Lots of great businesses only work when they hit critical mass. Fax machines, email, instant messenger, and social networks for example. Why would you use Facebook if you were the only one?

This may be hard to believe, but there was a time (about 1981 or 1982) when there were so few of us in email that finding another email user in business was a special kick. “Oh, you’re in CompuServe?” (or The Source, or Applelink.) Cool, what’s your email address?”

The pioneers in these businesses usually have to find niches to grow in. We had the equivalent of fax machines when I was with UPI in Mexico City in the early 1970s. They cost the bureau about $2,000 and were used only to send news photos back and forth. And only wire services and newspapers had them.

The Instant Messenger idea started as something for online chat rooms in the early 1990s, but took off when the Internet took off, with ICQ in 1996, and AOL Instant Messenger in 1997.

Facebook grew campus by campus.

Critical mass businesses are tough to build. The vast majority fail. Are conditions right? Is there a quiet niche where it can grow for a while first?

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.