Looks Like Rain

Finding the Elusive Idea

But like all businesses, this one began with an idea that Wolf, 34, freely admits she borrowed. "I stole the idea, and then did some serious adapting," Wolf says. Stealing an idea for a business isn't as shifty as it sounds; if entrepreneurs didn't take inspiration from fellow business owners, there would be no Burger King or Wendy's, just McDonald's--and perhaps not even that, because White Castle and other burger joints had already been on the scene. Starbucks wasn't the first coffeehouse, and Barnes & Noble wasn't the first bookstore. Wolf simply remembered how an entrepreneur fulfilled her musical needs in London and realized she could fill those needs in her own country as well.

But back when she decided to start a business, she had no idea what her great business idea would be. Wolf had completely forgotten about her experience of buying music in an airport. The right idea was in the recesses of her brain, but she had to find it first.

Wolf quit her investment banking job in the fall of 1992. With $100,000 saved to put into her start-up, she could afford to spend time brainstorming business ideas. That was a good thing, because it took a while--at least several months between starting the brainstorming process and channeling a lightning bolt. But how she found that business idea could be a blueprint to any entrepreneur's success, and that blueprint had three important components:

  1. She kept an open mind about possible businesses.
  2. She constantly looked at the financial bottom line to see if the business would be viable.
  3. Even when the business seemed potentially profitable, Wolf took a reality check and asked herself if it could live up to the expectations she had for herself and her future company.

The first idea that really appealed to Wolf was to open a store that sold educational and entertainment software for children. She also considered offering classes in a room behind the retail department, where parents and children could learn to use the software. "But the margins didn't work," says Wolf, who did plenty of planning, trying to figure out whether she could make money.

Wolf assessed her idea because she didn't want to wake up one morning, poor and discouraged, wondering "What was I thinking?" After crunching the numbers, she realized that she would only be really busy after school and on weekends, and that much of the workday might look like a ghost town in her store.

To make extra money to live on, Wolf started doing some freelance computer training. And even though that sounds like a bit of a strategic retreat from boldly starting her own business, she was inadvertently following the advice that business consultant Jeff Blackman recommends.

Blackman, whose most recent book is Carpe A.M. Carpe P.M.: Seize Your Destiny! (The Result Collection) and who speaks nationwide about business issues, suggests if you're going to find that elusive perfect idea, you need to get out there, live your life and be open to new prospects.

Wolf enjoyed computer training and considered that as a career, but her hands-on experience opened her eyes. "I was always going to be limited by the hours in the day," she says. "I couldn't work enough as one person to have the type of company I wanted, and the only way I could would be to train others. It just wouldn't have been the right business for me."

"Watch TV, go see a movie, read a magazine, take a walk," suggests Blackman. "You know how when you're looking to buy a house, and suddenly you notice all of these For Sale signs in yards? If you're looking for an idea, you can program your brain to notice these things."

Which is why one day, Wolf suddenly recalled her experience at an airport in London.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the September 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Looks Like Rain.

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