A Smart Idea

Found something you like to do? Make it your business!
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the June 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

Building a solid business of your own requires learning from the successes and occasional failures of those who've come before you. Every piece of advice, every lesson learned and shared by other entrepreneurs, brings you closer to realizing your goal.

With adequate doses of entrepreneurial effort and customer appeal, almost any innovative idea can be transformed into a successful business. Once you decide that entrepreneurship is for you, it's time to brainstorm and come up with the business idea that matches your likes, dislikes, interests, abilities and dreams.

As a fledgling entrepreneur, your goal is to discover the type of business that fits you--and your customers' wants and needs--best. Typically, this involves conducting a thorough self-assessment to identify the things you do best and the activities you love to do. From there, generate a list of business ideas that incorporate these items in some way, and narrow the list down to the one that promises to maximize your future happiness--and your future profits.

Before deciding on the business that's right for you, keep in mind that customers are the most important ingredient in the recipe for entrepreneurial success. This means that if you choose to offer a product or service that customers don't want or need, there's no opportunity to succeed. Think carefully about the type and quantity of potential customers who exist for your product or service. Consider the range of other businesses that are currently serving those customers' needs, and decide how your offering will distinguish itself from those competitors, and how it will be able to compete aggressively.

Since each person chooses their "perfect business" in dramatically different ways, we've found three entrepreneurs who have agreed to share their stories about how they came to settle on the types of businesses they started. Over the next 12 months in this column, these entrepreneurs will return to share other specific details about building a successful business.

Al Schneider, Usedmall.Com

"A few years ago, my partner and I were in the business of buying and selling used computer equipment. Today, we do less legwork and help sell more kinds of business equipment over the Internet," explains Al Schneider, 57, vice president and general manager of usedmall.com in Englewood, New Jersey. Since March 1996, he and partner Harvey Berlent have been providing electronic classified listings to businesses wishing to buy and sell used and surplus equipment.

Schneider and Berlent were working together as equipment brokers when they realized that the burgeoning power of the Internet could revolutionize the way they did business. "Rather than limit ourselves by continuing to broker the acquisition of used computers, we decided to start a new company that would provide the means for businesses to buy and sell used or surplus equipment electronically, over the Internet," Schneider says. "This became a priority for us once it was apparent that the Internet was going to be an increasingly powerful medium for communicating with businesspeople around the globe. It was a natural progression for me, too, because I'd been working with computers in varying capacities for nearly 35 years."

Schneider believes that electronic classified ads are the wave of the future. Just as traditional newspapers charge those wishing to place classified ads in their pages, his company charges a fee to individuals and companies wishing to publish text detailing the type of equipment they wish to buy or sell. These electronic classifieds, which cost $29.95 per month for 100 words or less, are then accessed at their Web site (http://www.usedmall.com) by Internet users and businesses worldwide. Offerings are grouped into several categories, which include airplanes, trucks, personal computers, office equipment, furniture, and medical supplies.

"One thing that makes our electronic classified ads superior to newspaper classifieds," Schneider states, "is that they can be read by 30 million to 40 million Internet users located in many countries. Another is that our service is far more than just a flat bulletin board. It contains a database and has a search engine built right into it, which makes it easier to identify and locate the particular items that each user desires."

Schneider expects that the demand for his company's offerings will continue to grow in the coming years. "Last year was a time of general awareness about this new medium called the Internet, and 1997 is shaping up to be the year when businesses recognize this tool as a cost-effective way to conduct many of their business activities," he says. "I believe our business is situated in the right place at the right time with the ideal offering."

Suzanne George, Suzanne George Shoes

"All of my formal educational training had been in communication and psychology, not in art or handicrafts, so the fact that I now earn money making beautiful shoes by hand is a dream come true for me," says Suzanne George, 34, who launched her San Francisco-based shoe-making business in the summer of 1995. All of George's footwear is custom-made to meet the desires and specifications of individual clients.

"The idea for the business grew out of my knack for envisioning creative, new footwear styles," George explains. "I kept having `pictures in my head' of innovative shoe designs. My desire to transform those visions into reality led to my interest in making shoes by hand."

Although George first got the idea to start making and selling custom-designed shoes when she was in her early 20s, she sat on the idea for more than a decade because she feared it wasn't a viable career option. "My impression was that you pretty much had to be born into a family of shoe makers in order to acquire the skill," she explains. "As a result, I shied away from pursuing my dream by working in the nonprofit sector, working in banking, and studying counseling psychology in graduate school, instead."

As George moved from one career situation to the next, she found that she couldn't shake her desire to make made-to-order shoes. "The longer I thought about it, the bigger the idea got in my mind, and the scarier it became to reach out and try to attain it," says George. "It got easier to remain in my little glass house and just imagine how things could be, rather than how things would be. In my late 20s, though, I decided it was time to give my dream a try. My close friends were sick of hearing me simply talk about it, anyway, so I finally went out and did something about it."

George was accepted by a reputable technical college in England that specializes in shoemaking and saddlery; students there can also learn to make handbags and accessories. She learned of the college from a San Francisco design school's librarian who knew of its reputation. Upon the program's completion, she apprenticed with some shoe makers there before returning to the United States. In all, she was abroad for a bit more than a year. Upon her return, she took part in a six-month training course on how to operate a profitable small business at the San Francisco Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a community economic development program established in 1985--one of the first microenterprise-development programs in the nation. She then obtained her business license and focused her attention on her new sole proprietorship, Suzanne George Shoes.

"My favorite thing about the work I do is that I'm preserving a craft and creating high-quality goods in an old-world manner, which is quite rare in this modern era of mass production," says George, who meets with clients at their homes in order to get a sense of their personalities and to allow them to show her many of the footwear and clothing items they prefer. She then works on the shoes at her homebased location, returning with them upon completion to the clients' premises. "I also like the fact that I get to work with people in their own environments and help them to create custom-made footwear that expresses who they really are."

D. J. Waldow, B-School Cleaners

"How many undergraduates get the opportunity to run their own small business while earning a degree from one of the nation's leading business schools?" asks D. J. Waldow, 21, who has been running a dry-cleaning service out of the student lounge of the University of Michigan Business School since January 1997. Waldow is assisted in his efforts by business partner Matt Campbell, a fellow University of Michigan undergraduate.

The beauty of Waldow and Campbell's dry-cleaning business is its simplicity. Students, faculty and staff drop off items they want cleaned during specified hours, and they pick them up during those same hours a few days later. Waldow and Campbell, however, do not need to own or use any expensive equipment because they don't do any of the actual dry cleaning themselves. Instead, they've subcontracted with a local dry-cleaning establishment that picks up, cleans and returns all of the items directly to their business space in the business school's student lounge. "Aside from promoting the business," Waldow says, "all we really have to do is sit there, collect money, and fill out invoices."

The pair got the idea for the dry-cleaning service as members of the business school's entrepreneur club. The virtues of the concept had been touted by the club's master's-level students for several years, yet nobody had actually acted on it. When the idea resurfaced during a meeting in the fall of 1996, Waldow says he couldn't let the opportunity pass him by.

"I'd be lying if I said I'd always dreamed of being a dry cleaner, but I have always wanted to start my own business," Waldow explains. "This was an ideal chance to get hands-on experience as an entrepreneur to complement my classroom learning. Matt and I are doing everything ourselves, from generating customers to keeping the books. So far, it's been a tremendous opportunity to learn the ins and outs of running our own business and satisfying customers' needs."

Waldow trusts that the business will thrive in coming months and that its customer base will grow. "We've been using these first few weeks since opening our doors to try out new ideas and find out what works. Right now, we're focusing on new ways to get the word out about our business to other students on campus. Our next big target is the law school next door. Law students are always wearing dressy clothes, and we're close enough to serve all of their dry-cleaning needs."

Five Steps To Picking The Perfect Business

1. Think about the kinds of things you already like to do, and those you might like to do.

2. Brainstorm to create a list of potential business ideas that mesh with your abilities, interests, lifestyle, goals and dreams.

3. Narrow your list down to a desired venture, based on its appeal and overall potential for success.

4. Keeping in mind the supreme importance of locating an adequate number of clients, think carefully about who your potential customers will be and what will make your offering distinctive enough to attract their loyalty and cash.

5. Learn everything you possibly can about your intended business and marketplace by visiting the library and by talking to others to minimize the risk of encountering major surprises later.

A business writer for the past eight years, Kylo-Patrick Hart lives for great deals on office equipment, occasionally dry cleans his clothes, and dreams of one day owning a custom-made pair of boots like those worn by Stevie Nicks.

Contact Sources

B-School Cleaners,djwaldow@umich.edu.

Suzanne George Shoes, 526 7th Ave., #3, San Francisco, CA 94118.

usedmall.com LLC, 25 Rockwood Pl., #4, Englewood, NJ 07631, (800) 683-1608.

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