Entrepreneur's annual look at the brightest ideas, the hottest industries and the most insightful innovators
"Good ideas are common," the aptly named British humorist Ashleigh Brilliant once said. "What's uncommon are people who'll work hard enough to bring them about."
Thank goodness, then, for the entrepreneurs on our annual list of 100 Brilliant Companies, who have coupled genius and execution to fantastic -- and, in many cases, fantastically lucrative -- ends. We picked 10 areas, some that have been booming for years (mobile tech, seniors) and some that are just now hitting their stride (social shopping, startup-to-startup), and spotlighted some of the most innovative and inspiring companies in each. The brilliance runs the gamut, from a deal site aggregator recognizing a void in a crowded sector to a service that simplifies the notoriously difficult process of creating an app.
Here's hoping that reading about all this brilliance will spark some in you.
How ShareSquare Is Leading the QR-Code Marketing Pack
If you use shopkick or Foursquare, you already know: Online and offline worlds are colliding as consumers become more comfortable with networks, apps and mobile devices. And as for the companies making it their business to link up the two worlds, they're reaping some serious benefits.
Take, for instance, Los Angeles-based ShareSquare, which uses quick response, or QR, codes (those small black-and-white dotted squares showing up on more and more product packaging and ads) to help convert a moment of consumer discovery into one of action.
How Hipmunk Gained Traction As the Go-To Flight-Search Site
Whether you're the type who prefers the journey or kvells over the destination, there's a good chance the experience of booking travel leaves you feeling twitchy. In need of many a plane ticket to get to college debate tournaments, Adam Goldstein, a self-professed flight industry nerd who knows "the three-letter city codes for more places than I care to mention," often found himself frustrated by the booking process.
So Goldstein approached friend Steve Huffman, co-founder of reddit, about starting a company that would improve travel search. Even if they could just capture a small share of the travel market, the pair figured the company had big potential.
How Zite's iPad Magazine Is Bringing Browsing Back
Amid the swirl, mania and hype of just-in-time-for-SXSW launches, there was Zite. An iPad-only magazine app that gets smarter and more personal over time, Zite took off with 120,000 downloads in its first week. After years of Googling ourselves silly, this app serves up a modernized version of that old chestnut from the internet's inception: browsing.
"In the early days of the web there was sort of an attempt to create the browsing experience," says Ali Davar, founder and CEO of Zite, based in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Then search came along and people said ‘Who needs browsing anymore?' But with the iPad you don't want to search--you want to browse."
How Yellow+Blue Is Making a Difference in the Wine Business
The process, usually: Make wine. Bottle the wine at the winery in, say, Italy or New Zealand. Ship the wine in a 40-pound package comprised of just 9 liters of liquid--about 18 pounds--and a whole lot of glass.
"It's such an antiquated and old-world model, and I was just looking for maybe--I don't know--a 21st-century solution," says Matthew Cain, founder and president of Chester Springs, Penn.-based Yellow+Blue Wines. While glass remains the gold standard for wine bound for a cellar, Cain says, most consumption in the U.S. takes place just hours after purchase, rather than weeks or years.
How H.U.M.A.N. Is Breaking Through As the Next-Generation Snack Machine
Sean Kelly was a die-hard New York City gym rat back in 2003 when, after a particularly tough workout, he found himself in a quandary.
"I left the sports club in search of fuel, but couldn't find anything healthy for five square blocks," Kelly says. "There were white tablecloth restaurants, convenience stores and bagel shops."
Later, when Kelly saw a woman in the gym walk over to the vending machine, buy a 20-ounce Coke and put it in the cup holder of her treadmill, his fate was sealed. "I looked at that and said, that doesn't make sense," he says.
How Rest Assured Is Filling a Niche in the Senior-Care Market
Keeping a senior in a nursing home is incredibly expensive. Bringing in a home healthcare aid may be more economical, but a nurse can't monitor each client 24/7.
That's the niche Rest Assured fills. The system sounds like something out of Orwell: A typical setup includes two-way video monitoring and an array of sensors that tell the Tele-Caregiver at Rest Assured's home base in Lafayette, Ind., how long a senior has stayed in the bathroom or if they've opened the medicine cabinet to take their prescriptions. It also measures the temperature, calculates carbon monoxide and even indicates when a client sits in a specific chair or goes to bed.
How Yipit Is Upending the Daily Discount Model
The recession gave way to a nation of cheapskates. No one wants to pay full price for anything anymore, and consumers continue to spend 30 percent less than they did in 2008, Gallup's consumer spending poll shows.
But consumer spending on daily deal sites is set to soar to $3.9 billion by 2015, says a recent study by BIA/Kelsey, a media consulting firm. And with sites like Groupon and LivingSocial bringing in $1 million a day in revenue, a market that didn't exist three years ago is expected to grow 138 percent in 2011 with a staggering $2.7 billion in revenue, TechCrunch reports.
How Mobile Roadie Became a Leader in Do-It-Yourself Apps
For many businesses, creating a mobile app is akin to what creating a website was 15 years ago--it's expensive and time consuming, and you can probably get along without one for a while. But then again, if you don't invest now, you'll regret it when you're playing digital catch-up in a year.
Enter Mobile Roadie, which, when it launched in 2009, was the first self-service app creator on the market, allowing businesses to customize and publish apps on all formats for a tenth of what it would cost to develop an app from scratch. Though many more app-creation services have jumped into the game lately, Mobile Roadie still has the advantage by being first to market.
How Betterworks Is Helping Startups Perk Up Their Perks
We call it startup-to-startup: a new crop of businesses helping smaller, younger companies work faster and be cooler--for a better price. It's a promising space for entrepreneurial ventures now that business owners aren't afraid to buy their services online.
Take it from Paige Craig, angel investor in several S2S companies, and, as of November 2010, co-founder and CEO of his very own. With Betterworks, his Santa Monica, Calif.-based startup, the goal is to help businesses recruit--and keep--talent.
The solution involves perks. Specifically, Google perks at Costco prices.
How Polyvore Became a Trend-Setter in Social Shopping
The future of shopping is social (as in network). For that, you can thank companies like Polyvore, an online community whose members curate product images from all over the web to make digital fashion collages, called "sets," that can be shared on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. To encourage actual shopping, the sets link back to the original sites and include pricing when available.
Co-founders Pasha Sadri (CEO) and Jess Lee (VP of product) got their data mashup cred at Yahoo Pipes and Google Maps, respectively, and have created what is essentially a crowdsourced fashion magazine that reflects real-time trends.