One standard piece of advice given to startups is to pick an industry that will permit scale, so that it is at least feasible that somebody in that industry at some point in time could build a large company doing it.
I saw a video on Yahoo Finance a while back where somebody claimed that Apple will be the first trillion dollar company (barring a brief stint by Cisco during DotCom).
Obviously it is hard to tell right now whether that’s true or not, but an industry that can support a trillion dollar company sounds like a good place to start, doesn’t it?
We know that this is possible in consumer electronics then, but what other industries would make this feasible? The goal here is to list industries that are big enough to support large companies (possibly even trillion dollar ones), and yet are still at least somewhat feasible for startups (potentially requiring substantial – but not unfeasible – capital).
I’m going to start with some of the obvious ones, just to get them out of the way. Then I’ll move on to extensions of existing industries that look like they could be large markets, and lastly I’ll throw in some speculative possibilities.
Please feel free to comment if I’ve missed any.
- Resources. There’s few companies in the world that are as large as big mining or petroleum companies. The barriers to entry are significant for startups, but Glencore did it. I also want to thank @EzraSedek for pointing out that wood products (particularly as used in construction) are a huge percentage of GDP in many countries.
- Pharmaceuticals. Developing a new consumer drug is an expensive proposition. There are lots of other entry points into the pharma industry though, and the technology needed gets cheaper and more accessible every year. A related industry that is still just forming is genetics, which has the potential to be huge.
- Consumer hardware. The success of several companies in the Maker community seems to indicate that it is feasible to enter this industry as a startup. And its certainly a large (if fickle) market. The primary barrier to entry is probably marketing – selling a few hundred million gizmos is harder than making them.
- Consumer products. Somewhere in the world, somebody is baking the cookie that will eventually lead to the next P&G.
- Agriculture. There are any number of reasons why traditional agriculture is frequently a marginal business. There are a number of large-scale companies making money making food though. Everybody has to eat, right? A friend of mine tried a startup in this area a few years back. He had the right idea, but it didn’t succeed. There’s plenty of room for small but scalable ventures here though. Small greenhouses that are close to niche markets are one plausible entry point.
- Construction. As many management consultants have pointed out, boring, stable industries are the best ones to disrupt. There are a number of companies working on ways to automate the building process, or to invent new and improved construction materials. Process improvements are another potential entry point for startups – there’s a lot of different steps involved in building, starting from design, to the permit process etc. Finding new ways to integrate or separate these steps may be profitable.
- Financials. They’re not doing so well right now, but will eventually recover. Its easy to overlook how much innovation occurs in the financial sector – a few decades ago, there was no mutual fund industry, for example. Regulation is a major barrier to entry, but can be overcome. Several interesting areas include the “final mile” problem (i.e. how transactions between customers and merchants occur), digital wallets, and digital currency.
- Robotics. The consumer robotics industry is still fairly small (vacuum cleaners aside), and its hard to say how large it will be. On an industrial level though, robots are already a huge industry (think: Japanese auto industry). Several million new industrial robots per year = scale. Competition and technical skill are the primary barriers to entry.
- Chemicals. As part of the industrial sector, this is a highly cyclical, generally low margin, high startup cost industry. Could be ripe for innovation? One area that is starting to take off in parts of the world is to locate chemical plants in clusters, such that the waste products of one become the inputs of another. Chemical production through biotech is another.
- Water filtration and environmental reclamation. Delivery of clean drinking water is already a huge industry (although nationalized in many places). Many countries in drier climes are investing huge sums of money to build saltwater reclamation plants or closed cycle systems for their cities. Startups would probably best focus on better and cheaper ways to filter water. Environmental reclamation, particularly brownfield reclamation is a large and growing sector. Again, finding ways to reduce cost is a good place to start.
- Marketing/sales/advertising. Its a question whether this should be on the list – this is a large industry, but its total size worldwide is probably less than a trillion dollars, and it is highly fragmented. On the other hand, there isn’t a large barrier to entry.
- Education. I’m not certain about market size, but world-wide there are still many places with literacy rates under 50%, so this is going to be a growth industry for a long time. In developed nations, there is a competitive battle to become more educated, in order to secure better jobs. Delivery of education is a hot area for startups right now (I’m working with one company in this area).
- Software / IT. I’ve got this down at the bottom of the list because there is so much overlap between software and virtually any other business model. As a certain well-known individual has claimed, software is eating the world. Or large chunks of it, anyhow.
- Other: Feel free to let me know!
Extensions of Existing Industries
Most of the following exist to some extent already. In most cases, the size of the market is still relatively small, but they have huge potential.
- Micro-scale manufacturing. There are a number of cheap 3D printers on the market already (RepRap, MakerBot and many others), but this is still a very new industry. The potential is here to completely revolutionize the manufacturing of virtually all consumer products though.
- Next-gen telecom. Ad-hoc wireless mesh networks are rapidly becoming feasible. When they appear, the traditional telecom companies will need to adapt or die.
- Social everything. We think of social media as being fairly established, but it is really still in its infancy. Right now it has a firm foothold in how people talk to each other, and how they share and comment on content. Two areas that have barely been touched yet:
- Business processes. Yes, SalesForce has a nice P/E ratio. What I’m thinking of is a situation where your accounting software and ERP are integrated into Facebook; where you and your supplier’s supply chains are completely integrated through social media, such that your staff and theirs, and your customers can all collaborate transparently to build your product. Right now the only efforts I’m aware of in this area are job hunting and rudimentary business networking (done by people who only understand job hunting).
- Creativity. I’m working on several projects in this area right now, so I have to be careful what I discuss online! Current social media is great for sharing content, but lousy for working together to make it.
New Industries / Blue-sky
- Nanotechnology. The last few years have seen the first “real” nanotech products, primarily focused on new materials (fabrics, paints etc). Right now the startup costs are unfeasibly high, but eventually the relevant equipment will become cheap off-the-shelf commodities, and then the real boom will begin.
- Space mining. Currently it is economically unfeasible to mine asteroids for resources. The key to bear in mind though is that an average sized asteroid contains several trillion dollars worth of minerals. The first company to succeed will essentially have complete control over the price of virtually all metals, to the extent that they can then create a “moat” around their business by undercutting the profit margins of any potential competitors. Once space hardware becomes off-the-shelf, expect this industry to become hot.
- Replacement for existing marketing methods. There are two current methods for letting potential customers know about your business: broadcast (i.e. a newspaper ad, a TV spot, or a banner ad) and targeted (i.e. Google AdWords, YellowPages etc). Eventually somebody will come out with a better model for matching up businesses with customers. What that will look like is anybody’s guess.
- The next “X”. Be it Google or Facebook or any other big web company, eventually something will come along that is more interesting or works better. The Next Facebook could be Facebook itself in a future iteration, or it could be something else entirely.
Have I missed any industries? Am I completely off-base about some of the ones I’ve listed? Please let me know!