Smart Picks Part I

10 top businesses for 1998.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the January 1998 issue of . Subscribe »

Thinking of launching a business in 1998 but not sure what's hot? Successful companies solve problems. So what's the biggest problem people face today? Lack of time. Whether they're working parents striving to keep the family on an even keel or seniors wanting to fulfill lifelong dreams, everyone seems to be caught up in a time crunch. If you start a business that offers relief from round-the-clock pressures, like those we're showcasing here, you'll be in on a trend that shows no signs of abating.


As worldwide commerce continues to flourish, so does the need for experienced translators who can create a level playing field of language for business. So it's no surprise the market for skilled translators is hotter than ever; Walter Bacak, executive director of the American Translators Association in Alexandria, Virginia, reports that association membership has tripled since 1990.

Tom West started his company when he uncovered a niche in the translation market just waiting to be filled. While working as an attorney at the largest law firm in Atlanta, West and his colleagues sent legal documents out to be translated at local agencies. But because of his experience with international transactions and his background in foreign languages--West holds a bachelor's degree in French, a master's degree in German and a minor in Russian--he continually noticed errors in the work they received.

"Almost without exception," West explains, "I found the translations we got back were just atrocious, because the documents were so full of legalese that untrained translators just couldn't get things right." So in 1995, West decided to do it better himself and started Intermark Language Services Corp., an Atlanta firm that specializes in translating foreign legal documents for attorneys. Now sales are hot and only show signs of getting hotter; since April 1997, business has tripled, mostly due to word-of-mouth advertising within the international legal community.

Spanish translating accounts for about 70 percent of the company's current assignments--whether it's English into Spanish or Spanish into English--while assignments in German, French and, occasionally, Dutch are also accepted. West hires independent contractors, many of whom have law degrees from other countries, to do the translations.

"Once the documents are translated into English, I can go through them and work with the translator to make sure they're written the way a lawyer would have written them," says West. "Legal systems differ, but common sense prevails around the world."

Professional Organizing

Sure, having to search for papers on a messy desk every day can be a real waste of time. But did you know how much time? A recent survey conducted by Accountemps, a worldwide temporary staffing service based in Menlo Park, California, revealed that executives waste the equivalent of about five weeks each year trying to find missing items.

Luckily for those who suffer from disorganization, an increasing number of entrepreneurs who have superior organization skills are starting businesses to help those who don't. Ruth Wong, who started her business, Organization Plus, in Aiea, Hawaii, is one of them. "Organizing is my passion," says Wong, who, in addition to owning her own professional organizing business, teaches organization classes and is a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) in Austin, Texas.

NAPO's membership has increased more than 200 percent since Wong started her business in 1991, when professional organizing was still a relatively new business concept in her area. So new, in fact, there wasn't even a section for the business in the Yellow Pages. So as her business grew, Wong successfully lobbied to have an "Organizing" section introduced in her local Yellow Pages--which is how most of her new clients now locate her.

Wong works primarily with corporate clients--streamlining paper flow, purging and organizing desktops and work areas, rearranging schedules, and creating `quiet time' to help them avoid interruptions. A small percentage of her time is also spent helping residential clients rearrange living and utility spaces, such as closets and cabinets.

"Organizing is a process; it's not a one-time event," says Wong, who creates and distributes a newsletter to clients on her mailing list to encourage continued organization. "What I try to do is teach my clients the basic principles of organizing. Usually, after I teach them the basics, I let them take the principles they've learned and apply them themselves. Really, I try to work myself out of a job."

Senior Concierge Service

If personal services make up the hottest business industry today, then the senior citizen demographic is one of the most potentially profitable segments of the personal services market. Sound confusing?

Consider these statistics for clarity: Based on data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau for the American Association of Retired Persons, there will be about 70 million older persons by 2030--more than twice their population in 1990. Furthermore, people 65 and older are projected to represent 13 percent of the population in the year 2000 and 20 percent by 2030. As the baby boomers age, the market for personal services will expand, too.

Yvette Gooch knows these projections well. In 1990, she and her mother, Maria Solorzano, started a personal grocery-delivery service primarily aimed at assisting senior citizens. Their business, E Z Pantry Inc., is located in Berlin, New Jersey, a rural area where public transportation is limited. "Our service allows our customers--especially the ones who have stopped driving--to remain independent," says Gooch.

E Z Pantry distributes a 92-page catalog that lists, by numbered code, everything available from its 5,000-square-foot warehouse, which is filled with products purchased at wholesale prices. Perishable groceries are specially ordered from local merchants, who prepare orders to be picked up by E Z Pantry's drivers each day. By placing their orders between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., customers can receive their groceries the next day. A $3 fee is charged per order, which covers processing and delivery charges.

"Our prices are very competitive with local supermarkets because we don't have the overhead they do," says Gooch. Like supermarkets, E Z Pantry offers sales items and accepts manufacturers' coupons. "We want to make shopping with us similar to going to the grocery store, but more convenient."

While disabled customers and busy professionals also take advantage of E Z Pantry's convenient service, Gooch estimates about 75 percent of the company's sales are generated from the senior market. "In our area, where there just weren't resources set up to service this senior segment of the population, word-of-mouth advertising about our business has just spread like wildfire," says Gooch. "Hospitals, social service departments and other organizations are just chomping at the bit to have some sort of resource to give their patients."

Computer Consulting

Until computers become as simple to operate and maintain as toasters, computer consulting will remain a hot growth area, according to Joyce Burkard, executive director of the Independent Computer Consultants Association in St. Louis. "While many of our members are involved with contract programming," says Burkard, "the biggest growth area is in anything having to do with the Internet."

As a result of this trend, many consultants, like Henry Stephens, co-owner of SPN Services Inc. in Queens, New York, have added Web-page design and support to their lists of services. "We got into the Internet business about two years ago. It's been building like gangbusters, and 15 percent of our business now is in dealing with Internet issues," he says. But Stephens strongly believes that knowing the technical details and being in on the latest rage are just part of operating a successful computer consulting company.

"Success in this business can be summed up in one thought: Don't disappear on your clients," says Stephens, whose company specializes in networking design and installation, support and training, and Microsoft Access database applications. Too many consultants, he says, take the money and run, setting up complex systems, then leaving clients to deal with inevitable problems.

"You don't have to know everything, but you have to be reliable to succeed," says Stephens. "You have to be a good listener and be in tune with the customer's comfort level. A lot of consultants are technical hot shots who miss the mark on the business and customer service end of things."

Solving customers' problems and sticking with them has enabled the company to grow from nine accounts when it started in 1994 to almost 40 major accounts today. "When we finish a project," Stephens says, "I feel a real sense of accomplishment."

Adventure Tourism

You've heard it here before: Specialty vacations are the hottest thing in the travel industry. And they're also a key contributor to economic growth: The Travel Industry Association of America reports that employment directly generated by travel promises to grow more than 18 percent in major travel industry sectors by 2005, directly generating more than a million new jobs.

Jennie Bettles found more than a job in the specialty travel industry--she found a new business. "Our company was established to support a community of explorers," says Bettles, owner of SameSky Inc., an Internet-based travel company she started in Oakland, California, in 1996. SameSky's Web site acts as a one-stop resource for travelers looking for out-of-the-ordinary vacations. In addition to travel listings, SameSky provides an online marketplace for travel gear, travel books and international language tapes, as well as a discussion forum for chatting about travel and world cultures.

"We wanted to serve both ends of the marketplace," says Bettles. "It's difficult for consumers to learn about all the travel options available, so we wanted to provide a central resource to help them. Our service is also beneficial to tour operators because we offer them a channel to the marketplace."

"Our company is formatted as a concierge model of travel booking," explains Bettles, who consults individually with consumers to find the specific tours they're looking for. "Adventure means different things to different people. Sometimes clients are in the mood for a trip that's athletically challenging, and sometimes they want something more educational."

Some of the unique trips posted on SameSky's Web site include a workshop on the Amazon River in Peru that allows travelers to work closely with shamans to learn about ethnobotany, and a trip to the Sea of Cortez, which retraces a portion of the journey John Steinbeck recorded in his novel, The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Bettles has compiled a database of more than 200 different adventure tours (with close to 400 more on the way), and receives a commission on each booking she makes. While trip prices cover a broad range, depending on length of stay and distance covered, the average trip price is about $2,500.

Children's Party Planning

Once upon a time, blowing up a few balloons, baking a cake and hollering out the front door for some neighborhood children to join yours for a birthday celebration worked just fine. But times change. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 32 million kids between the ages of 4 and 11 in the United States today, and a lot of them are hoping for a little more excitement than pin the tail on the donkey and a cake with trick candles. Busy, dual-income families with more money than time want to provide their kids with fun, entertaining activities. They just don't have the time to organize them.

Enter the children's party planner. "Relieving parental stress is what this business is all about," says Joy Yates, who, with her sister-in-law, Dawn Yates, started Little Princess Tea Parties from their Gainesville, Virginia, homes last year. "That, and ensuring that the children have a wonderful time."

Planners do everything from creating invitations to providing food, favors, crafts and entertainment--even clean-up--leaving parents free to enjoy the parties, too.

While no association has yet charted the exact number of businesses specializing in children's party planning, Sharon Jansen, owner of Special Event Business Advisors in San Clemente, California, says, "I get calls almost daily from people interested in this field. In fact, there are more calls about this area than any other."

Their first month in business, the Yates sisters-in-law gave five parties. They're now averaging 10 to 15 per month. At a minimum of $150 a pop, the money adds up. And this is a business where a small investment can result in a nice payoff: $500 launched Little Princess Tea Parties. The funds purchased prom and wedding dresses, shoes, gloves, and hats from thrift stores. The sisters-in-law also picked up some suit jackets, vests and ties for the boys who sometimes attend. Other buys included makeup, tea supplies and craft items. But mostly, the women invested time. With business booming, the two currently put in about 10 hours apiece each week, plus they attend and manage all the parties, most of which are held on weekends.

Unlike other children's party planners, who offer an array of party themes from the circus and sports to bead crafts and the latest cartoon phenomena, the women focus on a niche no one else in their area has yet entered. "We started with the idea that kids love to dress up, then realized tea parties were becoming a popular idea among adults," says Joy. "It turned out to be a great combination."

While the women advertise in some parenting and annual party publications, most of their publicity comes from word of mouth, and because they survey both parents and children, they know 99.9 percent of their customers are happy with the service they provide. For the moment, Little Princess Tea Parties will remain a local operation, but the partners are exploring the possibility of providing "tea parties in a box" to grow their business.

Hot Resources

American Translators Association, (703) 683-6100
Entrepreneur's Language Translation Start-Up Guide #1353, (800) 421-2300

National Association of rofessional Organizers, 1033 La Posada Dr., #220, Austin, TX 78752-3880, (512) 206-0151

How to Start and Operate an Errand Service, by Rob Spina (Legacy Marketing, $29.95, 888-725-2639)

Independent Computer Consultants Association, (800) 774-4222
Entrepreneur's Computer Consulting Start-Up Guide #1221, (800) 421-2300

Adventure Travel Society, (303) 649-9016
Entrepreneur's Specialty Travel Start-Up Guide #1386, (800) 421-2300

International Special Events Society, (317) 571-5601
Entrepreneur's Event-Planning Start-Up Guide #1313, (800) 421-2300

Contact Sources

Accountemps, 2884 Sand Hill Rd., Menlo Park, CA 94025, (650) 234-6000

American Association of Retired Persons, 601 East St. N.W., Washington, DC 20049, (202) 434-2277

E Z Pantry Inc., P.O. Box 1342, Berlin, NJ 08055, (609) 767-0555

Independent Computer Consultants Association,

Intermark Language Services Corp., 2849 Paces Ferry Rd., #380, Atlanta, GA 30339, (770) 333-9911

Little Princess Tea Parties, (800) 489-OTEA,

Organization Plus, 98-151 Pali Momi #110, #128, Aiea, HI 96701-4333, (808) 488-0288

SPN Services Inc., (800) 544-9673,

SameSky Inc.,

Travel Industry Association of America, (202) 408-8422,


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