America's economic future is uncertain. Unemployment is up sharply. Credit is tight. People are worried about their savings. So is it a great time to start a business? "Are you crazy?" might be the quick answer.
But it's not necessarily the right answer. Starting a business has always been a bold, risky move. Even in good economic times, the failure rate of new small businesses is high. But a well-conceived business can always catch on.
So how can a wannabe entrepreneur succeed? U.S. News's Best Small Businesses to Start springs from the idea that those who stand on the shoulders of giants can see the farthest. The entrepreneurs behind the types of start-ups we profile here have defied the odds, finding both profit and an enjoyable, independent lifestyle along the way.
We interviewed over a dozen experts, quizzing them about the economic trends that will most affect small businesses in the years ahead. Then we looked at where entrepreneurs can capitalize on these trends. The 15 start-up ideas here aren't about cashing in on hot fads. They're a way to help you be among the first to catch waves that won't crash down anytime soon.
"The first question you have to ask yourself [before you start a business] is which are the sectors where I have knowledge, skills, and contacts to operate in," says Jeff Cornwall, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Belmont University. The 15 Best Small Businesses to Start include a variety of sectors.
Start with this economic trend: the millions of baby boomers who are beginning to retire now. Small businesses like Guava Home Care in Hockessin, Del., are filling the increasing demand for home healthcare, helping seniors stay in their homes and be more independent. Small businesses can offer the human touch and specialized service that larger ones may find hard to provide.
Another trend is globalization. More U.S. businesses than ever are connected with the world. There's a huge market out there for American entrepreneurs to sell to, and it's growing. "There's going to be an equivalent to the U.S. middle class created each year over the next decade" in the developing world, says Steve King of the Institute for the Future.
Some entrepreneurs—be they companies going global or outsourcing firms—educate and train businesses in the new game of globalization. Export managers link domestic buyers with foreign sellers.
The demand for energy efficiency and an environmentally friendly footprint is also spurring entrepreneurship. Energy auditors help businesses and homes save money by reducing energy costs.
In the increasingly competitive field of education, fledgling higher education services like New Mountain Ventures are finding ways to keep people in school. Parents worried about their kids' development are willing to pay top dollar to athletic trainers in hopes of creating the next star athletes. They also will hire professional tutors who can give their kids the individualized attention that the major test-prep companies maybe cannot.
Today's struggling economy may itself present opportunities. Businesses slammed by the economic slowdown often look to cut back and focus on their most essential tasks. That can mean contracting out jobs once done in-house. Outsourcing does not have to mean moving American jobs overseas. Indeed, the demand for corporate outsourcing has created a profitable opportunity for smart, nimble entrepreneurs who can help bigger companies save. With her website virtualhires.com, Rosemary Zalewski of Cleveland, Ohio places virtual assistants who do freelance administrative work at big companies. Similarly, freelance Web writer Melissa Rudy of wordsbymelissa.com lands projects writing online content for companies that don't have the staff to do it themselves. She now makes more money self-employed than she did working as a technical writer.
Modern communication tools also make it easier for start-ups to get off the ground. Social networking sites and blogs help entrepreneurs, like career counselors and financial advisers, establish their expertise and credibility. And customers can find you today with a mouse click. Sellers of fresh produce are using the Internet to cater to the growing demand for organic food: You can place your order on online farmers' markets and have it delivered to your house.