What's the Big Idea?
By Josh Quittner/Editor

(Business 2.0) – I'm full of moneymaking schemes. Just ask anyone on my staff. There's my plan for a nationwide chain of Cuban-style coffee bars serving a streamlined menu of caffeinated drinks (Starbucks meets In-N-Out Burger). Or my blueprint to save America Online by turning AOL Instant Messenger into a revenue gusher (IM me if you want the details).

Frankly, I doubt that any of these are blockbusters. But here's one I'm sure will pay off: A few months ago, I asked editor-at-large Erick Schonfeld to go find the best untapped opportunities in business today.

Who better to do this, I reasoned. A veteran of this magazine--coming to us in 2000 from our sister publication Fortune--Schonfeld has been one of our most prolific idea generators.

He took the assignment, and then quickly returned with a better approach: Instead of simply coming up with a bunch of clever, not-worth-the-napkins-they're-written-on business plans, why not vet our list with some of Silicon Valley's top venture capitalists? So he and senior writers Michael V. Copeland and Om Malik drove down to Sand Hill Road one sunny day--and promptly got lost.

"We were joking that we were like a startup," Schonfeld says. "I'm the young CEO, Om's the tech guy, and Michael, who knows all the VCs, is the marketing guy. But in typical bumbling-first-time-entrepreneur fashion, we couldn't find our way to our first appointment. All of those office complexes on Sand Hill Road look alike." This did not bode especially well.

Luckily, Bill Tai of Charles River Ventures was gracious about their tardiness. He and other top VCs heard out their ideas and gave them invaluable feedback. In our cover story, "Field of Dreams" (page 88), you can see which ideas passed muster--and learn from Schonfeld & Co.'s pitching experiences.

But wait! There's even more Schonfeld in this issue. What Works leads off with his look at the big companies that are cashing in by selling their excess wares on eBay and the startups that are helping them navigate their way through that perplexing marketplace (page 43). Schonfeld also goes off to see "The Wizard of POS"--as in point-of-sale, or the cash registers that ring up your transactions in stores, still made by the venerable NCR (page 100). Schonfeld discovered that the company formerly known as National Cash Register has been a laboratory of great business ideas since its birth in 1884, perfecting such now-common practices as the sales territory, the canned pitch--even the flip chart. It also launched the career of a young executive named Thomas J. Watson Sr., who left NCR to start a little company that came to be known by its own set of initials, IBM.

NCR remains an innovative company today--Schonfeld thinks its souped-up ATMs and self-checkout registers have great promise in what he calls the coming "self-service economy"--but Watson's experience is a reminder that companies can't keep all the great ideas in-house. That said, it might be best to keep the great idea generators in-house, especially if they have a tendency to get lost while driving.

JOSH QUITTNER, EDITOR jquittner@business2.com