Create a future-ready business

By Michelle van Schouwen

Right about now, the future isn’t looking much like the past, or even much like the present.

I can’t stop thinking about the Automation and a Changing Economy report from The Aspen Institute, which warns that automation and artificial intelligence may have major impacts including “job displacement, disruptions to local economies, changing skill needs, and rising inequality.” And then, every day, I observe our changing planet, including the start of a climate shift that will eventually affect virtually everything about the way we live. Throw in changing demographics, lifestyles, values, opportunities and limitations, and you recognize that we should expect serious upheaval to business as usual.

And that includes BUSINESS as usual. Given all this impending change, how can a future business owner develop a business concept that will last? Clearly, it will be vital to avoid predictable obsolescence… and to envision the customers of 2030, 2040 and 2050, whether yours will be consumers, businesses or government entities.

“Don’t start a truck-driver training company.”

Without debating politics, let’s perhaps agree that it’s telling that a presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, has based an entire campaign on ways to deal with the disruption to come, citing other concerned experts: “Advances in automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) hold the potential to bring about new levels of prosperity humans have never seen. They also hold the potential to disrupt our economies, ruin lives throughout several generations, and, if experts such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are to be believed, destroy humanity.” Putting the possible destruction of humanity on the back burner for the moment, what small companies will be valuable in such a future? What can’t the robots do? What won’t be appropriated entirely by big box companies? And how can an entrepreneur get in on the action, wherever that may be?

General considerations to get you started:

-If you are an engineer and an entrepreneur, you may be in the position to take advantage of a multitude of pressing needs. Done right, STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) may save us from much of what we’ve messed up.

-As AI reduces the need for workers (and unless the government substantially addresses income inequality) the divide between the “haves and the have-nots” will continue to grow. Your business could serve niche needs and wants of the upper class or pressing requirements of the poor and/or the social agencies that focus on them.

-The climate and the environment are going to demand almost infinite attention. Programs and services to improve environmental systems, clean up messes or improve clients’ quality of life will be in demand.

Change is stressful, and we are headed into decades of massive transformation. Products and services to help people connect, cope and take positive action will be key.

-The U.S. population will trend older, and will demand more and varied services, products and programs, from health care to social opportunities and beyond.

-Meantime, the way younger people want to live will create new business opportunities – we’re seeing a more mobile, less-possession and more experience-oriented, world-citizen class emerging, especially among college-educated and self-actualized young adults.

Let’s get more specific about business concepts for this future.

Got STEM? Start here.

Automation and robotics are going to create new opportunities even as they wipe out old ones. With the right engineering background and vision, you can design, program, manage or repair the systems and products of the future. Think augmented and virtual reality, medical devices, robots, and more.

-Eventually, the U.S (and other nations) will have to upgrade aging infrastructure. Take transportation: The planes, cars, bridges, airports, roads, trains, buses, light rail, etc., of tomorrow will be much different than those of today. Perhaps your company will develop and produce the next electric car battery, build the lightweight seats for more efficient planes, or provide better surfaces for hotter roads. Or you’ll develop new systems to manage sewage, stormwater or chronic tidal inundation near the shoreline.

Cybersecurity and privacy protection will increasingly be closely related, major issues for businesses, governments and individuals. The right services and technologies – using blockchain technology, for example – will be invaluable.

Alternative energy is going to be huge – even the fossil fuel giants will need to get on board. Entrepreneurial ideas and businesses will be hot – including as targets for acquisition.

Planet-forward businesses will be “in” for a long time to come.

Resilient design and building products and services, alternative ways to travel, heat and cool buildings, package goods, produce and consume food, process waste, and even ways to celebrate holidays will all change.

-Tree planting, bio-diverse, native landscaping and other resource management businesses will be valued as the planet undergoes stress.

-Storm readiness and disaster recovery businesses will be important – anything from stormwater technologies to property clean-ups.

-Technologies to clean and filter water, and to create potable water from gray water or ocean water, will be increasingly important.

Technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere will make some smart business owners wealthy.

-Delicious plant-based alternatives to meat – whether you develop new foods or serve them in a restaurant or as a food-prep service – will be welcome as plant-based diets continue to become more prevalent.

–Eco-travel companies that genuinely reduce the carbon footprint of travel will be popular among all ages.

People still need people.

-Specialty services for the uber-wealthy, from providing high-end personal assistants, massage, concierge health-care services, or outstanding companions for seniors are great ideas.

-Creating housing communities for seniors and others, so that like-minded people can live in groups and avoid long-term loneliness are already growing in popularity.

-Businesses that share human-to-human empathy, such as counseling, life-coaching, change management, child-mentoring, addiction support, and more, are a huge opportunity. Apps that support these needs will also be valuable.

-All types of pet care will continue to grow in popularity, because people need animals, too.

Change means opportunity.

Hope you enjoy this food for thought as you create your own venture. Please let Succeeding in Small Business know what you choose and how you do with your new future-ready business!


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate change mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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