| Continuing each Monday an excerpt from my book Hoover’s Vision:
As we’ve discussed, in order to see opportunity, we must be open to it. We must be ready for new ideas.
If you wish to start an enterprise but have not yet figured out exactly what you want to do, the most important thought in your mind should be a simple one: Find a need and fill it. I’ve looked at hundreds and hundreds of business plans. Many use cutting-edge technology in intriguing ways. Others meet the needs of the inventor and no one else. Still others are designed to look good to venture capitalists and other investors. But the business plans that are likely to succeed are the ones that address the real needs of real people.
Ultimately, the opportunity to create significant new enterprises from scratch, as well as the ability of existing enterprises to embark on bold new initiatives, depends on the ability to see unmet needs and unseen desires. Successful enterprises and their leaders continually search for new ways to serve people better.
Many times this starts with asking why and why not; with looking around at how things are done today and imagining how they could be done better; with thinking about an ideal world. Look for things that are not working, look for problems, for opportunities. Look at things that are working, that are popular. Think about how to take their ideas and adapt them to other industries. Look at things that need tweaking, where a small shift in style, operations, or attitude would create a new opportunity. Observe every transaction and think about its implications. Why is this person buying what they are buying? Why is the seller selling what they are selling? What else is the buyer likely to want to buy? Might the young man driving off the lot with a new Camaro be going straight to the custom stereo shop? Might the old gal looking for hot dogs in aisle 16 be looking for hot dog buns in a few minutes?
Last year I worked with a very bright group of young software engineers. Their goal was to dream up new business ideas. They met every week in wonderful brainstorming rooms – the walls were covered with whiteboards; their technological tools were the best. They talked and surmised and dreamed together. I pointed out to them that, if the best way to come up with great business ideas was to get a bunch of bright people in a room talking to each other, then all of our great companies would have been formed at Harvard and Oxford and Yale. But most of our great enterprises were not formed in those places. I told my young friends to get out of their isolated tower as quickly as possible and run to the mall. Or to the cafeteria of a giant company. Or to an airport. Anywhere that they could find (and watch) real people having and talking about real problems. Get out of the strategy room and onto the battlefield.
Back in 1951, Memphis building contractor Kemmons Wilson was driving across the country with his wife and five kids. He couldn’t find a decent place to stay that he could afford — every little motel charged $2 per child, TV was extra, and there was usually a key deposit. Wilson told his wife that they should build four hundred new places to stay, enough to cover the country. She laughed. But when Wilson got back to work, he had a draftsman draw up a concept for a chain of such motels. The night before, the draftsman had watched a Bing Crosby movie called Holiday Inn, and he stuck that name on the drawing.
The idea of the motel chain and the larger concept of franchising took a giant leap forward. The old lodging industry leaders like Hilton and Sheraton took years to realize what had hit them. Twenty-eight years later, when founder Kemmons Wilson retired from the company, there were 1,759 Holiday Inns all around the world.
Looking at the Best
Every day we encounter examples of high quality and low quality, good industries and bad. And in those experiences lie hidden insights. In the worst-run industries lie opportunities where an innovator can succeed, and in the best-run industries are found the ways to do so.
When we fail, we point fingers, assign blame, and even form high-level committees and task forces to look into the causes of failure. But when we succeed, we tend to pat each other on the back and head straight for the celebration. We waste an awful lot of time crying over spilt milk but often spend too little time studying our successes.
In nature, we should be at least as interested in the world’s longest-surviving species as we are in the endangered species. Study cockroaches if you want to understand durability and adaptability. Study coyotes and turkey vultures.
In politics, too, success is often overlooked. People in one party may try to make something of their successes but the opposition and the media rarely grant them any credibility. People examine failures with a fine-toothed comb.
To overcome this tendency, we need to seek out success and study it. Almost every organization, whether it’s a corporation, a church, a college, a hospital, or a government agency, does something right. The more we understand about success, the better.
Stop and look around. Look at your town, your company, your industry. What are the most successful organizations? Who are the most successful people? Who does the most to make the world a better place? Who does the most to help other people? What can we learn from them?
Of course we can learn from failure. But we don’t have to go out of our way to study it – the press will see to that. On the other hand, it is usually up to us to recognize and understand the greatness that is all around us.