Marianne Szymanski discovered her passion as a young girl. "I've always loved children and believed in helping others," says Szymanski, the president of Toy Tips Inc., a consumer-focused international consulting firm in Milwaukee that tests toys based on appropriate age and skill development. "As a pre-teen, I enjoyed holding MDA [Muscular Dystrophy Association] carnivals in my backyard. I would donate my old toys as prizes and have games and go-cart rides set up to raise money for MDA. Sometimes I would raise [only] $32, but I was so proud to turn it in because that was the outcome of my little carnival."
Szymanski has since parlayed her passion into a thriving venture. The idea for Toy Tips came when she worked as a sales rep for LEGO, her first employer after graduating from college in 1989. Her job was to sell the LEGO line to toy store managers, but often when she would visit a store on a sales call, the customers would think she worked there and ask for advice in search of the best birthday or holiday gifts for their kids. "I'd usually try to sell them LEGOs or direct them to a store employee, but all those questions [from parents about what to look for in toys] piqued my interest," Szymanski recalls. "I was 23 and had a lot of determination and a Visa card, so I was willing to take the risk."
In 1991, she took the plunge, leaving LEGO to start Toy Tips Inc. and offer parents objective advice about toys. Started as a toy advice hotline, Szymanski's company today conducts extensive toy research and publishes the findings in Toy Tips Magazine (distributed at Toys "R" Us and Target stores). The magazine summarizes research findings for parents and has such sponsors as Jiffy Lube, Curad, Hilton Hotels, Northwest Airlines and Gerber. Szymanski is recognized across the country as a leading expert on toys, regularly appearing on such shows as Good Morning America, Oprah and Later Today as well as on the Lifetime cable TV network.
The Passion Principle
One of the marks of successful entrepreneurs is their enthusiasm about their businesses. "When you're passionate about what you do, [prospective clients] would rather give their business to you than to your competitor," explains Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the bestselling book What Color is Your Parachute? In other words, when you have fire in your belly, you naturally attract business, as Szymanski has found.
How do you discover what kind of business lights your fire and will keep it burning for the long haul? Here are five steps:
1. Identify what gets you excited. Barbara Sher, author of It's Only Too Late If You Don't Start Now: How to Create Your Second Life at Any Age suggests you allow yourself to dream. "Ask yourself: 'What's fun? What do I like to do? What would I get a kick out of doing?' " says Sher. "Most people think they don't know what they want to do, but that's because they move too fast. They say, 'Well, I like such-and-such, but it doesn't make any money.' But you don't know that! You've got to wake up to what it is you like before you slam down the criticisms."
Bolles puts it this way: "If you're at a party, and there are people talking in different corners of the room about different subjects, and you overhear somebody talking about a subject that fascinates you so much you want to hang around and listen, what would that subject be?"
2. Go back to your childhood. "One way to tell if something is your passion is if you had an affinity for it during childhood," says Denis E. Waitley, a world-renowned motivational speaker and author of Empires of the Mind: Lessons to Lead and Succeed in a Knowledge-Based World. "When I think back to all the people I've interviewed, for many of them, what they were good at as children eventually became their passion."
3. Take stock of your talents. "What you love is what you're gifted at," says Sher. "That's a genetic thing. That's why horses get a kick out of running and many people do not. You don't love what you're not built to love. And if you don't do what you're built to do, you may never know what's wrong, but something is always wrong."
How do you determine what your talents are? On a sheet of paper, brainstorm the things you do well, the things that come naturally to you. If you're having trouble listing your gifts on your own, consult people you trust and ask what they think your best skills are.
4. "Shop" on the job. If you're working for someone else right now, look at your job as an opportunity to test out different skills to discover what you might like to do on your own. For Szymanski, part of what spurred her idea was her experience working at LEGO.
"A corporation is a great place to discover activities you enjoy," says Sher. "Wherever you work, take as much time as you can to 'shop' around the various departments. Learn the ropes, and find out what you get a kick out of."
5. Look at the big picture. Steven Covey, co-chair of Franklin Covey Co. and author of the bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic, suggests asking yourself three questions: Do I like doing it? Am I good at it? Does the world need it?
"If you have a passion that you're good at but the world doesn't need it, you've got a useless passion," says Covey. "If you're focusing on what the world needs and sell out your passion, you sell out what is uniquely you. But if you can make a living doing something that you're really good at and like-what a combination!"
Put It to the Test
How do you know if something is truly your passion and not just a whim? "Two weeks later, [the feeling] doesn't go away," says Hyrum W. Smith, vice chair of Franklin Covey Co. and author of What Matters Most: The Power of Living Your Values. "You get that fire in your belly; you're willing to sacrifice for it; you're willing to take risks for it. And even when people tell you you've lost your mind, you don't back down."
For Bolles, the test is this: "When someone says, 'I just feel I have to do this,' I know I'm talking to somebody who's found [their] passion."
What is it you just have to do? What's holding you back? "If you believe in yourself and know your passion, then do it!" says Szymanski. "Don't look for excuses not to. If you're offering society the best person you can be, you'll be rewarded with success-and the money will come. There will be ups and downs, but it will happen."
Once you've discovered your passion, where can you go for help in converting it into a feasible business concept? Here are a few tips:
- At your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC), there are business consultants who can give you objective feedback concerning the feasibility of your business idea and help you design a step-by-step plan to get your venture off the ground. SBDCs are sponsored by the SBA, so most of their services are free. To find the SBDC nearest you, go to www.sba.gov/sbdc.
- Attend meetings sponsored by the local chapter of the trade associations related to your interests. You'll gain a greater understanding of an industry and, by meeting and talking with industry veterans, get a feel for whether your business concept has potential. Trade association meetings are also excellent places to find prospective mentors who can give you the emotional support and hands-on information you need to turn your passion into a profitable business.
Sean M. Lyden is the principal and senior writer of The Professional Writing Firm Inc., a Kennesaw, Georgia, company that specializes in ghostwriting articles. Lyden writes frequently on motivation, management and marketing issues.