As an advisor to startups and entrepreneurs, I often hear the myth that all new businesses must start with a great idea. I have to disagree. I believe the best entrepreneurs start by finding a large opportunity and only then use good ideas to capitalize on that opportunity. The best opportunities are recognized from painful needs, plus a growing population of customers with money to spend.
For example, technologist entrepreneurs often come up with a new device or application, just because they can, and assume everyone will want one. Social entrepreneurs pitch me their latest idea for eliminating world hunger (producing algae) but may forget that really hungry people probably don’t have any money. It takes a real selling opportunity to sustain a business idea.
You will find specifics in the classic book, “The Entrepreneur’s Playbook,” by Leonard C. Green, which supports my view, and is full of practical advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, including easy ways to identify sure-bet opportunities, most not requiring any invention, before you finalize your innovative business idea. Here are some approaches that both of us recommend for getting you started:
- Take a basic product and make it special (upgrade). Premium bottled water (Fuji), expensive coffee (Starbucks), and gourmet cookies (Mrs. Fields) are examples of what were once pedestrian products that have driven successful new businesses. Sometimes you need to take a commonplace item, like a cup of coffee, and make it an “experience.”
- Offer a no-frills version of a high-end product (downgrade). For example, Southwest Airlines eliminated all the frills that usually come with an airline ticket, and now they are a market leader, being copied by the majors. In supermarkets, everyone today knows that generic brands often offer more value and quantity, without giving up key ingredients.
- Find products that seem to fit together (bundle). Instead of requiring people to shop and pay for related items, combine them into one package. Today’s smartphones are more attractive than a separate phone, camera, computer, and software packages. Sometimes just including training and installation makes a product more attractive.
- Break existing bundles into separate packages (unbundle). This is obviously the inverse of the bundle approach. Home computers have long been offered in unbundled as well as bundled hardware and software, to allow for a lower entry cost and flexible configuring versus simplicity. Long-term warranties are now unbundled from appliances.
- If a product sells in one area, transport it to another. Importers/exporters make their living this way with products from different parts of the country or the world. The same concept resulted in the birth of franchises, which are essentially proven business models transported to new locations. The Internet is a business for transporting web services.
- Expand a narrow product offering to the mass-market. A popular incarnation of this approach today is to take an Internet-only product into brick-and-mortar retail for access to a much larger audience. The same concept applied to every startup which test-markets its product in a local area, then scales the business for national or global access.
- Take a broad-appeal product into a niche. With the widespread popularity of social media, I now see many businesses looking at niche market interest groups, such as sites for travelers, hunters, cancer support, and crafts. In television, this is called narrow-casting, to gear specific channels to a special audience, like golf, old shows, or history.
- Maximize the selection of products offered (think big). This approach brought us the “big box” stores, including Walmart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. Online, the same concept has been implemented by Amazon and Alibaba. It allows customers to complete their shopping in one place, and businesses get the value of volume and common processes.
- Focus on in-depth expertise and support (think small). This is the inverse of the “think big” strategy, which you see at your local hardware stores, with knowledgeable and friendly support staffs. They specialize in the depth of their selections that a true connoisseur demands. Online sites now advertise customized designs and personal fits.
It shouldn’t be hard to see from these examples the wealth of business opportunities available without inventing a totally new product or technology. Thus I continue to tell entrepreneurs that business success is more about the execution, and the quality of the team, rather than the idea.
Also, by looking at the size of the opportunity, you can take a calculated risk, rather than close your eyes and step into the total unknown. Calculated risks are less likely to be fatal, and more likely to be fun and profitable. Think about it before you send me your next business plan to change the world.