4 trends to follow in 2014

November 21, 2013, 12:43 PM UTC
Illustration: michael byers

Good ideas can bubble up from many places. Here are four worth pursuing.

1. Hyperspecialize

Competition can spring up anywhere these days. Your best defense is to dominate a niche. Serving just one type of client — personal injury lawyers — has helped CJ Advertising and two related firms in Nashville build hard-to-match expertise and grow net revenue to $15 million. “By being very focused,” says CEO Arnie Malham, “we constantly spot new opportunities to help our clients succeed.”

2. Hire a robot

It’s not a novelty anymore. It’s a necessity for growing profitably in many fields. That’s why German firms have nearly twice the robots per capita as those in the U.S. Robotic equipment has increased production volume 30% and reduced plant headcount by two-thirds at the Closet Doctor, a maker of organizers in Lincoln, Calif., says president Derrek Holland. The company expects $1.25 million in sales this year.

3. Share your assets

Consumers have caught on quickly to the benefits of renting out their homes through Airbnb and saving on auto costs with Zipcar. It’s time for every CEO to look for ways to maximize unused assets, whether that means sharing office space or underemployed workers with other firms. One company I know worked out a deal with a noncompeting startup to use its pricey CAD equipment at night.

4. Get customer-financed

The best and cheapest source of capital is your customers. If banks and VCs aren’t biting, make 2014 the year you go back to the future and do what Ben and Jerry did in the 1980s: Ask customers to invest in your growth. They used a direct public offering, but today crowdfunding makes raising money easier. Or ask customers to pay you in advance. It beats paying 30% interest to an alternative lender.

This story is from the December 09, 2013 issue of Fortune.