During their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, transatlantic cruise lines such as the Hamburg America Line and the White Star Line transported tens of millions of passengers between Europe and the United States. By the 1960s, however, their business was being threatened by the rise of a disruptive new enterprise, namely, nonstop transatlantic flights. As it happened, the cruise ship lines had one potential strategy with which to save their business: vacation cruises. Starting in the 1930s, some of these lines had sailed to the Caribbean during the winter, thus using their boats when rough seas made the Atlantic impassable. And in 1964, when a new port was opened in Miami, Fla., the pleasure cruise business began to boom.
But the great cruise lines missed this breakthrough opportunity. They saw their profitability fall while dozens of startups, including Royal Caribbean and Carnival, retrofitted existing ships to offer pleasure cruises and built an entirely new travel and leisure category that continues to grow today.
Managers and entrepreneurs walk past lucrative opportunities all the time, and later kick themselves when someone else exploits the strategy they overlooked. Why does this happen? It’s often because of the natural human tendency known to psychologists as confirmation bias: People tend to notice data that confirms their existing attitudes and beliefs, and ignore or discredit information that challenges them.
Although it is difficult to overcome confirmation bias, it is not impossible. Managers can increase their skill at spotting hidden opportunities by learning to pay attention to the subtle clues all around them. These are often contradictions, incongruities, and anomalies that don’t jibe with most of the prevailing assumptions about what should happen. Here is my own “top 10” field guide to clues for hidden breakthrough opportunities, observed in a wide variety of industries, countries, and markets. If you find yourself noticing one or more of them, a major opportunity for growth could be lurking behind it.
1. This product should already exist (but it doesn’t). As the accessories editor for Mademoiselle magazine in the early 1990s, Kate Brosnahan spotted a gap in the handbag market between functional bags that lacked style and extremely expensive but impractical designer bags from Hermès or Gucci. Brosnahan quit her job, and with her partner Andy Spade, founded Kate Spade LLC, which produced fabric handbags combining functionality and fashion. These attracted the attention of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts. Many well-known product innovations — including the airplane, the mobile phone, and the tablet computer — began similarly, as products that people felt should already exist.
2. This customer experience doesn’t have to be time-consuming, arduous, expensive, or annoying (but it is). Consumer irritation is a reliable indicator of a potential opportunity, because people will typically pay to make it go away. Reed Hastings, for example, founded Netflix Inc. after receiving a US$40 late fee for a rented videocassette of Apollo 13 that he had misplaced. Charles Schwab created the largest low-cost brokerage house because he was fed up with paying the commissions of conventional stockbrokers. Scott Cook got the idea for Quicken after watching his wife grow frustrated tracking their finances by hand.
3. This resource could be worth something (but it is still priced low). Sometimes an asset is underpriced because only a few people recognize its potential. When a low-cost airline such as easyJet or Ryanair announces its intention to fly to a new airport, real estate investors often leap to buy vacation property nearby. They rightfully expect a jump in real estate values. Similarly, the founders of Infosys Technologies Ltd., India’s pioneering provider of outsourced information technology services, were among the first to recognize that Indian engineers, working for very low salaries, could provide great value to multinational clients. The company earned high profits on the spread between what they charged clients and what they paid local engineers.