Compass 2022: the opportunity in unsexy businesss

There are many hugely successful companies out there that make things or provide services without grabbing the headlines. We'll continue to shine a light on these arguably less ‘cool’ industries that make a lot of money, but not a lot of noise.
unsexy industries 16x9 hero

Unsexy industries is one of 10 themes Courier wants to focus on in 2022 – our compass for content, if you will. Some stories and topics get us going a bit more than others, and while they might not include the fastest growing industries or the most talked-about trends, they're the ones we think deserve more attention over the coming 12 months. Click here to see all 10 themes.

While the majority of the most famous entrepreneurship stories in the past decade have been about billion-dollar companies, they're called unicorns for a reason: largely because they're a rarity. Headline-grabbing companies such as Uber and WeWork disrupted industries (and, arguably, our world), but failed at business fundamentals such as profit and sustainability. Meanwhile, concrete mixers, chimney installers, lawn mowers and car mechanics in towns all around the world are out there growing revenue and creating jobs with little attention.

Get sweaty

That's starting to change. Nick Huber experienced the hype around building billion-dollar tech companies while a student at Cornell in the early 2010s, when his classmates were obsessed with building the next big social media app. However, he had his sights set on a far less sexy industry: storage – a fragmented industry, littered with poor communication and subpar customer service. With a partner, he built Storage Squad, a business that made $2 million in sales on college campuses in 2020. He sold that part of the business for seven figures in December 2020, and he is now focused on Bolt Storage, a self-storage business that he runs remotely. Nick started talking about these ‘sweaty startups’ in 2018 and found it resonated: his podcast has more than 600,000 downloads, and his Reddit community has 55,000 followers discussing the ins and outs of the used‑furniture business and commercial-cleaning contracts.

Nick's advice is simple: look at industries where the competition is weak, the market is growing and the cost and risks are low. You'll have an extra-competitive advantage if you can be consistent and have tech savvy. ‘Start small. Start low-skilled and low-risk, if you don't have any capital or experience. As the opportunities grow and you get momentum, your business can evolve,’ he writes on The Sweaty Startup website. Consider opportunities in pest control, closet build-outs, gutter cleaning or graffiti removal.

A little TLC

But, for all our fawning over founders, you don't necessarily have to start a company to be able to run a successful one. There are plenty of industries with established businesses that just need a bit of TLC. That's what Codie Sanchez realized when she started her journey in investing in laundromats. 

Laundromats don't require much hands-on labor (as customers carry out their own services), have little physical inventory and can provide a 20% to 35% return on investment, by some estimates. Still, many struggle with absentee management, credit-card processing and branding. Codie worked with a partner to buy a laundromat, upgrade machines, build an online presence and add drop-off services, among other tweaks. The plan is to hold for three to five years, refinance, then hold onto it in the long term for cash flow. It's one of several businesses she's invested in, alongside writing playbooks and offering courses on cash-flow business-building tips, from car washes to vending machines.

Building an unsexy startup isn't all dollar signs from the get-go – Nick dubbed them sweaty startups for a reason. Running these businesses requires market research, upfront costs, patience and sometimes door-knocking to drum up customers. Plus, in the end, any form of entrepreneurship has its risks. You may not be on the cover of most business magazines (Courier excluded!), but you could become a fixture in your community – and make steady income along the way.

Some insights...


The global self-storage market is expected to grow 57% between 2019 and 2026 to $123 billion, according to research firm Brandessence.


There are a total of 18,942 laundromat businesses in the US, according to research firm IBISWorld.

Three unsexy business ideas to explore

1. Medical scrubs. Doctors, nurses, dentists and more wear scrubs every day, but have long only had boxy, drab options from medical supply stores. With a market estimated to be worth $10 billion, there's room for better options. Brands such as FIGS and Clove are leading the way.

2. Ice machines. Hotels need commercial ice machines, which can be expensive. There's room for more business models: Easy Ice is an ice machine rental service that provides machinery and maintenance for a monthly fee.

3. Concrete. It's one of the most used materials in the world, with near endless applications. Venture studio Saturn Five launched Concrete Curb & Paving to provide contracting work for sidewalks, curbs and gutters.

This article was first published in Courier issue 44, December 2021/January 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

You might like these, too