From the November 1998 issue of Startups

Estimates vary, but generally, more than 1 million businesses are started every year in the United States. Yet for every American who actually starts a business, there are likely millions more who begin each year by saying "OK, this is the year I'm going to start a business," and then nothing happens.

Everybody has his or her own roadblock, something that keeps them from taking that first crucial step. Some people are afraid to start; they may fear the unknown or failure or even success. Others are just overwhelmed by the belief that they have to start from scratch. They think they have to start with an empty slate and figure out "OK, what product can I invent? What service can I start? What can I do that no one has ever done before?" In other words, they think they have to reinvent the wheel.

But unless you are a technological genius, trying to reinvent the wheel is a big waste of time. For most people starting a business, the issue is not coming up with something so unique that no one has ever heard of it. It's answering the question "How can I do something better?" or "How can I do it differently than the other guy doing it over there?"


Rieva Lesonsky is editorial director of Entrepreneur Media Inc., which publishes Business Start-Ups, Entrepreneur and Entrepreneur's HomeOffice. This article is excerpted from the new book Start Your Own Business (Entrepreneur Media Inc., $24.95), available at bookstores near you.

Get The Juices Flowing

How do you start the idea process? First, take out a sheet of paper, and across the top, write "Things About Me." List five to seven things about yourself--things you like to do or that you are really good at. Once you have your list, number the items. On the other side of the paper, list things that you don't think you are good at or you don't like to do. When you are finished, draw a line underneath both lists, then ask yourself "If there were three to five products or services that would make my personal life better, what would they be?" Next, ask yourself the same question about your business life.

Also examine what you like and dislike about your current job as well as what traits people like and dislike about you. Finally, ask yourself why you're seeking to start a business in the first place. When you are done, look for a pattern (i.e., maybe there's a need for a business doing one of the things you like or are good at).

They Delivered

Let me give you an example. I live and work in Irvine, California, a planned community. Most of the fast-food restaurants are located where the neighborhoods are. In the office areas, there aren't many easily accessible places to go on a lunch hour. Several years ago, two young men in Irvine found this situation very frustrating.

One day, as they were lamenting their lunch problem, one of them said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could get some good food delivered?" The proverbial light bulb went on--what a concept! Then they did what too many people don't do: They did something about their idea. They started a restaurant delivery business.

Today, their business boasts $5.4 million in sales. And it all began because they listened to their frustrations and did something about them.

Inspiring Moments

Inspiration is everywhere. For entrepreneur Bill Zanker, inspiration hit while enjoying a walk in the park. Zanker, who made his first fortune by founding and later selling The Learning Annex, an adult education company, was strolling through a San Francisco park one day when he had a brainstorm. He spotted a man on a park bench selling back massages for a dollar a minute. Even though the guy wasn't massaging people correctly and had dirty hands, folks were lined up, awaiting their turn. Zanker knew he could do it better--and he did.

He returned home to New York City and in 1993 opened The Great American Backrub, where licensed massage therapists gave about nine-minute back rubs for $7.95. Zanker later added back-related merchandise to his stores, devised a mobile "Backrubs-to-Go" service and expanded nationwide through franchising. Just last year, he sold the successful company to focus on new business opportunities.

Made To Order

Getting an idea can be as simple as keeping your eyes peeled for the latest "hot" business; they crop up all the time. One recent trend involved those paint-your-own ceramics studios. They started in the bigger cities like Seattle, San Francisco and New York. And in the urban areas, they became very popular with young, single people. Some entrepreneurs paired the concept with other entertainment businesses, like wine bars.

When these stores hit Irvine, a suburban, family community, entrepreneurs aimed them at kids, instead of the singles scene. On the weekend, these places were occupied by dozens of little girls painting. Children have birthday parties at these stores; the studios attract Girl Scout troops.

My point: You can take any idea and customize it to your community. Add your own creativity to any concept. In fact, customizing a concept is not a choice; it's something you have to do if
you want your business to be successful.

One of the best ways to determine if your idea will work in your community is to talk to people who know. Talk to colleagues, your family or your neighbors. Don't be afraid your friends will steal your idea; it's not likely. All you have to do is ask.

Just Do It!

Business start-up is not rocket science. No, I'm not saying it's easy to begin a business; it certainly is not. But it is not as complicated nor as scary as many people think, either. It's a step-by-step, common-sense procedure. So take it a step at a time. First step: Figure out what you want to do. Once you have the idea, talk to people to find out what they think. Ask "Would you buy and/or use this, and how much would you pay?"

Determining what you want to do is only the first step. You've still got a lot of homework to do. Most important: Do something. Don't sit back year after year and say "This is the year I'm going to start my business." Make this the year you really start it!

Smart Tips

  • Don't overlook publications in your search for ideas. Books, newspapers and magazines all contain a wealth of ideas. Your reading list should include--but not be limited to--the latest business periodicals.
  • Your hobbies may lead you to business ideas. If tennis is your game, perhaps you can think of a product that makes serving a snap. If that sounds too technical, look around the courts and see if there's a service players would pay for.
  • Is there a household chore that drives you up the wall? (One shudders to think of life before vacuum cleaners.) Common sources of frustration or irritation are great idea-generators.