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The 8 Best Online Businesses to Start Now

Shoes.largeLooking to start a business? If you want something with big potential that doesn’t take much startup capital, consider an online service of some type. A major shift toward purchasing both consumer and business-to-business services online has created a slew of opportunities for would-be entrepreneurs.

For one thing, Internet usage continues to soar. Going online is now a reflex action rather than a conscious decision. Some people spend most of their day online, switching between their PC, mobile device, tablet and TV. Connection speeds have increased sharply and businesses as well as consumers are doing more and more things online.

Online Retail & Services Soar

According to a new study by the research firm IBIS World, the biggest money making opportunities are in the retail and service sectors. And here’s more good news: Many of the things once done only by the most tech savvy big businesses are now within range of small operators with little or no tech expertise. Basically, you can tap into whatever tech or expertise you need by using third-party vendors to develop websites, provide e-commerce capabilities and much more.

And the cost of Internet storage has never been cheaper. These factors and others have combined to make starting an online business easier, quicker and less costly than ever.

Here are eight types of high-potential businesses that are easy to get into and are experiencing major changes of the kind that spell big opportunities.

1. TV and Home Theater Installation

Few industries are as fragmented as this, or as easy to enter with little capital. Some 94% of U.S. households have a TV; 84% have a DVD player and about 25% now have a home theater. It’s now a $12 billion industry, although you’ll definitely need to keep up with fast changing technology.

2. Virtual Data Rooms

The VDR industry is growing quickly at about 16% annually since 2008, with revenue expected to reach $728 million in 2013. The proliferation of online document sharing services has helped the industry flourish. With low barriers to entry, IBIS World expects this industry to expand at an annualized rate of 17% over the next five years.

3. IT Security Consulting

This industry has benefited from increasing adoption of e-commerce, growth in mobile Internet access and some high-profile data breaches. Over the last five years, revenue increased at an annual rate of 9.8% to $5.3 billion. As businesses buy more and more computers and software, the need for IT security advice grows.

4. Travel Agencies

Outdated storefront travel agencies are giving way to online services, which offer a relatively high-profit, low-cost way to handle transactions. This segment of the industry has grown significantly and will likely continue to display strong growth during the next five years.

5. Online Shoe Sales

Consumers love buying things online – especially shoes, accessories and the like. Industry revenue has been growing at a robust 16% annual rate. Every year, more than 100 million Americans purchase goods online, one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S.  Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have an opportunity to enter the online realm and recapture sales taken by retailers that operate exclusively online.

6. Digital Forensic Services

This industry has also benefited from growth in mobile web connections and a rise in the percentage of households with at least one computer. The amount of information stored electronically is skyrocketing. Digital forensics helps find and analyze digital information for various legal purposes. While there are few prohibitive licensing or regulatory barriers, this business does require more capital than others.

7. Translation Services

Globalization and an increasing number of non-native English speakers in the U.S. have helped fuel growth here. The Internet has also fostered demand for translators because businesses expanding into new countries must adapt websites and marketing materials to the new region. Technology has helped automate some of the process, improving the speed and accuracy of translators.

8. Social Network Game Development

This industry has grown an astounding 184% per year during the past five years, driven by surging Internet and social network use. As smartphones and tablets proliferate, people can now access social networks anywhere, any time. Indeed, according to a report from research firm Nielsen, consumers spend 20% of their total time online using social networks on personal computers and 30% of their time online visiting social networks on mobile devices.

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6 Lessons on Becoming a High Impact Business

High growth biz Uncle Sam wanted to know:  What kinds of companies are America’s true growth generators? Is it corporate giants like Apple, Amazon or GE? Is it startups? Is it relative newbies such as Facebook.

After some exhaustive research, the answer was clear: “None of the above.

As it turns out, the real economic spark plugs in the U.S. are not big public companies. They are small, privately-held, fast-growing firms that already exist. These “high-impact” businesses are defined as firms whose sales and employee count have at least doubled over a four-year period.

Surprise! High Impact Includes All Industries

That’s about 350,000 businesses and the research shows they tend to be a bit younger (but still average 17 years old) and a whole lot more productive than others.  And they’re not just a bunch of high tech firms, either. They exist in relatively equal shares across all industries – and get this – even declining and stagnant ones! No single industry dominates.

That alone is both positive news and a huge lesson for startup entrepreneurs and other business owners who fear they can’t hit it big in more traditional businesses or industries. In short, you can.

Here’s another stunning finding of the U.S. Small Business Administration study: This relatively small group (less than 10% of all U.S. companies) of privately-held small firms accounts for all (not most, but ALL) net job growth in the U.S. economy. And get this: These high-impact businesses are also largely immune to ups and downs of the business cycle. Sound good?

Small Firms Dominate

But surely these must be the “bigger” small business, right? Wrong again. The vast majority (94%) of high-impact businesses have just one to 19 employees. Another 5.5% come in at between 20 and 499 employees, and a scant 0.5% have more.

In other words, a few hundred thousand businesses with just a handful of employees are having a bigger collective impact on job growth in the U.S. than all the corporate giants combined. Now ain’t that somethin’!

By now, you should be saying to yourself you’re either one of these firms – or you want to be. But how? For answers, let’s check in with Edward Hess, professor and Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s graduate business school. Hess has studied high-impact businesses for years and has an insightful new book called Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Entrepreneurial Businesses (Stanford University Press, 2012). He offers these six lessons on being a high-growth firm:

1)    Don’t grow yourself into trouble

Many small businesses flame out when they try to grow too quickly, as growth outstrips people, processes and controls. Cash flow is critical. Growth requires investment ahead of cash receipts. “Entrepreneurs must understand they might not be able to afford all available growth,” says Darden. Avoid the “grow or die” myth. A better approach is “improve or die.”

2)    Upgrade continuously

Remember this: What got you here, won’t necessarily get you there. In other words, solutions that work at one size business generally won’t work as you get bigger. Growth means continuous change. Hess has found that common tipping points that require adjustments occur at 10, 25, 50 and 100 employees. Top entrepreneurs and their teams know how to experiment, learn and adapt.

3)    Know when to back off

All private businesses face the same growth challenges. The most successful ones know how to pace their growth. Hess calls it the “gas pedal” approach. They know when to let up on the growth gas pedal to give their people, processes and controls time to catch up.

4)    Manage your risks

Growth creates stress on finances, quality controls, people and processes. It can dilute your business’s culture and customer value proposition. And it can even thrust you into a different competitive space. Understanding these risks is crucial to managing your growth pace and preventing your business from being overwhelmed.

5)    Get better at delegating

In order for your business to grow, YOU must grow, too. There’s only so much you can do yourself. That means you have to evolve from being strictly a doer, to also being an effective manager, delegator and leader.  Sometimes that’s hard to do or swallow, but it’s a must.

6)    Keep strategic focus

Having and keeping strategic focus is also critical to growing “safely.” The most successful high-impact firms focus on doing one thing that lots of customers need, and doing it better than the competition.

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Related BizBest Articles

A New National Network of Startup Communities

startupamericaWhen I first wrote about the non-profit Startup America Partnership in early 2011 (Why You Should Join Startup America), it had just launched with much fanfare and a lofty mission of helping to inspire and accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship in the U.S.  It was announced at the White House, although it’s not a government program and receives no government funding.

Back then, I said, “Any business owner or entrepreneur – from startup (newly created), to ramp-up (initial growth stage), to speedup (going like gang busters) – should be ready to tap this free resource when the help starts flowing.”

Well, the help is flowing freely and my original advice holds:  If you are in or around the startup space, getting involved with Startup America in your area will be well worth your while. (To join the network, go here and select your state or region.)

Startup America has quickly evolved from a kind of resources clearinghouse into a fast-growing national network of local and regional startup communities. Its leaders quickly recognized that to be effective at serving entrepreneurs who exist everywhere in different industries with wildly different needs, it had to do it region by region, state by state, city by city. Too many entrepreneurs are disconnected from each other; from their communities; from their towns, cities and states; from potential customers, funders and talent; and from the resources that could help them.

Building a National Network

Startup America aims to help by developing a national network of startup communities that include mentors, role models and fellow entrepreneurs who can sustain and validate each other. It is creating visible networks so that a startup in one city can be connected to other startups and leaders in that city, as well as to those in adjacent cities and to the entire country.

So far, Startup America has grown to nearly 12,000 members (you can view the member directory here).  Here’s an interesting breakdown of Startup America membership by state. Also check out dozens of helpful webinars available on the website.

California, which (as you might expect) has the largest member count of any state, is home to one of the most advanced regional initiatives and has a super-helpful website chock full of startup resources. These include places to find capital, mentors and crowd funding, among others.

(Note: BizBest’s Silicon Beach shortLIST has details on the startup community in Southern California, considered one of the fastest growing and most dynamic worldwide.)

State Experiences

Here’s what some of the regional Startup America leaders had to say recently about their unique startup environment, goals and challenges:

  • Florida is awash in high net worth capital, but the rich are not used to investing in startups. The state’s most talented entrepreneurs often leave for startup hubs in Boston, North Carolina, Austin, and Silicon Valley. There are 430,000 micro-businesses, with one to nine employees, which need help scaling.
  • Iowa said it had a good community of startups in IT, software, biosciences, and materials. The challenge was finding them all and getting them to venture out of their silos. There is enough venture capital money for rounds of $250,000 and up, but little for seed rounds of much less.
  •  Nebraska’s challenge was “to be identified by more people on a map.” It finds it hard to attract and retain talent, from developers to marketing and sales. It works closely with Iowa to create an easily identifiable Silicon Prairie region.
  • Texas has a lot of venture-ready money, but struggles to get it into the hands of entrepreneurs. The startup communities are based around cities—Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso—rather than statewide. Collaborating between these city-based communities is difficult.
  • Connecticut has money but no sense of a startup community. Everyone working to support startups is working separately. The state is attempting to create what it calls a “greased-skid system” of innovation clusters.
  • Massachusetts’ problem was “having too much” and getting the different organizations and people to collaborate. It wanted to expand the startup community beyond Boston to less-dynamic parts of the state and keep students in the state after graduating from Massachusetts’ many colleges.
  • Colorado’s plan was to use the success of its startup community in Boulder as a model for Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs, and to build deeper links between different industries.
  • Virginia said that it had very strong technology pockets, as well as some of the wealthiest and poorest parts of the country. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) spends a lot of its money in northern Virginia, but other parts of the state struggle economically. Many organizations claim to help entrepreneurs, but they are highly fragmented with no central authority. The main challenge was pulling together the various parts of Virginia into one startup community.
  • Maryland boasted of plenty of government support and interest in startups from the governor’s office down. The challenge was in catalyzing the state’s entrepreneurial spirit. A startup bus has driven around the state, inviting people to come aboard and pitch, garnering significant media attention.
  • Indiana called its startup community an “uprising.” In Indianapolis, there’s Developertown, raw office space where developers can build and park their own structures. What entrepreneurs needed was to be “less aw-shucks and modest.”

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Best Local Place for Free Business Startup Help

They don’t have money to really market or advertise their existence, and most business owners and would-be entrereneurs have never heard of them. But America’s 1,100 Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) are a terrific resource for startups. Most SBDCs are hidden in out-of-the-way corners of local colleges and universities, chambers of commerce and vocational schools, but finding one is well worth the effort.  If you’re looking to unleash your inner entrepreneur, one of the the best places for most people to start is at a local SBDC.

“We’re seeing more individuals interested in starting businesses, and I can’t say we’re surprised,” says Christian Conroy, State Director of the Pennsylvania SBDC, a network of 18 college-based centers providing help to new and existing businesses in PA.  On-Site Heavy Equipment Repair in Clarence, PA is one example of a startup that forged ahead despite a dubious economy. Husband and wife team Don and Coleen Reese began their business just after the collapse of Bear Stearns in 2008. Working through the Penn State University SBDC, the couple got help developing a financial model and doing market research that helped them secure startup capital.

SBDCs offer counseling, training and tech help in all areas of business management, including finance, marketing, production, engineering, and feasibility studies. The program is run jointly by private enterprise and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

Despite cuts in funding, SBDCs are seeing a surge of interest in starting a business.  Sharon and Frank Gundy of Hazleton, PA, looked at a new venture as a way to recoup lost income. Frank had been laid off, and Sharon, a real estate agent, was hard-pressed for sales. The couple sought help from the Wilkes University SBDC to launch their novelty gift business and build an online presence.

And Kelly Schick joined the entrepreneur ranks after being laid off from her job at Osram-Sylvania, the giant lighting manufacturer. The Gannon University SBDC helped Schick take over a former sports bar in downtown Warren, PA, after navigating her through the loan process. “I might have given up without help and encouragement from the SBDC,” says Schick, now the proud owner of Kelly’s Pub.

Free help from an SBDC is available to anyone interested in starting a small business for the first time or simply improving and expanding an existing small business, and who cannot afford the services of a private consultant. To locate a  Small Business Development Center near you:

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Small Business Solutions of the Week

BizBest 30-Second Solutions

“30-Second Solutions” – a BizBest exclusive – spotlights the best new and undiscovered profit- and productivity-boosting products and services for small business, explainable in 30 seconds or less.  Here’s our latest half dozen: 

  1. Daily Discount Deals for Biz Owners:  BizyDeal is a new site offering business owners deep discounts on products and services such as computer networking equipment, software, mobile devices, shipping, payroll, legal and accounting services, travel, car rental, banking, credit cards, insurance and more. It’s free to register and be notified when a new deal arrives.
  2. Your Own Custom Visa Loyalty Cards:  Want to turn heads with a custom designed and branded Visa loyalty, gift or incentive cards featuring your own logo or product images?  It’s easy for any small business to do with a new service from Incentive CardLab.  Arizona-based Woolaver Orthodontics uses the cards to thank patients for referrals.  For any referral that begins treatment, the referring patient receives a $100 Visa Incentive Card with Woolaver branding.  Law firm Balch & Bingham uses the cards to reward employees for years of service.
  3. Boot camp for Startups:  Startup Weekend has a simple premise: “No Talk, All Action.  Launch a Startup in 54 hours.”  So if you have startup on your mind, this is for you.  Startup Weekends are 54-hour events where developers, designers, marketers, product managers and startup enthusiasts share ideas, form teams, build products and launch startups. Events held at locations nationwide offer hands-on experiences where aspiring entrepreneurs can develop and test their startup ideas. 
  4. Quick and Easy Tax Filings:  Got employees?  If so, you must file quarterly IRS Form 941 reports to process tax payments and reconcile tax withholding. – a BizBest ShortList selection – is an easy-to-use, low-cost way to file your forms online.  I’ve used this web-based tax filing service myself for years to process 1099s, W-2s and other tax forms, and it’s been a terrific time-saver.  No more tripping on filing rules.  The FileTaxes service ensures compliance and provides copies for your records that you can print or store and access anytime online. Just enter your summarized payroll data online.  Cost is just $4.95 for each Form 941.
  5. Free IBM Software Suite:  One cornerstone of starting and operating an efficient, profitable business is having the right tech tools and software. But software costs can quickly eat into capital. Lotus Symphony 3, IBM’s office productivity suite, is free and has more features than the typical fee-based office suites bundled with a new Mac or PC. With IBM Symphony, you can customize and arrange toolbars, create one-click PDFs and work in either a tabbed view or dedicated window views for applications (documents, presentations and spreadsheets).  Make no mistake: Symphony is packed with power and easy to use, and is every bit the equal (or more) of its costly counterparts. So why not break out of the costly upgrade cycle of Microsoft Office?  A unique click-to-cloud feature lets you connect directly to the internet from within the application and store or share your documents.  Symphony already has over 12 million users worldwide, and online support is easily available.  Download here:  
  6. More Gov Contracts for Women-Owned Biz:  Under a new program now underway, women-owned small businesses (WOSBs) have more opportunities than ever to snag lucrative federal government contracts.  The first contract awards are expected near the end of 2011.  The Program allows contracting officers, for the first time, to set aside specific contracts for certified WOSBs and EDWOSBs and will help federal agencies achieve the existing statutory goal of five percent of federal contracting dollars being awarded to WOSBs.  The WOSB Federal Contract Program will provide greater access to federal contracting opportunities for WOSBs and economically-disadvantaged women-owned small businesses (EDWOSBs). The Program allows contracting officers, for the first time, to set aside specific contracts for certified WOSBs and EDWOSBs and will help federal agencies achieve the existing statutory goal of five percent of federal contracting dollars being awarded to WOSBsGo here:

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Finding Startup Funds Made Easier

Websites hoping to play matchmaker between investors and startup entrepreneurs have come and gone with great regularity. looks like a player.  The site has partnered with a long list of venture capital funds to create a kind of exchange that connects VC and other investors with biz owners and entrepreneurs seeking capital.  FindVenture uses a special algorithm to match investors and entrepreneurs — a time saver for both sides — and carries detailed profiles of VC firms and other investment companies.  Biz owners and startup entrepreneurs can post a funding request on the site and get themselves quickly on the funding map.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

A Looming Boom for Business Incubators

Startup entrepreneurs rejoice!  After decades of living in the shadows and back alleys of entrepreneurship, business incubators are about to enter a Golden Age.  Incubators – some now donning the updated moniker “seed accelerator”– are shared resource groups that nurture entrepreneurs and their fledgling ventures with mentoring, market research, office space, technology and other services.

At long last the stars are beginning to align for incubators to take a bigger, more coordinated and better-funded role in helping get businesses off the ground, starting with just the germ of an idea.

The latest jolt of juice comes from the newly-formed TechStars Network (, which will facilitate the sharing of resources and best practices among independently-owned and operated incubators in the U.S.  And to seal the deal, the Kauffman Foundation, the premier non-profit organization backing entrepreneurship, just coughed up $200,000 to develop software to coordinate, track and analyze what’s going on with seed accelerators across all industries.

With some deep pocket funding, and exposure as part of the federally-backed Startup America initiative, the new network ensures that millions more potential entrepreneurs will know about expanding incubator opportunities.

TechStars Network – which didn’t exist until February 2011 – counts as its members the top incubators coast to coast, including TechStars itself, one of the hottest and most successful incubators going. TechStars offers entrepreneurs up to $18,000 in seed funding, plus mentoring and, most importantly, the opportunity to pitch to hundreds of angel investors and venture capitalists at the end of the incubation period.

Other network members include Alphalab (Pittsburgh), Betaspring (Providence), BoomStartup (Salt Lake City), The Brandery (Cincinnati), Excelerate (Chicago), Founder’s Co-op (Seattle), Incubate (Miami), LaunchPad (New Orleans), Tech Wildcatters (Dallas), Jumpstart Foundry (Nashville) and many others. There’s a list with links on the TechStars Network website. These groups alone will back at least 6,000 young entrepreneurs over the next three years, says David Cohen, Founder & CEO of TechStars.

Not to be overlooked in all the sparkle coming from TechStars is the much older but finally breakout-ready National Association of Business Incubators (NBIA) which has spanned 25 years to become one of the world’s leading organizations advancing business incubation and entrepreneurship. While NBIA’s main mission is to help incubators (about 1,900 worldwide are members), the best (free) benefit the organization has for entrepreneurs is an incubator locator tool which lists incubators by state.  Click the “Find a Business Incubator” link under “Directories” on the right side of the NBIA home page (

How Incubators Work

Incubators come in both non-profit and for-profit forms. Acceptance criteria vary.  Some expect you to have a fully developed business plan.  Others require only a good idea and will help you develop a plan.

Most for-profit incubators will want an equity share in the business in exchange for space and services.  Most non-profits simply charge fees for space and services.  If speed to market is critical to your business idea, giving up equity to secure quick cash may be right for you. But if you think you can raise your own funding, don’t want to give up equity and are willing to build your biz more slowly, then paying fees for services and space may be a better choice.

If you want to work with an incubator – and especially if you have more than one choice – here are nine things you should ask about:

  1. How long has the incubator been operating and how well is it performing?
  2. Has it successfully graduated startups, and if so, how long have they been in business outside the incubator?
  3. What do graduates and current clients think of it?
  4. What’s the incubator’s “graduation” policy or exit requirements?
  5. How flexible is that policy in case your idea needs more time?
  6. How long do entrepreneurs usually remain in the program? (Incubators typically graduate companies within three years.)
  7. How long has the current staff been there?
  8. How much time does the staff spend on site?
  9. Have the program’s mentors had entrepreneurial successes of their own?

Some Really Smart Startups

Tech giant IBM recently launched a new “Global Entrepreneur” program to identify and support some of the most innovative new startups from around the world who are trying to “build a smarter planet” with technology.  The results are, quietly frankly, eye-popping, and the startups that made it to IBM’s SmartCamp World Finals are terrific models for aspiring entrepreneurs everywhere.

A startup called Streetline ( took top honors in the SmartCamp competition. Streetline uses sensors that help people find inexpensive parking fast while helping cities manage their parking resources more efficiently. Streetline was selected from more than 600 entries worldwide based on its outstanding technology and innovative business plan. As part of its Global Entrepreneur initiative, IBM SmartCamp brings together start-ups from around the world that are building new technologies to tackle pressing issues such as the environment, energy efficiency, traffic congestion and personal healthcare.

“Over 30 percent of traffic in cities is caused by drivers looking for parking. With our smart sensors, we can dramatically reduce the amount of drivers’ time looking for parking, and improve the efficiency of a city’s traffic and parking network,” says Zia Yusuf, president and CEO of Streetline. “Smarter Cities will change how people work and live. Parking sensors are only the first step.”

San Francisco-based Streetline was one of a dozen startups that were honored in the SmartCamp competition. These fledgling ventures are great role models for other entrepreneurs looking to develop innovative ideas.  Check out their websites, marketing materials and other ways they are letting others know about the better mousetraps they’ve built.

•     CareCloud (  modernizes the workflow in a medical practice to put physicians in touch with each other across multiple points of care, through a cloud computing technology-based solution.  “We feel our solution helps revolutionize the way physicians collaborate and share critical healthcare information,” says Albert Santalo, president and CEO.

•     Aquacue ( turns a standard water meter into a smart-meter within minutes to detect leaks, conserve water and reduce water bills.

•     CitySourced ( an intuitive real-time mobile civic engagement platform that empowers people to identify civic issues like public safety and environmental issues and report them for quick resolution.

•     iFind (  produces Wandering Shepherd Smart Tagging Ear Tag technology that provides real-time traceability and authentication of livestock.

•     LindCom ( measures the contents of tanks and silos and reports measurements via the Internet to optimize and streamline the distribution and production of commodities.

•     Panoramic Power ( has developed inexpensive, cloud-based service for precise and granular monitoring of electrical power that enables energy savings, failure prediction, preventive maintenance and submetering.

•     Predect ( is a unique online water protection solution, whose early warning system enables immediate action before infecting a population.

•     Sproxil ( develops technology to fight counterfeit medicine in emerging countries, cell phone technology used at point of purchase to validate genuine drugs.

•     TreeMetrics ( has created 3D imaging technology that measures forests for optimum harvesting.

•     VisioHost ( unites innovative technology with scientific and medical research by providing lifecycle solutions for the management and archiving of images.

•     WorldSensing (  offers industrial wireless sensing in smart structures, smart cities and smart oil fields.

Criteria for startups to participate in IBM’s Global Entrepreneur initiative are: the company must be privately-held; in business less than three years; and actively developing software aligned to IBM’s Smarter Planet focus areas. Winners receive mentoring and support from industry experts and VCs, and IBM will help the startup ready its technology on IBM software and hardware at IBM Innovation Centers.

IBM also plans to expand the program next year to emerging markets including Brazil, China, Mexico, Poland and Turkey. As part of this expansion, IBM plans to host SmartCamps throughout 2011 at new locations around the world including Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, Mexico City, Warsaw and Istanbul. For more information on IBM Global Entrepreneur, visit

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