com/franchise

Rescuecom
rescuecom.com

TeamLogic IT
teamlogicit.com

The Utility Company
theutilitycompany.com

WSI Internet
wsimarketing.com

Opportunity: Sunglasses

Stylish sunglasses are today's ultimate must-have accessory. This sizzling market grew 9.1 percent in unit sales from 2005 to 2006, for total retail sales of more than $2 billion, according to the Sunglass Association of America. High-end designer sunglasses are driving the trend, says Tibor Gross, president of the SAA: "People are paying a lot more attention to sunglasses. They're a status symbol and a fashion accessory."

From upscale brand names to more affordable lines, various entry points into the market are open to entrepreneurs. Veteran sunglasses entrepreneurs Jack Martinez, 42, and Dan Flecky, 51, made their mark with Black Flys, an Irvine, California, company founded in 1991 that earned about $10 million in sales last year. Their signature shades cater to a rock 'n' roll, youth and sports clientele. Black Flys has even added Fly Girls, a line for women, and plans to branch out with a new prescription line this year. "Sunglasses are a crazy deal--there are so many brands now," says Martinez. But don't let a competitive market deter you: Success means finding your own style and brand, he says.

Slipping on a great pair of shades is easy, but if you want to become the next sunglass mogul, consider these surefire startup tips:

  • Be smart about eye health. A fashion accessory, yes, but sunglasses are also a health accessory. Gross notes that entrepreneurs need to keep abreast of the latest in UV protection. He also sees more and more designers adopting polarized lenses into their fashion sunglasses, which help reduce glare and can help with driving and sporting activities.
  • Research and develop your sunglass line extensively. You want to be an absolute stickler for quality, says Martinez. Taking extra care in your early days can prevent costly product defects later. Black Flys, whose sunglasses are often worn by snowboarders, skateboarders and the like, road tests its designs comprehensively before selling them to the public.
  • Develop a close relationship with your manufacturer. You may be the design genius, but you'll need a trusted partner to bring your vision to market. Martinez recalls searching for a manufacturer for six months before finding the perfect match who could deliver on all the company's desired specs. "You almost have to be in bed with your factory, too," says Martinez. "Fly to China or fly to Italy and work with them."
  • Consider private-label business. To augment their successful consumer retailing business, the Black Flys founders made a profitable venture out of private-label retailing as well. They've developed sunglasses for ESPN, Hard Rock Cafe and Jesse James of West Coast Choppers, to name a few.
  • Don't fear the classics. Being up on sunglass trends is important, absolutely, but throw in a couple of classic styles (or even revamped takes on classics) to keep your brand relevant through ever-changing fads. The co-founders of Black Flys have found long-term success with their trademark Black Flys silhouette. Says Martinez, "Sometimes you can jump on a trend, and all of a sudden it's gone."

Opportunity: Specialty Shoes

What's the fastest-growing segment of the apparel industry? Footwear--comfortable, stylish footwear, that is. "Comfort and fashion are no longer mutually exclusive," says Diane Stone, COO of WSA Global Holdings LLC, a marketing company for the footwear and accessories industry. Although the footwear market in general is huge--it's projected to grow to $194.3 billion globally by 2010--entrepreneurs are standing out with specialty shoes for diabetics, obese consumers with foot problems, or simply people who are on their feet a lot and seek comfort.

Joe Croft, 37, Jeffrey Fitzhugh, 45, and Mike Ray, 36, have stepped into success with Jeffrey Fitzhugh, an upscale line of ergonomically contoured men's shoes launched last year. Fitzhugh describes their branding strategy as "laid-back luxury," an approach that's paying off. The Newport Beach, California, business sells its shoes at high-end retailers like Fred Segal and earned 2007 sales of about $1.5 million.

Manufacturing a specialty shoe is also a challenge, notes Jennifer Lovitt Riggs, 36, founder of Nota Bene in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. She spent a full year testing factories and prototyping her line of comfortable yet chic shoes for women. "Then I started researching production options and whether the shoes could be made while still making the price accessible," she says. "It looked promising." Fulfilling that promise, the footwear retails at high-end boutiques nationwide. Sales are in the healthy six figures and growing, she adds, as happy customers flock back for multiple pairs.

These steps can help you walk into your own profitable shoe empire:

  • Seek retailers in line with your brand image. It was important for Fitzhugh, Ray and Croft to get their shoes into stores like American Rag and Fred Segal. "Their brands [are] important to us as our brand is important to them," says Fitzhugh. "It's kind of a happy marriage between the two when you have a very cool brand that you've established productwise, also with a branded store."
  • Secure a good manufacturing partner. Creating quality shoes is not an easy process. "You're making a three-dimensional, weight-bearing object--it's a lot harder to make than a shirt or a jacket," says Stone. Your manufacturer needs to have expertise in the structural elements that make up a quality, comfortable shoe.
  • Consider selling online. Even shoe industry veterans were surprised that online shoe retailing has exploded the way it has. It was a category no one thought would be successful online, but this segment especially is seeing huge growth, Stone says.
  • Research holes in the market. After watching businesswomen walk in their sneakers while carrying their dress shoes, Riggs was inspired to research the shoe market for stylish yet comfortable designs. "I discovered a real gap in the market," she says, so she launched her business to fill that niche.
  • Be innovative and inventive with your designs. Combining fashion and function creates an incredible opportunity for shoe designers to innovate. Stone has seen inventive designs like shoes with interchangeable straps. She says, "People who devise things like that are able to come up with new ways to do things that nobody has seen before."

Opportunity: Specialty Lingerie

Every woman wants to feel sexy and beautiful, and specialty lingerie helps them do just that. From plus size to maternity to lingerie for women over age 40, "There's a golden opportunity in all of these areas," according to Rosalie Regni, assistant professor of merchandising at Virginia Commonwealth University. In fact, this $10.5 billion industry grew an impressive 10 percent in 2006, according to the NPD Group.

Victoria Roberts, 47, founded Zovo Lingerie to cater to the underserved 35- to 60-year-old market with her upscale line of beautiful, well-made pieces. "It's going back to basics, but doing it in a way that's styled a little more hip and has a younger-at-heart baby boomer in mind," she says. Roberts sells her line, which includes underpinnings, loungewear and sleepwear, at her Seattle-area brick-and-mortar store, online at zovolingerie.com and at retailers like Nordstrom. The company's sales have been $1 million annually since its launch in 2005.

While upscale is a great niche, Regni also points out opportunities in more affordable lingerie. It's a competitive market, she warns, but entrepreneurs can carve their place in lingerie with a fresh take. "More than ever, retail stores are looking for differentiation--they're looking for the new, the innovative," she says.

Before launching your hot new lingerie business, let these tips help your venture take shape:

  • Start small. As a new lingerie company, you can get your foot in the door at trunk shows, trade shows and independent boutiques. Establish your name with smaller contracts at first, says Regni--only then can you pitch larger retailers.
  • Think pretty, but comfortable as well. Sexy lingerie is great, but if it's binding, itchy or ill-fitting, they're not going to buy it in droves. "The thing about underwear in particular [is that] it can't just be pretty," says Regni. "It's got to fit well, and it's got to feel good because you have to live in it all day."
  • Conduct a focus group. Find out what women are really looking for in their lingerie. Whether your niche is plus size, over 35 or maternity, you'll get stellar information that you can't buy. Roberts conducted a focus group to get inside information from her target market. "We found [that] what was being offered was geared toward a younger person," says Roberts. "People were frustrated with not only the store experience, but what was being offered in the stores."
  • Find a niche. Roberts found her niche by using top-quality natural fabrics like cotton to create her comfortable yet highly fashionable designs.
  • Build long-term relationships with customers. The relaxing ambience of Roberts' store allows customers to feel comfortable. She and her staff offer their lingerie expertise but are quick to point customers to other resources if Zovo doesn't have exactly what they're looking for. She gains their trust that way--and they keep coming back to her when they want her specialty pieces. "Realize who you are and who you aren't," says Roberts. "Building relationships is a strong way to gain clientele. It's also a way to do business in the future."

Opportunity: Senior Services

The population is aging--by 2030, the number of adults age 65 and older will double to 70 million. No one is feeling the crunch more than baby boomers, who now find themselves in the "sandwich generation"--caring for both their children and their aging parents. An estimated 44 million Americans provide care for elderly family or friends. "Any businesses that can address this dilemma in terms of health care, stress management, financial planning and problem solving for elderly parents--that is a huge area of concern right now," says Cathy Hamilton, founder and managing editor of BoomerGirl.com, a media company that provides news, information and community advice to baby boomer women.

Helping both the sandwich generation and seniors is Pamela J. Braun, a licensed clinical social worker who founded Geriatric Assessment, Management & Solutions LLC in Sun City, Arizona. She provides assessment and evaluation, medical appointment coordination and medical/legal power of attorney services. With annual sales between $300,000 and $400,000, Braun, 44, says, "The biggest reward is being an advocate and knowing you're making a difference in the quality of these people's lives."

If you're passionate about advocating for seniors, check out these tips for starting your own senior services business:

  • Network with senior specialists. Getting your name in the mouths of trusted professionals who are already working with seniors is key. Network with local hospitals, doctors, gerontology centers, community service agencies and the like. They're on the front lines for seniors and caregivers who need guidance, and they can often make referrals to your services.
  • Get training. Depending on the type of service you'll be providing, you'll want to get sufficient training and possibly even certification (depending on your state). Braun, who has a master's degree in social work, is also a Certified Private Fiduciary in Arizona, which allows her to handle financial decisions for her clients. "We take health care and mental health power of attorney for people--they're appointing us in our documents," says Braun. "It's a commitment; it takes dedication. You also have to have a passion for the work."
  • Become a master communicator. Senior-care issues are often very sensitive--health care, independence and financial considerations are even more complex when you start bringing family dynamics into the mix. "It's challenging trying to make sure that all the needs are being met for the clients and for the families," says Braun. "It doesn't stop at 5 o'clock on Friday."
  • Build your reputation. In such a people-centric business, where you're making assessments for seniors, advising families and handling private health and financial information, your good name and reputation are crucial to building a lasting enterprise within the community. Her sterling reputation has inspired strong word-of-mouth buzz for Braun, ensuring her a steady stream of business.
  • Market your service as a timesaver for caregivers. Especially for the stretched-to-the max sandwich generation, which is caring for aging parents and children still at home, any timesaving service that can make their lives easier will thrive. Hamilton says, "If you can figure out a way to save a stressed-out sandwiched boomer woman time, you'll have a gold mine."

Senior Services Franchises:
Accessible Home Health Care
accessiblehhc.com

Age Advantage Home Care Franchising Inc.
ageadvantage.com

AtWork HelpingHands Services
atworkhelpinghands.com

BrightStar Healthcare
brightstarfranchise.com

Caring Transitions
caringtransitions.net

Choose Home
choose-home.com

ComForcare Senior Services Inc.
comforcare.com/franchise

Comfort Keepers
comfortkeepers.com

Home Helpers/Direct Link
homehelpers.cc

Home Instead Senior Care
homeinstead.com

Homewatch CareGivers
homewatchcaregivers.com/franchise

Right at Home Inc.
rightathome.net

Senior Helpers
seniorhelpers.com

The Senior's Choice Inc.
theseniorschoice.com

Spectrum Home Services
spectrumhomeservices.com

Synergy HomeCare
synergyhomecare.com

Visiting Angels
livingassistance.com

Opportunity: Handbags

Holding a hot handbag is in. Handbag sales rose 18 percent to $6.1 billion between 2004 and 2006, according to market research firm Mintel. But don't market solely to grown women: "Companies are targeting younger girls, [as] they tend to bring their consumer habits into adulthood," says Kat Fay, a senior analyst at Mintel. "If you get them when they're younger and they develop a taste for slightly higher-end purses, they're not likely to reverse the trend and start buying cheaply made bags after that." Handbags priced between $150 and $200 are an affordable luxury for many women and young girls, who are helping drive the market.

Mary Frances Shaffer's embellished handbags, priced between $180 and $300, give women the chance to shine like stars Jennifer Aniston and Eva Longoria--both fans of Mary Frances Accessories in Lafayette, California. Her line of whimsical, beaded handbags is sold in boutiques nationwide, pushing annual sales past $9 million. Women love to express themselves with their handbags, says Shaffer, 48. "We're at a time right now when women really like to play."

Get a handle on your own handbag business with these pointers:

  • Create your own look. Women buy handbags to express their unique style, so let that be your license to create a signature look for your line. "Create something special," Shaffer says. "[Try not] to look like someone else. What turns you on--go with that. Be you in it."
  • Monitor fashion trends closely. Shaffer watches all the fashion and accessory trends and what's going on in the industry in general--she even watches European trends. She's then able to interpret and design based on her own sensibilities.
  • Market to all possible demographics. Look at all the women who could be interested in your bag. Shaffer brought her handbags not only to retailers like Dillards and Macy's, but also to boutiques and resort and vacation areas. Wealthy consumers can easily afford her $180 to $300 bags, but other demographics can purchase them, too. "If you don't have as much disposable income, you can stretch up and get my bag, so it's attainable," she says. "I don't want to be in the most high end, and I don't want to be in the low end."
  • Look for ways to expand your brand. Once you find your niche, don't be afraid to explore other possible design categories. Shaffer has made her name in beaded bags, but she's also expanded into leather bags, as well as day and street bags. She says, "[It's] kind of the bag that can be your best friend, but still with the Mary Frances look."
  • Be ready for market fluctuations. While the handbag market is growing, the whims of fashion can always cause fluctuations in popularity. Beaded bags exploded in 2005, for example, and sales for Mary Frances Accessories boomed that year, too. Business returned to more normal levels the following year and taught Shaffer the importance of being prepared for expansion and contraction in the fashion accessories business.

Opportunity: Executive Recruiting

Executive recruitment is a perennial favorite of ours--and for good reason. While some niches within the industry wax and wane in popularity, the need for high-level, talented employees never ceases.

"Executive leadership is dynamic and changing," explains Glenn Manko, 40, partner at BSG Partners, a Haverford, Pennsylvania, executive recruiting firm founded by Brad Cos-tello, 33. Says Manko, "Very few companies stay with the same team of leaders for long periods of time due to changing business demands, family relocations, the enticement of leaving [the] corporate [world] to seek entrepreneurial ventures and, quite frankly, individual performance not [being] consistent." The company, started in 2005, expects $2.5 million in sales this year.

Hope Wilson, vice president of professional services at Snelling Professional Services, sees several areas of niche growth in the future. Biopharm will boom as baby boomers require more medication; the medical field in general also needs more physicians and nurses. Executive-level administrators and finance and accounting positions continue to be hot.

But what about that pesky competition from online job sites? Both Manko and Wilson say fuhgedaboudit. "Online job boards provide no additional value to the hiring process," says Manko. "Sourcing candidates is the easy part of executive recruiting; assessing and selecting is where the executive search firm truly adds value."

Executive recruiting can put your people skills to the test, as well as your business acumen. Follow these five tips for startup success:

  • Keep an eye on demographics. Following key trends in demographics will show you where the next boom industries are--and therefore provide guidance on how to specialize your services.
  • Articulate your message. Being able to answer key questions about your executive search firm not only solidifies your expertise for clients, but also gives you the confidence to court corporate clients. According to Costello, you should be able to answer questions such as: How can your firm add value to the recruitment of executives for a corporation? What value can you offer candidates who need to trust you during the sourcing, assessment and selection process?
  • Consider the competition. It's crucial to recognize--and project--why your firm is a better option for clients than an online job site. "[Online job boards] only connect a sometimes very active job seeker with an employer," says Manko. "However, an executive search firm must be able to seek out the 'passive' or 'inactive' job seeker and then add value to the selection and hiring process through in-depth interviews, assessments, references, development planning and compensation negotiations."
  • Go overboard. It isn't enough to select and interview candidates. You must go above and beyond to minimize the risks of bad hiring choices for your clients. Manko says this means focusing on assessment through "rigorous and numerous interviews" before you ever introduce the candidate to your client. And "focus must be placed on ensuring that the candidate is positioned to be successful beyond the first year of employment and be able to create value."
  • Seek diversity. Diversity used to be considered a specialty. Manko says this is no more: "It must and should be integrated into every search plan and slate of candidates that is presented to a client."

Executive Recruiting Franchises:
Careers USA
careersusa.com

PMA Franchise Systems
pmafranchise.com

Sanford Rose Associates
sanfordrose.com

Snelling Staffing Services
snelling.com

Spherion Corp.
spherion.com