A major challenge facing entrepreneurs today is figuring out how their company or idea will be different from the rest. You can’t be scared to think outside the box and push boundaries.
Related: The Most Brilliant Business Ideas
For instance, entrepreneur Manny Bomfo co-founded Recharge, an app that lets customers rent hotel rooms by the minute, so they can pop in for a quick shower or a power nap. Deb Baker helped launch Higher Standard Packaging, where she’s found a way to child-proof legal marijuana packaging.
Not sure where to start? Check out these 20 businesses disrupting their industries with brilliant ideas, and see what you can learn from them.
Fishbird puts corporations on a path to innovation.
When giant companies want to innovate, they hire Fishbird. The brand development firm counts Johnson & Johnson, Virgin Mobile and Sony among its current and past clients. Company president Mark Hinchliffe explains Fishbird’s six-step approach to teaching old dogs new tricks:
1. VISION: Ask, “If anything were possible, what would you want to happen?”
2. STOPS: “What’s standing in the way? Leadership, money, time, resources? You don’t need to solve these ‘stops’; just recognize them.”
3. CLARITY: “When you stop focusing on the stops, new possibilities open up. A healthy level of terror is good here.”
4. DECLARATION: “Most people die with great ideas. Move an intention into reality by declaring what you want to happen, and by when.”
5. DESIGN: “Come up with a plan. It will fail, guaranteed. But we need to be more committed to the end result than to the path.”
6. ACTION: “Action is the only thing that will move you toward your result. Not commitment, not vision, not passion, not experience. Action.”
Everlane takes radical transparency to new lows.
Last fall, the online retailer Everlane shaved $25 off its best-selling cashmere crew, citing lower production costs and reconfirming its commitment to “radical transparency.” Founder and CEO Michael Preysman explains why.
Q: Have you ever dropped prices like this before?
A: We’ve done small adjustments, but not like this. Sourcing gave us the updated cost of cashmere in January 2016, and we realized that it put our margin at nearly 67 percent — which is much higher than normal. We could get the price to $100 without losing any money.
You publicized the cut. How did customers react?
Sales were up 200 percent.
What happens if the material cost goes back up?
We’ll raise the price again, for sure. Those are things you have to do, but the precedent we’ve set allows us to communicate those things. As long as people understand why something is happening, they’re open to it.
Parsable brings modern-day communication to industrial jobs.
“The tools used by many industrial companies are from the 1950s — paper, Sharpies, walkie-talkies,” says Yan-David Erlich, founder and CEO of Parsable, a Slack-type chat interface that lets everyone in a facility communicate, collaborate and make changes to policy and practice in real time. Parsable knew it was onto something when a client tested two different growth solutions in separate factories: One invested in a robot to replace workers; the other used Parsable. “Eight months later, that robot is sitting idle, while the other factory has reduced its mean cycle by 50 percent, improved productivity and quality, and reduced paper waste by 95 percent.”
Obsessee lets teens use socialmedia reach as real-world currency.
“Teens don’t have disposable income,” says Katherine Power. “But they do have social currency.” So when Power’s company, Clique Media Group, launched Obsessee, a content brand for young women, it did two things: it designed the brand to reach its audience exclusively through their social media feeds — where they live; and it opened a three-day pop-up shop in L.A. at which young women could buy real products from brands like Keds and Shopbando in exchange for spreading the word about Obsessee.
The pop-up store’s genius was in its price structure. Instagram posts were the most valuable, because girls post only one to three times a week on it. A Facebook post was less valuable—the girls spend less time considering their posts—and good for a midlevel item like a makeup case. The least valuable? Snapchat. “Snapchat is incessant,” says Power. “More of a throwaway experience.”
The size of the girls’ followings wasn’t factored into the value of their posts, but even by spreading the word to 100 friends, the teens were essentially mainlining Obsessee straight into its target demo. It paid off. After the long weekend, Power says, “we saw a 14 percent lift in our follower growth.”
Correction: In the print edition, this story stated that Obsessee saw a 30 percent lift; it has been corrected to say a 14 percent lift.
Fusionops uses artificial intelligence to ferret out business opportunities.
In December, business analytics firm FusionOps launched a new platform that uses artificial intelligence to help Fortune 100 companies improve supply chain performance. Founder Shariq Mansoor walks us through a potential scenario.
CHALLENGE: A Big Pharma company wants to break into new markets and get an early competitive advantage. SMARTS: FusionOps’ platform acts as the company’s brain, continuously scanning internal and external information. OPPORTUNITY: It notices that a lot of folks in Brazil are googling a disease and concludes that the illness is on its way to being a widespread problem. Through public information, it may also deduce that the Pharma brand’s competitors are facing a shortage of the drug needed to cure the disease, and that the company has a surplus in a warehouse in Mexico. RESULTS: The platform alerts the company that it stands to make $50 million if it simply moves its product from Mexico to Brazil. When the company approves it, the platform automates the move.
Thrive Market goes to D.C. and scores some change.
“Up to 45 percent of working Americans are chronically sick,” says Gunnar Lovelace, CEO of Thrive Market. “That’s an expensive problem, and a lot of it is about what we eat.” Thrive is addressing that with its online marketplace: Its organic food is 25 to 50 percent cheaper than retail.
Customers gain access by paying $60 for a one-year membership — and for each new shopper who signs up, a membership is gifted to a low-income family (67 percent of whom report resulting health improvements). But a barrier remains. Food stamps aren’t accepted via online platforms. Last year, Thrive Market worked to change that, and Lovelace himself made his case in front of Congress in December. Shortly after, the USDA announced a pilot program in which Fresh Direct and Amazon will accept digital food stamps, but not Thrive. Lovelace isn’t bummed. “It just matters that it happens,” he says. “For us to affect an $85 billion federal program? I could die happy today.”
How two retirees buttoned up the weed business.
Q: Deb Baker, you’re a retired teacher. How’d you wind up working with pot?
A. My son was dating a girl whose father runs a packaging company and was getting calls asking about child-resistant solutions [to pot packaging]. I called my best friend, Barbara Diner, and us old broads made the rounds, and eventually started Higher Standard Packaging. We now have more than 50 clients, from dispensaries to growers.
Had you two wanted to start a company?
We were bored by retirement. We figured out manufacturing, sales, distribution, marketing. It was fun.
We have to ask: Do you smoke?
I did during my freshman year of college, and my GPA went from a 4.0 to a 2.9. At this age, my brain doesn’t need to get any fuzzier.
Everytable sets different prices for different places.
Los Angeles restaurant chain Everytable offers fresh, healthy grab-and-go meals. In bustling Santa Monica, Jamaican jerk chicken costs $8; in South L.A., where per capita income is $13,000, that same dish is $4. “We’re very transparent about our pricing model, and it resonates,” says cofounder Sam Polk. “Whatever you think about inequality, there’s no one I’ve met who doesn’t think healthy food should be available to everyone.”
The trick is using one central kitchen that serves all four locations (and can grow as the business scales), keeping overhead low and retail spaces small. “There’s this accepted truth that healthy food is expensive, but beans and grains and seasonable vegetables are incredibly inexpensive,” Polk says. “And with our low cost per meal, we can get to these price points and still have really good margins at each store.”
How little guy Juno exploited Uber’s key weakness.
When ride-sharing service Juno launched in New York City in 2016, it entered a crowded market dominated by Uber (valued at a whopping $68 billion). Juno couldn’t overwhelm the competition, so it made a different play: It went after Uber’s best drivers.
“Uber is good at a lot of things — technology, global scaling — but its weakness for years has been its relationship with its drivers,” says Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University and an expert on the sharing economy. “That left open an opportunity for an entrant to differentiate themselves on that weakness.”
Juno recruited Uber drivers with high ratings, capped commissions and offered equity and a drivers’ support hotline, and CEO Talmon Marco has been outspoken about his mission to provide a more ethical ride-sharing experience for drivers and riders alike.
While the New York market is a tiny slice of Uber’s pie, it’s the perfect size for an upstart like Juno to demonstrate its potential — which it did. In April, global ride-sharing company Gett acquired it for $200 million. (The acquisition came with the news that Juno will roll back its promise of equity for drivers, but Sundararajan predicts that providers value the other perks too much for the bruise to last.)
Now, as it prepares to enter new markets, Juno hopes others embrace the brand as much as New Yorkers have. Sundararajan, for one, is sold. “I’m conducting this call from a Juno,” he says.
Element AI breaks a monopoly.
When Google and Facebook went on a buying spree for artificial intelligence properties in 2012, they effectively locked up all the engineering talent, and the AI world suffered. Even today, access is an issue. But in October, Jean-François Gagné infused the scene with new talent by gathering 80 Montreal-based AI experts — many of them academics — and launching Element AI. It connects corporations, startups and academia, helping companies find solutions they’ve been incapable of discovering on their own. “We connect all of these dots,” says Gagné. And there’s a twist: Any solutions discovered while working with a client — say, a credit card company looking to improve fraud detection — can be monetized by being spun off as a separate product (or company!) and offered to other businesses globally.
Pat Kinsel, founder and CEO of Notarize, explains.
THE SPARK: “In 2013 I sold a company to Twitter in the back of a taxi in Korea. Everything was e-signed, but I had to get something notarized to claim my shares, and it was a huge pain in the ass. I got a call two weeks later saying the document couldn’t be accepted; the notary stamped it but didn’t sign it. This started the wheel turning. Fortunately, in 2011, Virginia had passed a law allowing notarization via video chat and that gave us an opening to digitize the process.”
THE PITCH: “We’re like Uber for notaries: on-demand, online, 24/7. It’s $25 for individuals, and we have 1,000 businesses on a subscription plan. Our average wait time is less than a minute.”
THE FUTURE: “We’re now starting to focus on foreign language support for our international audience.”
How Zymergen finds better team players.
Bay Area biotech startup Zymergen requires teamwork from a mix of talent — experts in science, automation and machine learning — that doesn’t always blend well. So instead of going the traditional route and subjecting prospective hires to a coding test, Zymergen borrowed a practice from the scientific world. It asked candidates to talk about a professional accomplishment in a room full of peers, taking questions along the way.
“You need people across a range of disciplines,” says CEO Josh Hoffman, “and they have to be able to speak with and work with each other. This process captures this cognitive diversity and shows your ability to engage.”
Velocity Global handles the headache of international expansion for you.
Companies looking to expand into foreign markets face unexpected expenses and a tangled web of regulations. But by acting as a surrogate employer — technically, a professional employer organization (known as a PEO) — startup Velocity Global helps companies hire employees in foreign countries without having to untangle that knot of red tape. Say an American company opens a Prague office; it hires locals through Velocity, which is then responsible for all the liabilities.
“You essentially use our infrastructure so you don’t have to set up overseas,” says founder and CEO Ben Wright. “If it works, you’re off to the races. If not, you’re pulling out.” Velocity — which expects revenue to reach $40 million this year — currently supports more than 100 companies and says its services save clients roughly 50 percent on international expansion fees.
Even a brand-new stock market.
In his 2011 book The Lean Startup, Eric Ries suggested someone create a long-term stock market to free companies from the pressures of meeting quarterly goals. Now he’s taking matters into his own hands with the Long-Term Stock Exchange (LTSE), which he plans to launch within the next few years.
Q. How will the LTSE work?
A. It introduces a set of listing standards around executive compensation, corporate governance, voting and disclosure, all designed to incentivize long-term value creation. It rewards both companies and investors and counters the short-term-ism inherent in today’s markets. That can’t be an easy thing to make. It’s a multiyear process to get the details right so the final product performs on a technical level and is compliant with a truly monumental number of regulations. I would rate it as excruciatingly difficult.
What if workers just want to be… free?
For decades, the corner office has been a corporate perk of C-suite life. But attitudes are changing. “More people are demanding to work remotely, and it’s something that companies are going to have to start offering as an incentive,” says Jonathan Kalan, cofounder of Unsettled, a startup that arranges monthlong coworking retreats in places like Indonesia, Colombia and South Africa. “People leave [the retreats] saying they feel more productive and inspired,” says Kalan. “If a company can adapt and give people more flexibility, there are big advantages for its employees.”
In fact, a third of employees say they’d take more flexibility over a salary raise, according to Investors in People, a U.K.-based management association. Big companies like Virgin and Xerox already offer flexibility, and Flexjobs, a website that aggregates telecommuting positions, has seen its listings grow by 52 percent in the past two years. More traditional firms may still be wary, but they shouldn’t be, says Brie Reynolds, Flexjobs’ senior career specialist: “Companies with telecommuting workforces see reduced turnover, improved productivity, reduced real estate and operating costs, a lowered carbon footprint and more satisfied workers.”
Toca Boca brings a Swedish sense of calm to the workplace.
“I grew up with American pop culture, and thought I knew what I was heading into when I moved to the States,” says Björn Jeffery, CEO of Swedish app developer Toca Boca, which designs digital toys to spark creativity. “But I did not know.” He launched his company in Stockholm, then moved to San Francisco to open a second office. After working 70-hour weeks in California, he felt himself quickly burning out. So he decided to change his company’s culture to make it more Swedish than American. Here’s how.
Fika for everyone: “It’s extremely Swedish,” he says of the traditional coffee-and-pastry break that the Toca Boca offices have adopted, gathering together every day at 1:30. “It started with industry in Sweden and is still mandated by the union — so you cannot mess with Fika.” Stateside, he finds it boosts interdepartmental communication. “You get a sense of the office zeitgeist.”
Vacation: In addition to three weeks’ paid vacation, Toca Boca closes for two consecutive weeks each summer. “Americans take odd days off here and there,” he says. “We encourage employees not only to use all their vacation but to take it in a row — you return more well-rested, motivated and efficient.”
Family leave: Toca Boca provides parental leave for both partners — four months paid, and an option to take an additional eight months unpaid. “It’s very surreal to me that people can’t stay home for that amount of time without worrying about being fired.”
Quitting time: Jeffery tries to leave at 5 p.m. every day, and avoids offering too many Silicon Valley “perks.” “Free meals are great, but when the last one is served at 6:30, it tricks you into staying late,” he says. “Working till 10 p.m. does not mean you’re doing better work than someone who leaves at 5. It’s stupidly simple but, in this context, decidedly radical.”
Stripe’s new service throws a lifeline to far-flung startups.
The online payment-processing company Stripe is based in San Francisco but powers payments around the world. And yet, it noticed a problem: In less developed countries, where legal and financial infrastructures are often weak and tax codes are complex, aspiring internet companies get derailed by the regulations. Could it fix that? It came up with a big idea. “In the simplest terms, we’re trying to increase the GDP of the internet,” says Billy Alvarado, Stripe’s chief business officer. To do that, it recently launched a service called Atlas, which incorporates international (and domestic) companies in Delaware, secures a U.S. tax ID and a U.S. bank account for them, and offers access to a team of financial and consulting partners, among them Silicon Valley Bank and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Within a few days of starting the process, startups can be ready to open for business.
Recharge rents hotel rooms by the minute.
Starbucks might aim to be your go-to spot between home and office, but Recharge CEO Manny Bomfo wants you to book a luxury hotel room for a couple of minutes instead.
Q: Why book by the minute?
A: I used to work in ride sharing, and we were studying traffic flows between cities and metro areas. When you’re on the go, there’s not often the opportunity to take a nap, shower or find downtime.
When did you know the idea would fly?
An executive who was a nursing mom used our service in her home city for privacy so she didn’t have to pump in the bathroom of her job. That was a huge moment for us.
What’s the benefit for hotels?
Recharge rooms can be booked at hotels including W and Hilton for up to $3 per minute, depending on the hotel — which actually could earn hotels more than the per-night price.
Rocketrip gets clients paid for flying coach.
“If you can stay at The Ritz and fly business class, why wouldn’t you?” asks Dan Ruch, founder and CEO of Rocketrip. That’s why the startup built a platform to incentivize corporate travelers to skip the five-star treatment and then split the savings with their employers.Ruch breaks down the results.
Average savings per trip: 24%
“If a company spends $10 million on travel yearly, we’re reducing that by $2.4 million. And half of that goes to employees, redeemable on our platform for TVs, vacations and other rewards.”
Your assistant’s cut: 10% to 20%
“Assistants can now earn 10 to 20 percent of the savings when booking for their boss, so they’ll be more likely to engage them in a conversation.”
Rocketrip’s year-over-year revenue growth: 300%
“The fact that GE and Twitter are buying into this idea is a powerful testament to the concept. The deals we’re doing now are multiples bigger.”
Honeygrow offers a warm welcome from afar.
As Philadelphia-based fast-casual chain Honeygrow expands outside its home city, it’s using virtual reality to train new team members. CEO Justin Rosenberg explains why:
1. CONSISTENCY: “A GM at one location may be having a great day and communicate rules around speed, cleanliness and allergies perfectly. But another might be having a rough day and miss the mark. This is the first message from our team. It has to be uniform.”
2. ENGAGEMENT: “We created a game to teach new team members about organization in our walk-in refrigerators, which involves a lot of safety standards. It’s interactive, which is way more effective than sitting at a table reading about it.”
3. CONNECTION: “One of the first things new employees see is me, giving an introduction. I want people to know that I, a human being, am the founder, as well as someone who really cares. Ironically, we use this to humanize the brand.”