Looking for Opportunity? Here’s How to Spot It in Any Industry

If you’ve got street smarts, ambition, and the willingness to work harder than your most diligent competitor, you don’t need to be a degreed expert in a particular industry to get a business off the ground there.

At the same time, you can’t simply pick a field out of thin air. You need to do your due diligence to ensure that an opportunity exists.

This presents a chicken-and-egg problem: if you don’t have expertise in a given field, how can you identify genuine opportunities in it? Many businesses fail, after all, because entrepreneurs fell for an apparent temporary opportunity riddled with underlying weaknesses.

This is how. These five tips and best practices should help you identify an opportunity wherever it’s to be found. Although, it’s important to remember that every company, industry, and entrepreneur is different, and absolute generalizations aren’t advisable.

  1. Identify Secular Shifts

Look for a major, lasting shift in consumer tastes or business decision-making processes, then start a business that exploits it. For instance, restaurant chain Chipotle is widely credited with bringing wholesome, high-quality, sustainable ingredients to the fast food business, essentially inventing a new segment — fast casual — in the process.

  1. Bundle Existing Products or Services

Many of the world’s most successful startups are in the business of bringing basic services to a wider audience, as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel with a flashy new idea. Some popular new inventions “bundle” two or more existing functions in the same product or service package, adding value for customers and boosting margins for manufacturers. For instance, the camera smartphone merges the desktop computer, telephone, and camera. Scan/copy/print machines blend the scanner, copier, and printer.

  1. Help Others Help Themselves

Many companies are in the business of helping others also end up helping themselves. Like “bundlers”, these firms don’t seek to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they provide straightforward, understandable services more cheaply and effectively than their clients can provide for themselves.

For instance, telephone answering services take service concepts (receptionist, call screening, appointment taking, call forwarding, and more) that have been around for years, apply new technologies and economies of scale, and create an opportunity for clients who can’t afford to provide those services for themselves in-house.

  1. Go Local

Consumers have always craved local products, services, and experiences, but this trend has lately accelerated. Nothing is off-limits here; whether you’re a great homebrewer looking to sell liquid gold to a local audience or a knowledgeable tour guide who wants to educate others about their own backyard, put your idea to the test with your friends and neighbors.

  1. Use Adversity to Your Advantage

All the market research in the world can’t change the fact that there’s no substitute for personal experience. Learn from negative experiences, and use what you discover to improve outcomes for those who come after you. For instance, the founder of doctor rating service MD Insider got the idea for his revolutionary service after contracting a post-surgical infection that nearly killed him. Years later, he’s at the helm of a successful startup that aims to make the healthcare system safer for all. In other words, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Which industry are you most excited about in the near term?

You’ve Tasted Success. Now What?

Have you checked the stats on business failure rates lately? They’re not encouraging. Anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of newly incorporated businesses fail within five years. Many never even have a chance: they’re hampered by intense competition, insufficient capitalization, poor performance, employee malfeasance, and a host of other problems that keep business owners awake at night.

If you’re one of the relatively few entrepreneurs who successfully navigates the transition from precariously placed startup to successful, profitable business – congratulations! You’re living the dream, even if it feels like you never have a moment to yourself.

You might also be wondering, “what do I do now?”. Good question. To keep your company’s momentum going and to begin the next leg of your journey of growth, keep these pointers in mind.

Nurture Your Employees

Your employees are your company’s most valuable asset. Make sure you’re not giving them second thoughts about working for you. Instead do everything in your power to ensure that they continue to make valuable contributions to your organization. Employee-friendly moves to consider as your company grows include:

  •      Compensating employees above their industry/profession average
  •      Instituting attractive benefits and performance bonus packages
  •      Offering internal talent development programs to convey new, job-specific skills
  •      Supporting external employee education and professional development, such as graduate degree programs and industry certifications
  •      Arranging company outings, theme days, and other team-building activities

Pay Attention to Your Customers’ Changing Wants and Needs

Your customers are just as important to your company’s competitive position as your employees. Make sure you’re listening to what they want and need. Tactics include:

  •      Regular customer surveys and questionnaires
  •      Focus groups and other forms of market research
  •      Sales analytics
  •      Online advertising analytics
  •      Inbound contact and fulfillment services

Don’t Hesitate to Seize Opportunities

When opportunity presents itself, seize it. Don’t make a note to see how it’s doing in a month or two — it could be too late by then. All great growth stories have a make-or-break opportunity at their heart.

Enforce Core Values, Even if it Requires Tough Choices

A company is only as good as its core values. If you’re struggling to uphold your firm’s values as it grows, figure out why and take steps to fix the problem, pronto. Note that this might require you to make some tough choices, including potentially parting ways with key employees who fancy themselves indispensable.

Never Lose Touch With Your Roots

No matter where your career takes you, remember to stay grounded. The higher you rise, the harder it is to remain in touch with the people who contribute to your success. Make a conscious effort to do so by:

  •      Keeping in touch with the mentors who helped you during your formative years, such as important teachers, career advisors, or old bosses
  •      Visiting your family regularly, even if they live far away
  •      Spending time with friends and acquaintances who don’t work in your industry (or work for you)
  •      Giving back to organizations that serve your community
  •      Remembering to take a personal day every once in a while and focus on something other than the bottom line

How do you plan to keep your company’s momentum going as it grows and changes?

George Otte’s 10 Tips for Building a Successful Business

At 21, most college students aren’t out pounding the pavement in support of their nascent tech support businesses, or using their spare time to learn cutting-edge skills (and earn the certifications to prove it) that could boost their value to prospective clients.

As a South Florida college student in the early 2000s, George Otte certainly wasn’t averse to having fun. But he didn’t dally, as many of his fellow students did. At the youthful age of 21, Otte founded a tech support business on a shoestring budget and began building a client base in and around the Miami area. By his 25th birthday, Otte already had more than 100 clients and was well on his way to local tech support dominance.

The subsequent years have been good to George Otte. In fact, he now runs a trio of successful businesses — Geeks on Site, Responsive Answering Service and Phase V — through his Otte Polo holding company.

And his ambitions haven’t quieted: already the premier provider of telephone answering and business fulfillment services for small, midsize, and enterprise-grade clients. Among other opportunities, George Otte is  actively seeking acquisition targets for Responsive Answering Service and Phase V.

The bottom line: George Otte is well qualified to provide advice for entrepreneurs looking to build successful businesses. Here are 10 tips from his decade-plus of experience at the helm of growing, profitable companies.

  1. Start Strong, Stay Diligent

According to George Otte, new business owners need to start with a bang. This means devoting as much time as possible to the business during its first few years of life, particularly when the company is in the “danger zone” prior to consistent profitability.

“Your company should consume all of your energy during the first few years,” says Otte. Once the company is on sure footing, you can begin to cautiously step back and reward yourself.

  1. Remember Who Matters Most

According to Otte, business owners should never forget the two groups of people who matter most: their customers and their employees. Without the former, cash flow dries up. Without the latter, product and capabilities suffer. In an increasingly competitive market for labor and talent, not to mention a marketing environment populated by increasingly savvy consumers and corporate decision-makers, it’s critical to treat both groups as well as possible. Your industry, competitive landscape, and business philosophy will determine how this looks for your company.

  1. Learn to Delegate as You Grow

New business owners usually lack the resources to deck out a dozens-strong team from the get-go, particularly when they’re bootstrapping. That means you’ll likely have to wear multiple hats in the early going. And as Otte noted in tip #1, you’ll need to devote all your spare energy, time, and talents to your business anyway.

You also need to recognize when it’s time to delegate. At a certain point, you’ll be faced with a dichotomous choice — which may only be apparent in retrospect — to either continue taking care of everything yourself or to begin delegating to trusted, skilled subordinates. According to Otte, entrepreneurs who choose the latter tend to gain market traction, allowing them to scale and exit faster.

  1. Focus on High-Value Projects

Delegating doesn’t mean stepping back completely. If you can build a strong management team to which you feel comfortable delegating important tasks, you’ll have more personal bandwidth available to devote to high-value projects, initiatives, and long-term goals that drive growth and boost your company’s competitive advantage. You take every opportunity to maximize your team’s productivity, so why not do the same for your own?

  1. Protect Intellectual Property

If your company relies on proprietary products or processes to support its business model, you need to make sure they can’t be copied, imitated, or ripped off. Before you start selling, conduct a thorough patent search to determine whether any similar processes, systems, or products exist. If none do, or if those that do exist are distinctive enough not to interfere with your operations, file patent applications for all mission-critical pieces of intellectual property.

  1. Keep Detailed Records

It sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many companies simply fail to maintain accurate employee, inventory, and financial records. This is particularly important for diversified companies like George Otte’s Otte Polo Group, which has numerous subsidiaries that do business internationally.

  1. Don’t Over-Leverage Yourself

It’s tempting, and often prudent, to seek growth capital. Bootstrapping is difficult in the best of circumstances, and can be difficult or impossible in capital-intensive industries. Make sure you’re keeping your cash-to-debt ratio under control, and do everything in your power to achieve positive cash flow early in your company’s life cycle. Excessive leverage can come back to bite your company in a hurry, particularly if the economy goes south.

  1. Underpromise, Overdeliver

According to Otte, new entrepreneurs should never make promises they can’t deliver on. Whether you’re issuing revenue projections to investors or laying out a schedule for a pending acquisition, follow the mantra: “underpromise, overdeliver”. Put another way, you need to exceed the expectations you set for your company. Otherwise, you’re apt to disappoint investors, customers, employees, and others that you can’t afford to let down.

  1. Avoid Excessive Discounting

Discounting is a great way to get customers in the door, but excessive price-cutting can have corrosive long-term effects. If customers come to expect cut-rate products or services, they won’t spring for the full-price version because they’ll assume that the cut rate is actually the full rate. Over time, this devalues your brand, reduces the effectiveness of legitimate price reductions, and hurts your profit margins.

  1. Learn from Those Who’ve Come Before

No matter what you do for a living, you need a mentor. Having someone to look up to is especially important when you’re the boss of your own world. As the old saying goes, “It’s lonely at the top.” Tap the expertise of someone who’s come before, someone you can trust, to make the experience a bit less alienating and to ensure that you don’t make preventable mistakes.

Are you in the process of starting a business? Which tip do you find most valuable?