What's the Big Idea?

10 great ways to find the business of your dreams
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the February 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Great business ideas are all around you. Just open yourself to the possibilities, and you're bound to find a winner. To start your search for that drop-dead idea that's going to set the world on fire, start with the following sources. Culled from marketing guru Al Ries, chairman of Roswell, Georgia-based marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries and co-author with Laura Ries of 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (HarperCollins), and business trendwatcher Perry Lowe, professor of marketing at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, these can be the first steps in your search for the business of your dreams.

1. Start with family. Tapping family for great business ideas may not seem like an obvious first step. Sure, you'll hit them up for cash once you've developed your idea, but what can your aging father or cousin Margaret contribute this early in the process? Plenty. Donald Trump certainly wasn't bashful about learning the real estate business from his dad, Fred, who ran a thriving real estate development company, says Ries. Trump had the good sense to get some priceless training before going off to become one of the country's foremost builders and real estate developers. "If his father hadn't provided the foundation and training [he needed] to create a profitable business, Trump wouldn't be where he is today," Ries explains. "Unfortunately, many people insist on [creating a business] themselves without any help from their family. That's foolish."

2. Get a little help from your friends. Ries says you are severely limiting yourself if you rely solely on your own ideas --especially when your creative juices run dry. "This is reason enough to listen to ideas others may have," he says. "If you have 15 or 20 friends, chances are a couple of them have some incredible business ideas."

If it weren't for Steve Jobs' good friend Steve Wozniak, there would be no Apple Computer today, Ries points out. "Jobs didn't know anything about computers," he says. "Wozniak, on the other hand, was the computer genius who developed the first Apple." Jobs had an eye for great business ideas and saw the marketing potential for developing a new type of computer. The important lesson is to keep your antenna up at all times so you can retrieve good ideas when you stumble across them. Ries insists you can make more money recognizing someone else's idea than creating one yourself.

3. Look at all the things that bug you. It may not sound profound, but Ries says this is fertile ground for great business ideas. He cites how upset Kemmons Wilson was in the 1950s when a motel owner wanted to charge him an additional price for each of his five children. He was so ticked off, he launched Memphis, Tennessee-based Holiday Inn, today one of the world's largest hotel chains.

If King C. Gillette hadn't been fed up with the tedious process of sharpening his straight-edge razor, he wouldn't have founded the massive disposable razor industry. When he took his idea for a portable razor with a blade that could be used several times to a research university for assistance, engineers questioned his sanity. Gillette followed his instincts and the rest is history.

4. Tap your interests. Thousands of clever people have taken up hobbies and turned them into a successful business. Tim and Nina Zagat, who launched the Zagat Surveys, a publishing empire that sells restaurant guides for many major U.S. and European cities, are great examples. In the early 1970s, the Zagats were high-priced corporate attorneys whose passion was dining out. For fun, they created a newsletter in which they asked their friends to rank popular restaurants in several categories. Each year, the newsletter encompassed more restaurants. Eventually it became such an expensive and time-consuming undertaking that the couple began charging money for it to allay their expenses. That was the meager beginning of the famed Zagat Survey, which is sold in bookstores worldwide. "When you're doing something you love, it's never considered work," says Ries.

5. Travel. Traveling opens your eyes to a plethora of potential business ideas. Ries cites Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals' discovery of Domino's Pizza on a trip to the United States from his native Spain. Pujals was so impressed with the fast-food operation, he went back to Spain and launched his own version, called TelePizza, in 1986. His company now registers $260 million in sales, and employs 13,000 people in eight countries.

6. Keep your eyes open. "When you see something that piques your interest, ask yourself, What is it about this situation that's special?" says Ries. "Then narrow your focus so you home in on the idea." The process of zeroing in on the idea often spawns important niche markets. "Blockbuster Video's niche is renting videos, and Bulbs Unlimited's niche is selling light bulbs," says Ries. Get it?

7. Examine old mousetraps--then build a better one. "If a product doesn't meet your own high standards, create a better one," advises business trendwatcher Perry Lowe. "That's what put Ben & Jerry's on the map." Ice cream fanatics Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield felt popular ice creams weren't rich and tasty enough for their cultivated palates, so they created their own super-premium line of ice cream, which is a bestseller nationwide. Just think: If these ice cream gurus weren't such picky eaters, there would be no Cherry Garcia, Chubby Hubby or Phish Food to enjoy.

8. Take it to the streets. There's no better place to lock into up-and-coming trends than city streets, Lowe contends. Street culture spawned punk, hip-hop, grunge and a number of other fads that rapidly evolved into multimillion-dollar businesses. "Great ideas can often be found by just browsing happening inner-city neighborhoods in virtually any big city in the United States," says Lowe.

9. Sleep on it. Many people ignore their dreams, and some don't remember them at all. But sometimes it pays to listen to those inner messages, no matter how strange or unintelligible they are. "You never know, you might just find the germ of a great idea," says Lowe. The tough part is crawling out of bed in the dead of night to jot down those great ideas before they're forgotten.

10. Check out the Net. Finally, Lowe endorses Web surfing as a fun way to log on to potential business ideas. "Virtually every search engine has a `What's New' or `What's Hot' section, where it lists new trends, news tidbits and hot new Web sites," says Lowe. "Make it a point to check out various sites daily. It may trigger an idea or concept you never thought of."

Bob Weinstein is the author of 10 books and is a frequent contributor to national magazines.

Mr. Money Bags

Football has been very, very good to him.

Mark Talucci, 33, will never forget the Super Bowl party he attended in January 1989. Everyone at the party admired his friend's handbag, made of a woven, flexible, leather-like material, which she had purchased in Indonesia. Surprised by the reaction to the bag, Talucci lost interest in the 49ers-Broncos game and casually polled the 50-odd people attending the party to find out why they liked the bag so much.

Fascinated by his friends' responses, he decided to launch the handbag company which was to become San Francisco-based The Sak with his friend Todd Elliott. Talucci quit his engineering job so he and his partner could set up shop in their garage. They pooled their savings of $18,000 and trekked to Bali to manufacture handbags.

It was a rash decision, considering neither Talucci nor Elliott knew anything about starting a company--or anything about handbags, for that matter. But they were sure they had a terrific product. The result is a company that posted sales of close to $40 million last year. Talucci's bags are sold in most upscale department stores and many specialty clothing stores.

Looking back, Talucci has no regrets. He admits to making an impulsive decision but figured he didn't have much to lose. "All I had to lose was a little time and $9,000," he laughs. "I figured it was a gamble worth taking." Seems he was right.


From corporate lawyer to gift basket mogul.

In 1992, Cynthia McKay was a young lawyer in Denver intent on building a lucrative corporate clientele. Starting a business was the furthest thing from her mind. But that changed when McKay's husband received a gift basket from his mother for his birthday. McKay was incensed when she learned the meager gift basket stuffed with candy bars, chips and other junk-food favorites cost $50. What nerve! What chutzpah! What an outrageous rip-off. "Maybe I was so ticked off because I was practicing consumer law at the time," she says. The first thought that bolted through McKay's head was, "I could do better."

"Besides the fact there was nothing of substance in the basket," she says, "it was just slapped together. No artistic ability went into it. I found it very offensive." McKay stewed about the gift basket for only a day before bolting into action. "I decided to start a company making gift baskets," she says. Within 24 hours, she had quit her job, scribbled the outline of a business plan on the back of a cocktail napkin and registered the name Le Gourmet Gift Basket Inc.

"Frankly, it was pretty cavalier of me to think I could pull this off," laughs McKay, now 43. "After all, I had no retail or creative background, and I didn't know what kind of competition I faced. It never even occurred to me to check demographics." Working nearly around the clock, her business was profitable within six months of conceiving the idea. In 1996, she franchised her concept and now has 225 locations nationwide.

In McKay's case, ignorance may indeed have been bliss. She admits that if she were thinking rationally, she might not have launched her business. Says McKay, "Thankfully, I wasn't that pragmatic."


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