Startup trend watching

Thanks to Dragons’ Den, it’s cooler than ever to be an entrepreneur. In 2011, about 100,000 small businesses were created, and there’s no sign that number will decrease anytime soon. To be successful, though, it helps to have a great idea and an in-demand product or service.

Here are a few of the hottest niches.

Food trucks

Zane Caplansky, owner of Toronto’s Caplansky’s Delicatessen, has an interesting plan to expand his business. He wants to take it all over Canada in fully-loaded food trucks.

The food truck business, says Caplansky, works in a couple of ways. Not only does it raise awareness of his restaurant, but it’s quite profitable. “In one night we made the same amount in the truck as we did the entire day in the restaurant,’ he says. “And we had four people in the truck instead of 14 people in the restaurant.”

He’s not the only one discovering that food trucks mean big business. According to market research firm IBIS World, the food truck and street vendor industry saw annual growth of 8.4% between 2007 and 2012, and it’s estimated that by 2016 the global market will hit a whopping $1.7 billion.

Demand for food trucks is coming in part from the thriving local food movement–people looking for affordable homemade menu items. But, says Caplansky, what’s really driving it is a movement toward more specialized foods. Entrepreneurs can hit the jackpot if they can focus on a few items that no one else sells. Caplansky, who believes he has the only deli food truck in Canada, is following that formula.

Caplansky’s plans to put another truck on the road next spring and hopes to franchise the concept after that. But the best part, he says, is that it’s a business that’s a lot of fun. “People love ordering out of a truck.”

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Agriculture consultants

The massive Canadian agri-food industry feeds a market of nearly $100 billion, with about $35 billion in exports. Now it appears poised for a growth spurt. With the global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, finding ways to feed everyone will be big business.

Agriculture today draws on many fields, says Glenn Yonemitsu, CEO of the Canadian Association of Management Consultants (CMC-Canada). “It not only includes farming, but an understanding of life sciences, the environment and the use of technology. For example, satellite technology can help increase crop yields by measuring temperature, moisture and sunlight, and it can help experts identify which crops would grow best in which locations.”

With this increasing complexity, demand is growing for agriculture consultants who can help agribusiness by explaining and applying the new capabilities. “Agrologists work in the whole vertical chain of the agri-food and agri-science industries–ranging from working with seeds and seed genetics to fertilizers to marketing boards to food processing and distribution.”

Get started as an agricultural consultant by becoming an agrologist, a certified professional designation conferred by provincial organizations and requiring a formal education in agriculture. The next step would be to earn a Certified Agricultural Consultant designation from CMC-Canada. Through these processes, one would establish a specialization.

Given the size and complexity of agri-food,” says Yonemitsu, “consultants will be needed as Canadian companies compete for this new business.”

Mobile app developers

It’s no secret that app development is a budding industry, but what’s not so apparent is that the sector’s growth has barely begun. According to Comscore, 8 million Canadians owned smartphones in September 2011, representing 40% of the mobile market. There’s plenty of room for growth–and the appetite for apps will grow right along with it.

Yes, the number of apps competing for attention is massive. But so is the number of downloads. In September 2010, Apple’s iTunes App Store had more than 250,000 apps available and downloads topped 5 billion. In a July 2012 announcement, Apple said its number of apps topped 650,000. The number of downloads: 25 billion.

It’s good news for companies like Polar Mobile, which makes apps for big media companies. In business for just five years, the Toronto-based company has attracted $10 million from investors. Marlon Rodrigues, the company’s director of marketing, says anyone with skill and desire can get into app development because every industry from finance to healthcare needs apps to help staff do their day-to-day jobs.

The big underlying trend is the consumerization of mobile,” he says. “It’s cheaper to use a phone or tablet than for companies to fund massive enterprise-level deployments.”

While entrepreneurs can launch themselves for the cost of a phone and developer account, the hard part is delivering a quality product that’s profitable. Rodrigues suggests creating a few apps to show prospective clients. “The proof is in the pudding,” he says. “How many star ratings does it have? Does it work well? You’ve got to be able to show what you can do uniquely.”

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Solar panel installers

When Blair Beesley started Solsmart Energy Solutions Inc. in 2004, the demand for solar panels on residential housing was almost nil. He could barely make ends meet, but he persevered. Now, eight years later, the company is seeing double-digit year-over-year growth and staff barely get a moment to breathe.

While solar energy for homes is popular in parts of Europe especially Germany–it’s only become viable in Canada in the last few years. In 2009, the Ontario government introduced its Feed-in Tariff program, which paid solar power-generating residents up to $0.80 (reduced to $0.549 this year) for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced, leading to a solar-power boom in the province.

Now, nearly 12,000 Ontarians take part in the program and, reportedly, about 22,000 residential and commercial projects are waiting to connect to the energy grid. Costs for solar panel installation have dropped 40% in the last three years, says Solsmart business development manager Andrew McCormack, and he believes demand will only increase.

That’s good news for his industry. McCormack says a viable business needs two or three installers who understand proper anchoring and racking of the panels, and from one to three electricians to do the wiring, disconnects and meter setup. The company would also have to invest in training for quality workmanship and workplace safety, as Solsmart has done.

Installing solar panels is a niche market nationally now–with the exception of Ontario because of the FIT program with very few companies involved,” says McCormack. “But once installing solar panels falls below the cost of electricity, it’ll be a no-brainer for entrepreneurs.

Small business imitates life. We all have a spirit of entrepreneurship within us. When you set an achievable goal, and drive towards it with determination, imagination and an open mind, anything is possible.