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Every big business was once a small business. Microsoft (MSFT) consisted of a bunch of coders in Albuquerque, IBM (IBM) was a tabulating company in upstate New York, and Wal-Mart (WMT) was Walmart's 5&10 in Bentonville, Ark.
Making the transition from ambitious small business to global brand is tricky, with no magic formula. Both courage and capital are needed. Timing and luck, too, along with plenty of hard work and sacrifice. One asset practically every great business brand has is its founders' visionary belief that their product or service taps into a market for which demand will only get bigger. After all, when Bill Gates and Paul Allen introduced Altair BASIC in 1975, few would have imagined that 86 percent of U.S. households would come to own at least one computer, according to a recent report from the Consumer Electronics Assn.
Where are tomorrow's Microsofts? Companies such as Twitter and Facebook come to mind, although they hardly qualify as small businesses today. The next wave of burgeoning giants could be anticipating demand long before there is any substantive commercial need for it.
Take charging stations for electric vehicles as an example. To be sure, big gas station operators will move to offer charging facilities as the vehicles' take-up rate increases. In the meantime, especially in urban centers, there are opportunities for entrepreneurs to be first-to-market. That's what Richard Lowenthal, chief executive officer of Campbell (Calif.)-based Coulomb Technologies, which builds charging stations, hopes to see. "Our mission is to insure that people don't hesitate to buy electric because they're worried about fueling," he says.
Space tourism is a further example. It has been talked about for decades since the last human climbed off the moon in 1972. The goal at Space Adventures, based in Vienna, Va., is to put two tourists on the moon in 2014. A company spokesperson says tickets cost $100 million apiece.
Another company anticipating future demand through developing technology is Stamford (Conn.)-based Soft Tissue Regeneration. Its human-augmentation technology, aimed at helping the human body regrow a torn knee ligament, is an estimated five or six years from reaching the market. The company uses a degrading polymer, placed where a tear has occurred, to let stem cells in the blood prompt healing. "We use a device that looks like a high-tech shoelace," says Joseph Reilly, president and CEO of Soft Tissue Regeneration. "It's braided. It looks like about a five-inch shoelace from your sneaker, made from very small fibers, like smaller than a human hair. After about 12 months it absorbs into the body and you're left with a regrown [anterior cruciate ligament]."
Few in the business think that laboratories will be growing complicated, multitissue body parts within the next few decades. So when might these jobs arrive? How will the markets react?
Famously flawed responses to innovation run the gamut from Western Union's (WU) memo on the telephone ("The device is inherently of no value to us") to Decca's rejection of the Beatles ("We don't like their sound and guitar music is on the way out"). In 1968 this magazine panned Japanese cars: "With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market."
Small businesses have less to lose. They can afford to be more flexible because they aren't burdened with legacy products, employees, or cultures. Small businesses are often better able to react to a changing marketplace and developing technologies because they are nimble, responsive and fast-moving. New jobs are created by new technologies every day.
Predicting the future is a good way to get into hot water. But using our imagination is the only way to move forward. As the late British author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke's second law of prediction states: "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."
Click here to see 20 possible small businesses of the future.