Article of the Day

How Entrepreneurs Find Opportunity – Harvard Business Review


“It is always the start that requires the greatest effort.”
~ James Cash Penney

Entrepreneurial Choices: Finding Your Opportunity

Last week, entrepreneurs Phillip and Angelo Campos were kind enough to speak to my entrepreneurship course.  They are self-described Juniors (their third year) in their business Tres Mentes.  The offered samples of their salsa and insights as how they think about opportunity.  They related the story of how they got to the point of being able to quit their day jobs and pursue their new business full-time.  They described a journey starting at farmers markets selling 100 to 300 containers of salsa to now being stocked at HyVee and selling thousands of containers this Super Bowl weekend.

At the core of Phillip and Angelo’s pathway from cubicled employees to owning and operating a successful food company was a choice.  Are the issues I deal with day-to-day determined by me or by someone else?  They knew how they wanted to answer this question and looked at the world through the lens of finding an opportunity that would enable self-determination.

Through a pathway that involved giving homemade salsa to family, friends, and co-workers they began to build a fan base.  Next came farmers markets and craft shows.  Using this direct interaction with prospective customers as well as social media they were able to build a case for HyVee that their Tres Mentes Salsa would sell.  And it has!  “Two Asian guys selling salsa,” quips Phillip.

When I was considering quitting my job to start a company back in 1996, I went to visit an entrepreneur who had been a part of more than twenty businesses during his career.  I was looking for some assurance that I wasn’t completely crazy for leaving a position I enjoyed (most days) and making a leap into the unknown.  I recall that he didn’t particularly care to learn anything about my prospective business.  Rather, he asked really pointed questions about me.

  • What do you really enjoy doing each day?
  • What is it about starting a business that is so interesting to you?
  • What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
  • What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever asked someone else to do?

What he was trying to get me to do is learn a little more about myself and what makes me tick.  “I’ve been an entrepreneur for 27 years,” I recall him saying.  “I jump out of bed every morning for one of two reasons.  Either joy for what I expect to be coming for the day or abject fear of disaster.”

He was asking me questions and relating his experience to me in order to help me understand that the basic choice I was grappling with, whether to pursue an entrepreneurial path, was independent of the particular business opportunity I was looking at.  The Campos brothers called this self-awareness.  Business opportunities come and go but the choice to pursue an entrepreneurial career is fundamental.  It may involve starting a business of your own or it may involve being a part of someone else’s organization, but it certainly means finding a means by which you can be entrepreneurial.

If you make the choice to pursue an entrepreneurial path, how do you identify the right opportunities?  For the Campos brothers, salsa was something they could work on without significant capital, get rapid feedback, build a fan base, and they enjoyed.  I know it won’t be their only product or business, but it has been a good place to start.

Each of us has to look for opportunities that fit our own interests, skills, and capacities.  I recently heard an investor tell the story that he only invests in those businesses that scream ‘HELL YES!’ to him, a rare occurrence in his telling.

Malcolm Gladwell in Blink describes ‘thin-slicing; our ability to gauge what is really important from a very narrow period of experience. The idea is that spontaneous/snap decisions are often as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones.  When you see the right opportunity, you just know it.

No matter the method, when you make the choice to pursue an entrepreneurial pathway you will begin to look at the world in a different way.  You’ll notice things you haven’t before.  You’ll ask questions you haven’t before.  You’ll seek out conversations and relationships you haven’t before.  Opportunity doesn’t knock.  You do.