Everyone is familiar with gigantic businesses such as Facebook and Amazon that are using Internet technology to create new business models—and therefore new jobs. Just this week, the transportation-alternative app Uber was valued at $18 billion, provoking a flurry of comments from business columnists, some of them thinking the valuation crazy and others thinking it appropriate.
But it’s important to pay attention to small businesses that are springing up as new technologies create opportunities for entrepreneurs who are able to think creatively.
This idea came home to me last week in New York City, as I was walking down 16th Street past the corner of Irving Place, opposite Washington Irving High School. I spotted a parked van with the logo, “Pure Loyalty Electronic Device Storage.” The van was about the size of a food truck and looked very much like this one:
I peeked inside and saw what looked like curtains with pouches sewn on, each labeled with a number. The worker at the window told me that students from the school are not allowed to bring cell phones, tablets, MP3 players, or other electronic devices into the school, so they check them with her each morning (as at a hat-check window) and retrieve them when school lets out. They are happy to pay the dollar-a-day fee rather than be without their devices for as long as it takes them to get to school from home in the morning and back again at day’s end.
According to the New York Daily News, the business was operating trucks in three New York boroughs in 2012 and was founded and owned by 40-year-old Vernon Alcoser, a former correctional officer. That same year, the New York Post estimated that the industry was bringing in $4.2 million per year. In addition to the trucks, some neighborhood grocery stores are offering the storage service as a sideline business.
The industry is not entirely carefree, however. In June 2012, a truck owned by, parked near Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, was attacked by armed bandits, who tied up the workers and took their money, plus 22 cell phones from storage.
Despite such setbacks, the industry seems likely to serve its niche role as long as high schools with metal detectors enforce the citywide ban on electronic devices in the classroom—or until schools provide lockers where students can leave them.
Now that electronic devices have become our constant companions, they are creating countless business opportunities for entrepreneurs who offer to create apps for them, accessorize them, repair them—and store them.