Some say that ideas are a dime a dozen. So how do you turn a common "light-bulb moment" into a solid-gold business? It takes a combination of business sense, agility and a deep understanding of your market. Three successful entrepreneurs explain how they made their ideas work for them and share solid lessons for others who would like to follow suit.
The sun also sets: move on ideas fast
Sometimes, opportunities arrive when you least expect them--and you have to be ready to act. Joseph Takach, CEO of the Meridian Group, a communications firm in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is a foodie who's also known for sending memorable gifts to his clients. One holiday season, his team developed a line of food sauces he had packaged in bottles with corporate buzzwords on them like "110%" and "Synergy." The sauces were a big hit.
The following year, Takach was talking to a friend who was connected with the Hemingway family, which licenses the name of the author of For Whom the Bells Toll. Takach had a thunderbolt: even though he has read only one of Hemingway's books, sauces branded with the great author's name appealed to his marketing instinct.
Just 10 days later, he struck a deal to license "The Flavors of Hemingway." Takach set about developing new sauces influenced by Hemingway, such as "The Bull Hot Sauce," which was inspired by Papa's travels in Pamplona, Spain.
Takach hired an illustrator to develop retro packaging that suited the sauces' namesake. Within a few months, he launched the sauces at the 2015 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York. The sauces are now available online and in a growing number of gourmet stores. The Flavors of Hemingway was a finalist at Get Started Hampton Roads 2015, one of a nationwide series of fast-paced pitch competitions created by Cox Business.
Lesson: Jump on a good idea quickly. "Everyone thought I was crazy to move so fast, but if I had waited until the Fancy Food Show the next year, I doubt I would have followed through," he says. "I have friends who come up with a lot of good ideas, but they never act on them, and the ideas die a slow death."
In the driver's seat: remove roadblocks in advance
Turning your idea into a business often involves collaboration and ingenuity. When Albie Brown was a college student, he'd circle around the block time after time looking for a parking spot and stare longingly at all the empty driveways in people's homes. He wished he could pay someone a couple of bucks to use their driveway while they were at work. That led him to create an app called Spotter, the "Airbnb for driveways." The app lets people offer up their driveway as a parking lot at hours of their choosing.
Residents in Providence, Rhode Island, liked the idea that they could make a few dollars for their idle driveway while also reducing traffic congestion in the community. "Creating a more compact, dense city center is always advantageous to the city," Brown said. He says he'd love for the app to become so successful the city could "turn some of their current parking lots into parks."
Unlike makers of other apps, Brown met with city officials to work out any problems with his business model before he was too far into developing the plan. "We've received a lot of support from people in city planning," Brown says. "The app can increase the supply of parking, make parking easier for tourists, and limit the need to make more parking lots." Spotter was a finalist at Get Started Rhode Island 2016.
Lesson: Make sure your mission aligns with the needs of those who could easily become a roadblock. In Brown's case, he worked with city officials to achieve their goals. "Figuring out how we fit in with the community was a really important thing for us, and I think we have," Brown says.
Avoid false positives: figure out your real customer
Understanding your market is another essential. As a biomedical engineering PhD candidate at Tulane University, Mei Wang found a common problem with the five million biopsy procedures performed each year in the United States to diagnose cancer. Because current imaging techniques capture only 1 percent of a total biopsy, at least one million need to be repeated due to inadequate biopsy quality. Such do-overs can delay life-threatening treatments.
Wang developed an imaging approach that provides a picture of the entire biopsy within seconds of removal, speeding diagnosis. However, she soon learned that a great idea--or even solving an important industry problem--isn't itself a business.
Her company, Instapath Biopics LLC, winner of Get Started Louisiana 2017, didn't shift from an idea to a business until she joined an accelerator program which required her to interview 100 potential customers. As she reached out to doctors, she made a surprising discovery. While improving diagnosis appealed to the clinicians, the hospitals and insurance companies that would pay for the equipment were more concerned about how the product would affect the bottom line.
"We had to change the pricing model and the value proposition," Wang says. "We thought our biggest benefit was eliminating the need for repeat biopsies. But the hospitals really cared about having faster or more efficient procedures that could be performed with fewer personnel."
Lesson: Sometimes your real customer isn't always obvious, so figure out who will sign the check and what matters to them. "An idea that solves a problem isn't a business if no one will pay for it," Wang says.
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