- Robots: Roomba, the puck-shaped vacuum, has become a smash hit, with more than 1.2 million units sold since its launch in 2002. This holiday season, the makers of Roomba, iRobot, are offering Scooba, a new puck-bot that will mop your floors. While the all-in-one robot is still far away, domestic-chore robots continue to hit store shelves, such as Friendly Robotics' Robomow, an automatic lawn mower that cuts grass when you program it to, much like a sprinkler system. It's not too late for entrepreneurs to jump in--consumers are still waiting for practical robot solutions to tackle chores like window washing, pool cleaning and security.
- Nanotech: Some say nanotechnology--the creation of materials at the molecular level, enhancing their capabilities--is this generation's "Plastics." Ecology Coatings of Akron, Ohio, for example, is already warping what's possible with the creation of "liquid solid" coatings, which flow like liquid and stay "wet" without drying or evaporating until they're hit with ultraviolet light--then they dry in just three seconds. There are other applications: Apollo Diamond cultures real diamonds one atom at a time. Clothing, lotion, diapers and medicine are all on the same path. What, you thought your wrinkle-free pants were magic?
- Batteries: What do BlackBerries, iPods, PowerBooks, PSPs and Razrs all have in common? Batteries--which need to be docked, plugged in, charged or worst of all, replaced. As our world grows digital, opportunities bloom for businesses like A123Systems in Watertown, Massachusetts. A123Systems is working to improve today's batteries--shrinking them, increasing their run time, improving their power and making them charge faster. CEO David Vieau, 56, says, "Any new battery company will require bleeding-edge technology, high-quality and scalable manufacturing processes, environmentally friendly materials and financial backing to get good ideas off the ground."
Always on Your Mind
The burning issues business owners are thinking about:
The Viral Economy: To many, it seems like Google cornered the search engine market and dominated the lexicon of searching overnight. How did it happen? It wasn't through a huge ad campaign--Google profited from a superior product and today's viral economy.
The viral economy efficiently distributes opinions and experiences for the benefit of others. Buzz getting spread through word-of-mouth isn't a new phenomenon-what is new is how quickly the message is sent, thanks to the internet. With very little effort, friends can shoot acquaintances an e-mail or IM telling them of their favorable--or not so favorable--encounter with a business. The phrase "internet community" is highly appropriate when describing the viral economy because of the word community. In a traditional community, businesses flourish based on reputation. Now, the internet has paved Main Street to wrap around the world, allowing the little guy to compete with Goliath. In a viral economy, all businesses are equipped with the same slingshot.
Social Entrepreneurship: In 2004, Gap Inc. severed relationships with 70 overseas factories. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. The factories violated a code of conduct regarding child labor and ignored their social responsibility. American businesses are taking a hands-on approach to social responsibility in addition to their regular financial contributions to charities--in 2004, they donated an all-time high $3.6 billion, according to The Foundation Center. Last year, Home Depot alone contributed 50,000 employees and 2 million hours to community service. And today, more than 30 business schools, including the one at Harvard University, offer courses on social responsibility. Is your business solving social problems?
Building Green: Our nation's dependence on natural resources has never been more evident than during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Within 24 hours of the storm making landfall, the price of gasoline shot through the stratosphere. But even before this tragedy, there were plenty of forward-thinking businesses building and operating green--using eco-friendly materials and processes along with sustainable alternate energy sources, such as solar power, to improve environmental, economic, health and productivity performance. Participation doesn't require you to construct a windmill in your parking lot-changes can be as simple as using more efficient light bulbs or adding motion sensors to save electricity when no one's in the office.
Letting Consumers Vote: In the words of Diddy, "Vote or die!" Well, it was P. Diddy back when he said it, but the message has stayed the same. For businesses, the interpretation could be literal, since the web has made it very easy for businesses to allow consumers to vote on their favorite products--sometimes without a business's involvement, as is the case with sites like Epinions.com. Aside from your standard grading, proactive businesses can ask consumers to vote on their next product, just as Mars Inc. did when deciding on a new M&M color. Getting consumers involved in the decision-making process gives them a vested interest in your business.
Fractional Ownership: Not all of us can afford our own jets or vacation homes. In fact, hardly any of us can; that's precisely why there's fractional ownership. But why stop at jets and vacation homes? Why not expand the fractional ownership model to other expensive products and services? Tour GCX Partners, for example, offers fractional membership to private golf courses nationwide. Club Sportiva lets you turn the key on 15 different exotic sports cars, from a 1969 Jaguar E-type roadster to a 2003 Porsche Boxster. In the gotta-have-it social world we live in today, offering consumers a piece of the pie could be a sweet deal for you.--S.C.
Where It's At
The housing market explosion--coupled with the nation's growing population--has pushed the development of new communities outside metropolitan areas. Those moving to new communities, however, still require the luxuries and conveniences they're used to-such as restaurants, housecleaning services and dry cleaners. That means opportunities for entrepreneurs. Here are the top 10 areas of the country seeing growth:
1. Daytona Beach, Florida
2. Greater Chicago
3. Washington, DC/Baltimore
4. Mitchell, South Dakota
5. Sioux Falls, South Dakota
6. Austin, Texas
7. Reno, Nevada
8. Elizabeth City, North Carolina
9. St. Johns County, Florida
10. Des Moines, Iowa
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, based on growth percentage