The reading level for this article is Novice

An all-too-common question we get from would-be inventors and entrepreneurs is how to find real problems to solve. There are an incredible number of exceptionally-talented individuals scurrying around this region looking for an “opportunity” niche. The problem is that most don’t know how to look. Maybe some of the following can help.

First, if you’re looking for an easy way, forget it. There is no easy way to success, security, independence, money — whatever it is you’re looking for. Any entrepreneurial venture requires a great deal of hard work, patience, dedication, etc. Looking for an easy way is just setting yourself up to be taken. There are a lot of vultures out there looking for you. (That’s their opportunity niche).

Second, go get a copy of Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship for how to look for opportunities. It’s available in paperback from your local bookstore. Written in the mid ’80s, this is an under-recognized, under-utilized classic. In it, he maps out where to look, what to look for, and even suggests appropriate strategies for taking advantage of what you find.

Third, recognize that business — all business — starts with a customer — not with know-how, not with the “bright” idea. For inventor-entrepreneurs, your best approach into business is to find someone who’ll pay you to develop something they need — and let you keep the rights to sell to others. It’s done all the time. The problem is most don’t know to ask — or are embarrassed to ask. A little chutzpah is a vital element in every entrepreneur’s toolkit.

If you can’t find someone to pay you to do what you want to do — and for God’s sake don’t give up until you’ve brainstormed the subject thoroughly and exhausted all possibilities — then your next best approach is to find someone with a need (or at least a very strong interest), develop something on your own, and sell it to them.

The key to this approach is qualifying the need. The better you qualify the need, the more likely you won’t be wasting your time. The way to qualify the need is to go talk to potential customers. “If I had something that would do such and such, would you be interested? How interested? At what price?”

You’ve proposed a problem statement, and you’re looking for interest. (And note that this works just as well with the owner of a retail store, or a cataloger, as it does with an industrial buyer.) If you get some serious interest, give the problem some serious attention. But keep going back to those potential customers! Let them be a part of the “solution”. The better job you do of making them feel “involved”, the more ready they’ll be to “buy” — and the less you’ll have to “sell”.

Common objections from would-be entrepreneurs to pursuing this approach:

“If I give them my idea (translation -“problem statement”), they’ll just go develop it themselves.”

Answer: Most people — not developing ideas — are incapable of developing ideas. Besides, they’re too busy with their own interests. And even if they are capable of developing ideas — and have the time and resources — why would they spend their time and resources doing so when they have a motivated you chomping at the bit to do it for free — or at least a much lower end-cost?

“I don’t have the time to get out and talk to prospects.”

Answer: Then give it up now. If you can’t find time to talk to prospects before you have a product, what are you going to do after you have it? If you think anything sells itself, just go to your local mall and try selling dollar bills for 50 cents!

“I don’t feel ethical trying to sell something before I’ve got it. What happens if I can’t deliver it?”

Answer: Ethics is in the eyes of the beholder. There’s nothing unethical about going out and trying to find potentially-profitable problems to solve. And more than a few entrepreneurs have taken up-front money to solve problems they hadn’t the slightest idea how to solve. Somehow, they always get solved. (Necessity is the mother of invention and all that jazz.) And, if you can’t solve it, what’s the worst thing that could happen — (ethically) you’d have to give back the money — certainly not the end of the world.

However, the real objection — seldom spoken:

“I like spending time in the lab. I don’t like making cold calls.”

Answer: Either learn to like it, or find a partner who does — because that’s the essence of business. Commercially speaking, nothing counts ’til it sells. It’s just as difficult — maybe more difficult — to sell something as it is to develop it. And ignoring, or rejecting, that fact is a sure path to failure.

Don’t underestimate the need for partnering. It’s one thing to find opportunities. It’s quite another to take advantage of them. That requires preparation — understanding what’s needed to succeed in business — and developing, arranging, lining up relationships and resources that allow you to act when the time comes. And — surprise — that preparation turns up many more opportunities. (The opportunities were always there, but most people — for reasons I can’t explain — don’t “see” them until they’re prepared to act on them.)

The essential resources for exploiting opportunities are the fundamental business skills. Given these skills, all else flows. Without them — all of them — any attempted venture is doomed to fail. And recognize that these skills come in the form of people. Whatever it is that you’re really good at, you need “partners” who are equally good in the other skills.

There are four skills necessary to successful business. I’ll give them manufacturing labels, but they apply equally to any business.

Engineering – the skill to invent and develop new products (or services).
Manufacturing – the skill to deliver them, consistently and reliably, with quality, service, and price.
Selling – the skill to sell them.
Business – the skill to make a profit doing the other three.  

The skills necessary to start a business are Engineering and Selling. The skills of Manufacturing and Business determine, more, how long you’ll stay in business. The level of quality needed in these skills is determined by the level at which you wish to compete. If you wish to compete in a local or small niche market, e.g., crafts, you need to be very good in one, and at least passable in the others.

However, if you want to compete in a world market, you need to be world-class in each skill. We’re talking at least at the 0.1% (of population) level — 1 in a 1000. In Engineering, for example, in the U.S., population 250 million, you would certainly not expect to find more than 250 thousand fitting the bill. The same is true of each of the other skills.

Now, if these skills are independent, i.e., there is little reason to expect that one with strong Engineering skills will also have strong Selling skills, and vice versa, the odds of one person having both the necessary Engineering and Selling skills is down in the region of 1 in a million — in the U.S., you’d expect to find no more than 250 such individuals. Factor in the needed Manufacturing and Business skills, and the need for “partnering” — with individuals or in the form of joint ventures, strategic alliances, etc., becomes very clear.

The other part of preparing for opportunities, is preparing yourself. Force open your eyes. Set some goals. Build a productive mindset.

For example, eliminate words like “should” and “can’t” from your vocabulary — and your thinking. “Can’t” is just an excuse for lack of dedication and imagination. Every problem has a simple, comfortable solution. If you’re not finding it, it’s almost certainly because you’re asking the wrong question. “How can I get a half million dollars to develop this product?” is a much different — and much more restrictive — question than “How can I get this product developed?”

“Should” is just someone else’s notion of what’s right and wrong. It may or may not apply to you or what you’re trying to do. That’s your decision to make. Don’t get trapped in other people’s norms and notions. You may be socially correct (or politically, or technically) — but also, likely, broke.

And don’t get trapped in your own notions. Recognize that your knowledge — what you’ve learned from your education and experience, what’s right and wrong, what works and doesn’t — comes with “blinders”. A good deal of that “knowledge” constitutes solutions to yesterday’s problems. It may or may not apply to today’s. It’s even less likely to apply to tomorrow’s.

Some of the best opportunities lie among “truths” that no longer apply. When you hear an entrepreneur expressing thoughts like, “The best possible reason to suspect something is false is if everybody else believes it to be true”, that’s not small-minded arrogance you’re hearing — but an open-minded search for opportunities.

The final part of preparing for opportunities is to quit preparing — and act. Get on the ball and start finding out what works and what doesn’t — for you. There are as many ways of “doing business” as there are people doing it. There is no right way! At best, there may be some general principles.

For example, so long as you have more time than money, spend your time — not your money. There are always ways of accomplishing what you want with lower dollar outlay — if you’ll take the time and use your imagination to find them. If you do, you’ll have the money when you really need it. If you don’t, you won’t.

Don’t be afraid of spending that time. The more time you spend in entrepreneurial activities, the better you’ll get at it — and the better the odds that you’ll eventually get whatever it is you want. Don’t have the time? C’mon! There are 168 hours in every week. You spend 40-some keeping bread on the table. That leaves another three “work-weeks” free for you to define. If you don’t spend some significant part of that free time pursuing your entrepreneurial goals, that just says that other things are more important to you. Which is ok — just don’t then cry about “lack of opportunity”.

Don’t be afraid to take some risks. You take risks constantly — every time you get in a car, every time you cross the street. But you’ve decided it’s worth that risk to get to where you want to go. Same with entrepreneuring. When you have doubts, just ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” The answer is never as bad as your fears. Yes, it’s scary to leave a paying job to go out on your own. But what’s the worst thing that could happen? You’d have to find another job.

And don’t be afraid to fail. You learn from your failures — not from your successes. You’re going to have failures. Lot’s of things you try aren’t going to work. A key to successful entrepreneuring is to speed up those failures. Keep trying things. Go with what works. Learn from — and quickly discard — what doesn’t.

The old Gestalt saying, “Don’t push the river; it flows by itself”, applies well to entrepreneuring. The person who’s been working on their “business plan” for the past year, or their “great new product” for the past three, is “pushing the river”. They’re just using those activities as an excuse to avoid taking the plunge.

There’s no lack of opportunities today. In fact, arguably, there are more opportunities today than there have ever been in history. Entrepreneurial opportunities arise from social and technological change. And the changes we’re going through now — both socially and technologically, in both magnitude and rate — are greater than the world has ever seen.

If you’re running around frustrated for lack of opportunities, you’re doing it to yourself — it’s not being done to you. The opportunities are there — whatever the level you’re aiming at. First, prepare. Then, look. Then, act… Then, prosper.

This Entrepreneurship article was written by Ed Zimmer on 2/11/2005

TEN article by Ed Zimmer, 734-663-8000, The Entrepreneur Network, Ann Arbor, MI.