The Internet may have killed the travel agent and the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, but the service economy is still running strong. In fact, the digital revolution has given many entrepreneurs the opportunity to re-imagine old services to make them better. In some cases, the service revamp hinges on improved cost or convenience; other times, it’s making a service relevant to a new audience.
Tech companies have taken the hassle out of taxi rides with services that let you book, track, and pay for rides via your smartphone. No more long waits for a taxi or shivering in line at the ATM to get cash after last call.
Ridesharing is not a new concept, but Sidecar and Lyft have sprung up in major cities to democratize taxi services (you may recognize Lyft by the telltale pink mustaches on drivers’ cars). All of Lyft’s drivers are regular people who have been vetted for safety. When you need a ride, you can find drivers in your area by using the app. They pick you up, and you pay with your smartphone.
Trying to impress an important client or business colleague? Uber is an on-demand black car service available with the swipe of your finger. The app calculates an approximate wait time, maps your route, and gives a clear pricing estimate based on the route. You can even pay for the ride from your phone.
The humble letter may be considered out of fashion (indeed, declining mail volume and the U.S. Postal Service downsizing supports this), but there’s a reason we still mail birthday cards, graduation announcements, and wedding invitations. The romance and intimacy of a physical letter is something that cannot be replicated with an email or Evite.
Out of stamps? Poor penmanship? Handiemail will turn your email into a handwritten letter for just $7.95. (For the technophobe, it will also convert handwritten letters to emails.)
QiQ is a service that applies current technology to traditional mail. Mailing from more than 30 worldwide locations, its L-mail allows you to send any digital document to any postal address via the Internet without hassle or the expensive postage of international mail.
If you’re old enough to remember pre-Internet days of music, you’re old enough to remember the Columbia House record club, the once-behemoth music company that would deliver vinyl records (and later, CDs) directly to your doorstep every month.
Digital subscription services have been applied to almost every arena of the Web you can think of, from data storage in the cloud to digital newspapers to streaming music, movies, and TV shows. But what’s more surprising is how this digital model has breathed new life into the old model of subscriptions and given rise to a slew of new companies that specialize in delivering physical goods on a subscription basis.
Dollar Shave Club made a splash in 2011 when it introduced the notion that consumers would pay for the convenience of having necessities delivered to their door. Manpacks capitalized on men’s hatred of running errands by delivering packs of socks, underwear, condoms, and shaving supplies. Citrus Lane compiles age-appropriate baby items into care packages for new parents, and former Netflix chief financial officer Barry McCarthy recently joined the team at NatureBox, a service that delivers five healthy snack boxes per month.
The Personal Assistant
Ever wish you had an assistant to pick up your dry cleaning or walk your dog? Not everyone can afford a second set of hands like Meryl Streep had in “The Devil Wears Prada,” but now anyone can afford to hire from an army of online freelancers for odd jobs. TaskRabbit is a service that allows you to post a job or an errand for TaskRabbits in the area to bid on or accept for a predetermined price. You pay when the job is complete.
For more specialized work, such as graphic design, marketing, proofreading, or Web design, you can hire skilled freelancers from around the world through platforms such as Elance or Guru. Fiverr, another option, is an online marketplace of people who will do anything from giving a press conference to writing a jingle for just $5.
A disruption to an existing business model by bypassing traditional providers or utilizing them in a new way can become profitable new businesses. Think of how Hulu has disrupted television or how Redbox changed the movie rental business. These reimagined services work because the business model and user base had already been validated; the delivery mechanism just needed updating.
How to Determine if a Service Is Ripe for Disruption
- Speed. Is the new service somehow faster than its predecessor? Consumers are impatient, and they crave instant gratification.
- Price. The ability to compare prices online means consumers are savvier than ever. Will the new method lead to lower costs or additional savings over the long term?
- Convenience. If you can’t compete on cost, go for convenience. The simple ease of getting your razors and underwear delivered to your door is something people will pay extra for.
- Comfort. People crave comfort and excitement simultaneously. Taking something familiar and repackaging it in a new way has the dual benefit of offering something consumers already like with a fresh spin.
Products and services that have been around for some time have succeeded because they satisfy a need. Progress is about constant evolution, but sometimes revisiting the underlying need behind a business reveals an opportunity to revitalize an old service and make it relevant for a modern audience. Before you try to start a service business from scratch, look to seemingly stagnant industries or outdated process models. Ask yourself if there is a business ready for you to disrupt.