(By Joshua Steimle)
“All of us could say something similar about the businesses we’re in, or those we’re considering getting into. If we could travel back in time, we would be the best. We would know the future, and we could act appropriately to our advantage. But there is no time machine, as Napoleon Dynamite found out the hard way. The next best thing is finding groups that are behind the times, either due to a lack of access or by personal preference. These groups may occur based on age, geography, income, and industry.“
Forget bleeding or cutting edges–if you want to start a new business look for the trailing edge. At the Social Media Matters conference held 10 September, 2013, in Hong Kong, entrepreneur and investor Esther Dyson commented on reaching customers in emerging markets, noting that the newest social networking app may not be as effective as sending simple text messages. We often want to be part of the newest thing, the cutting edge technology, but these companies are, almost by definition, the most risky ventures because they explore the unknown. If that’s your thing then fine, but if you are satisfied with merely having a business that is financially successful, find a way to travel back in time.
I grew up as a skateboarder during the early 90’s when the sport was progressing quickly. A professional who was on top of his game in 1991 could find himself completely passed by in 1992. Two years was an eternity, the equivalent of how much basketball changed between 1950 and 2000. My friends and I would daydream about going back in time, because even though we were nowhere as good as the skaters who were sponsored, we were doing things the top professionals couldn’t have dreamed of just a few years before. “Man, if I could go back in time three years I would totally be the best skater around,” we’d say.
All of us could say something similar about the businesses we’re in, or those we’re considering getting into. If we could travel back in time, we would be the best. We would know the future, and we could act appropriately to our advantage. But there is no time machine, as Napoleon Dynamite found out the hard way. The next best thing is finding groups that are behind the times, either due to a lack of access or by personal preference. These groups may occur based on age, geography, income, and industry.
Seasoned Citizens. Sure, your grandma has a smartphone, but by and large at some point your technological prowess becomes less than that of the rising generation. It’s already happening to me as I see the way kids use technology. It’s especially acute having moved to Hong Kong and being around 20-somethings who are all too connected to their smartphones. Seniors might be laggards when it comes to adopting the latest technology, but they aren’t necessarily non-adopters. My parents only got their first mobile phones within the past year, but in a year or two they’ll probably be using smartphones and downloading apps. Because this group often resides on the downward slope of the technology adoption lifecycle, one can launch a business that provides this group with low tech solutions. Silverline is a project launched by Singapore-based SingTel in partnership with Newton Circus. The effort distributes refurbished smartphones with apps designed to help seniors stay in touch with family and socialize with friends. Not only is this a business opportunity, but it provides a valuable social service. According to a study by Dr. T.J. McCallum of Case Western Reserve University, seniors who use the Internet for social activities like sending and receiving email and posting pictures are generally more fulfilled and showed marked improvements in life satisfaction, self-esteem, and social engagement.
Geography. As mentioned by Dyson above, if you want to be successful in emerging markets that lack Internet infrastructure, you’re better off looking at building out an SMS marketing company than a social media venture. You don’t have to invent the wheel, because it has already been done. Jana is a company that gives customers in emerging markets a free phone, but in order to get airtime they need to respond to surveys. The data is valuable for other companies providing products and services in emerging markets and Jana boasts as customers of its survey data CNN, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé, Unilever, P&G, Danone, Google, and General Mills.
Income. Making money off the poor? The lottery does it, why not you? And unlike lotteries you might give the poor something that benefits them. Remember that profits appear where people receive something of value. It is no stretch to say that the company that makes the most money from low income customers may be the company doing the most good for the poor, even moreso than charities. The world’s poor themselves say they would prefer access to technology and information rather than charity. How can you take what has already been provided to cutting edge customers and repurpose it to serve low income households?
Industry. My day job involves running an online marketing firm, and we have a subsidiary that provides online marketing services to self storage companies. The self storage industry is, in many ways, about 10 years behind when it comes to adopting Internet technologies. When I attend industry events I often get storage company owners approaching me to say “Well, we’ve never had a website before, but I’m thinking we need to get one.” That’s what I was hearing through the parent company in 1999. If I see a new technology, like responsive design, taking hold generally across the business world, then I know that sooner or later, most likely later, it will come to the self storage industry. It’s easy for me to know where the self storage industry is going because it will inevitably follow what everyone else is doing, only months to years later.
Don’t get me wrong–being on the cutting edge can be fun. For some businesses it’s the only way they can survive. But if you’re considering starting a business, don’t assume you have to be at the forefront. By staking out a spot behind the trailblazers, but in front of your customers, you can provide a valuable service with considerably less time and expense.
Have you traveled “back in time” to start your business? Tell us about it.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”