Bullish: Where To Get A Kickass Business Idea (Also: Whiskey And Knitting)


Where do business ideas come from?

I’ve got hundreds of them, like a pair of ovaries full of tiny, dormant ideas, some of them awesome and some of them terrifyingly defective — and many, many more than anyone could ever bring to fruition. (This is a pretty good metaphor, except that you’re actually born with all the eggs you’re ever going to have, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t born knowing that “Treelivery” would be the world’s best name for a Christmas-tree delivery business.)

In any case, here’s today’s question.

I was laid off this morning from a great job as an Executive Assistant for an upscale hotel company. I’m still in shock about the whole thing but have spent the last couple of hours brainstorming. I’m torn between looking for a “real” job and going into business for myself. I’m trying to come at this from the perspective you lay out in Bullish: How To Make A Career Out Of The 10,000 Things You Want To Do by not thinking of things I necessarily have a huge passion for (like whiskey and knitting) but things I think other people will be willing to pay for. So far, I’ve only come up with a prostitution ring or some amazing stupid pet product.

What I’m struggling with is generating ideas, because of course I come up with shit I love, and don’t understand the needs that may be out there, silently rolling around in the heads of rich people. (I should add that I live in an area driven by tourism, and we have loads of rich tourists and poor locals.)

What do you suggest for coming up with ideas? Besides personal exercises, are there ways I can do some research and find out what niche markets are waiting to be filled in my area? They have to exist, I just don’t know how to find them. In the mean time, will apply for those “real” jobs, especially if I can keep my hotel discount.

Yours,

Hotelier

First of all, I think whiskey and knitting sound amazing together! Please buy the domain name. Start a blog. Drunken knitting is a kind of fun idea, except the needles are sharp and no one wants a sweater where you forgot to make a neck hole.

Perhaps a gentlewomanly knitter moderates her whisky consumption so she can still make very precise WHISKEY BOTTLE COZIES.

Okay, I’ll move on. You maybe can’t make a whole career out of whiskey and knitting, but that could be your personal brand, which could get you sponsored by various companies that keep you in yarn and Laphroaig for life. Or maybe there’s a book in here — like a book of knitting patterns mixed with cocktail recipes. Like, “Whiskey Sour + Mohair Pasties.”

Now, back to the tourist business!

Imagine you are a tourist in your own town. That can be fun! Wander around, wondering what to eat and where the bathrooms are. What do you wish existed? Since you mention a large market of rich tourists, bring your snobbiest friend.

Or, if you’ve got the cash, go to some other tourist town. See what that town has that yours doesn’t, or what services you use as a tourist that you’d never use as a local. (That rack full of brochures? When you live in a tourist mecca, you don’t even see those anymore. But when you’re in a strange place, you’re like “OMG coupon to the aquarium!”)

I am from Virginia Beach. What do I wish Virginia Beach had? Mainly, a child-free section of the beach. I can’t really think of a business idea around that (other than spending millions of dollars to build a hotel and contract with the city to lease some exclusive stretch of beach).

But here are some more tenable ideas:

– Pet stuff. Do people want to bring their dogs on vacation with them, but the dogs can’t stay in most hotels? Do people need dogwalkers? Fancy dog-meal delivery? SOLVE THIS.

– Food on the beach (or on the ski slopes?) that isn’t hot dogs or Italian ices. Can I get a tofu burrito up in this bitch? How about some good gelato? An iced coffee? I think this is a really accessible idea. Contact the city and see what you need to do to get a license. Google vendors who sell mobile food carts. Figure out how to make/obtain the food. Maybe Amy’s Organic wants to team up with you. You could possibly do a Kickstarter to get started here. If not, there are SBA loans (lots of paperwork) and instant loans via Prosper and LendingClub (higher interest rates, but you get the funds within about 2 weeks).

(See Bullish: Fund Your New Business or Get Started Investing in Startups Part I and Part II.)

I love businesses like this that can scale up. Meaning that, at first, you would work the food cart. Then, you would hire a teenager to do that for you, while you work on getting another food cart. One of my high school teachers in Virginia Beach owned a series of food carts. It was a summer-only business, so it was perfect for a teacher. He hired a bunch of my classmates to work there.

– I’ll bet people need in-room babysitters who come to hotels. What if the parents want to go dancing at night, or get a couples massage, or go to the nude beach without letting their kids know that they like nude beaches? Get licensed and insured and do a background check on every babysitter, make them get CPR certifications, etc. — cover every possible base regarding safety, so you will be the obvious choice over picking a babysitter off a strange town’s Craigslist listings. At first, you can take calls and send out babysitters yourself (possibly also doing some babysitting if needed), and then you can hire an answering service to do this for you. Arrange meetings with hotel concierges (I’ll bet you know something about this) to explain the service. Get your brochures and postcards in every hotel. Maybe you could do a promotion with a nightclub — hire our babysitting service and get certificates for two free cocktails.

– Start an event that people pay money to attend and to stay in a hotel for. Like this amazing Jane Austen Society thing. Or GeekGirlCon. Or a writers’ conference. Or a yoga retreat. Or an artists’ colony. Maybe a Knitting Convention, sponsored by a whiskey company! Star knitters would want to be there (to teach?) in order to promote their books. You could sell booths to yarn suppliers for the trade show part. Have a speed-knitting competition! If I could knit, I would totally attend this. (I can crochet! I only make scarves.)

Okay, so, I’ve given you some ideas, but haven’t exactly answered the question of where business ideas should come from. Check out this video, on “the power of introverts.”

I’m thinking you might be more of an extrovert. I’m including this video because Susan Cain talks about how Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak needed each other to make Apple. You can be the Steve Jobs. You don’t need to have all the ideas yourself. Most bazillionaires have capitalized on the ideas of others. There is nothing wrong with this, provided that the ideas have been provided to you freely (take my ideas!), or you contract with and compensate those whose ideas you are using.

Who else should you ask? Well, you could take a list of ideas and run them by a counselor at SCORE, or your local SBA. Often, local universities have business development seminars and counseling open to the public.

But more importantly, get a clipboard (so you look kind of official) and go talk to the tourists. “Hi, I’m collecting information about what tourists in FunTown really want. Have you seen the hot dog carts? What other foods do you wish were available?” Etc. Maybe they don’t want healthy alternatives. Maybe they want fried turkey legs, like at a Renaissance Faire. Find out!

This kind of recon is way more than most entrepreneurs do. So many people start businesses as an extension of their own identities. Maybe it’s so easy for me to avoid this trap because it is so super-obvious that the things I like are not the things most people like, because I am a deep introvert who does math problems for fun and leaves bars when they become full of people having (other) fun. Most people’s fun does not look fun to me.

Do not pick the business that perfectly expresses who you are, unless a lot of other people are just like that also. Do not pick the business your friends will think is cool. Don’t pick a business that will impress people. Pick a business that people will regularly spend money at because they need or want to. You know what I think is awesome? Those stores that sell fancy kitchen gear and have cooking classes in the back where they teach you to make cassoulet. I mean, I’ve never actually been to such a store, but it sounds really nice. You know … when I get the time. It’s on my bucket list. Whereas I pay my cell phone bill every month and have no particular feelings about Verizon. Maybe an in-room babysitting service is way lamer than an awesome vintage clothing store that your peers would admire, but where would people spend more money more often?

Finally, should you start your own business or get another job? Starting your own business is obviously way more exciting. But you can probably have both a real job and start your own business if you can leave the real job at work. If you got a job in the hotel industry similar to your previous job, you could conceivably swing some sort of arrangement where you not only run your in-hotel babysitting service, but you do business with your own hotel. (This means someone other than you would have to take calls for your business during the day, but that’s totally reasonable.) Maybe you need a really easy, brainless job that pays the bills while saving your mojo for world (well, tourist town) domination.

Now pour yourself a drink and start plotting.

First published on The Grindstone