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6 Fresh Ideas for a Budding Entrepreneur

Marty Nemko

Many people think, "I'd like to start my own business--if only I had a good idea."

Like any of these?

Personal focus groups. Many people buy clothes hoping it will make other people think them sexier, smarter, younger, older, etc. Shoppers have to rely on guesswork but imagine if, when deciding which of three pairs of Ray-Ban sunglasses to buy, you could easily poll all your Facebook friends? Wouldn't you do so? What if you were Ray-Ban's manufacturer: Don't you think you'd sell more sunglasses if, on the Ray-Ban website, one click enabled a potential customer to poll his or her friends? Wouldn't you pay big bucks to have that put on your site?

Monetize student work. College and graduate students pump out massive amounts of work that yield no benefit to the world. All that results from all those term papers and projects is a letter grade and feedback, if you're lucky. But what if your papers and projects were used by companies and nonprofits to help solve real-world problems?

So, do you want to offer a service to organizations in which you establish and run such programs? It could be as massive as a nationwide contest or as simple as phoning the instructor of the advanced graphic design course at the local art school and offering a $500 prize to the student in the class who designs the best logo, packaging, book cover, fundraising pitch, etc.

Fundraising auction planner. Nonprofits can make big bucks with an auction, but setting up and running one is very labor intensive: Recruiting volunteers, soliciting donations, placing them, arranging the venue, food, etc. It's a nice business opportunity for self-starting event-planner types who prefer to work for a nonprofit cause.

Clothing innovation. Buttoning and unbuttoning a dress shirt takes about two minutes. In our busy lives, saving even 10 minutes a week isn't trivial. Why not create shirts that, instead of buttons, have Velcro? Not only is it faster, the lines are cleaner, and of course, it's a boon to people with arthritis, Parkinson's, who have had a stroke, etc.

Businesses capitalizing on new laws. Many new laws create attractive business opportunities because people affected by the new law are forced to pay; it's not a discretionary spend. Examples: A new Illinois law makes it illegal for a boat to pick up plants and other material in one local body of water and then enter another body of water before being cleaned. In this case it could be a good opportunity to start a boat-cleaning business.

Colorado just passed a law requiring public and private school athletic coaches take annual training to recognize the symptoms of a concussion. In this instance, providing an online outlet to receive such training could be a great business opportunity.

Job search agent. Most people hate looking for a job. But what if job seekers could do what actors, athletes, and authors do and hire an agent to set up interviews? The agent would write and phone potential employers pitching his or her client. To preempt employers' concern that it's weird for a job seeker to hire an agent, the agent can explain, "It's not unusual: actors, athletes, and authors do it all the time. My clients are about efficiency. They feel they can land the right job more quickly by outsourcing the initial parts of the job search. Isn't that the sort of efficiency-minded employee you want?"

That idea emerged from pleas that job seekers have made to career counselors. "Can't you make the initial inquiries to employers? I'll be happy to show up for interviews." Indeed, many good business ideas spring from one's own work experience. Any come to mind for you?

A Cautionary Note

You may be intrigued by one or more of these new ideas but the leading edge may turn out to be the bleeding edge--guinea pigs usually die. If you want to reduce the risk of self-employment, you might want to follow this rule: Don't innovate; replicate. Leave the innovation to corporations and fat cats who can more easily afford a few failures.

Here's an example of a tried-and-true business: shoeshine stand. This is among the simplest, lowest-cost, highest profit-margin businesses, where little skill is required. Igor Sauchuk simply asked JFK Airport if he could open a shoeshine stand. They said yes, and charged him no rent. He had a friend build the stand and he opened up shop. A clever name can help: For example, "Dianne FineShine."

In truth, the idea is the easy part. A-level execution is the hard part. At every step of the way in setting up and running your business, ask yourself, what's the smartest, most cost-effective approach? Don't know? Talk to successful, ethical businesspeople, especially those who run a business similar to yours. If you're worried they won't help a competitor, speak with someone outside your locale.

Today, when so many employers hire only part-time, no benefits, with wages stagnant, self-employment can be a more likely path to solid income--and you can't be fired.

Just be careful out there.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" and he was Contributing Editor for Careers at U.S. News. His sixth and seventh books were published in 2012: How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on www.martynemko.com. He posts here every Monday.

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