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Published: August 23, 2011
 / Autumn 2011 / Issue 64

 
 

10 Clues to Opportunity

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.

4. This discovery must be good for something (but it’s not clear what that is). Researchers sometimes recognize that they have stumbled on a promising resource or technology without knowing the best uses for it right away. The resulting search for a problem to solve can lead to great profitability. One example was the founding of the ArthroCare Corporation, a $355 million producer of medical devices based on a process called coblation, which uses radio frequency energy to dissolve damaged tissue with minimal effect on surrounding parts of the body. Medical scientist Hira Thapliyal, who codiscovered this process, founded a company to offer it for cardiac surgery, but that market turned out to be too small and competitive to support a new venture. Undeterred, he looked for other potential uses, and found one in orthopedics, where there are more than 2 million arthroscopic surgeries per year.

5. This product or service should be everywhere (but it isn’t). Sometimes people chance upon an attractive business model that has failed to gain the widespread adoption it deserves. Two archetypal retail food stories illustrate this. In 1954, restaurant equipment salesman Ray Kroc visited the McDonald brothers’ hamburger stand in southern California, and convinced them to franchise their assembly-line approach to flipping burgers. In 1982, coffee machine manufacturing executive Howard Schultz visited a coffee bean producer called Starbucks in Seattle. He recognized the potential of a chain restaurant based on European coffee bars, and he joined Starbucks, hoping to convince the company’s leadership to convert their retail store to this format. When they didn’t, he started his own coffeehouse chain, later buying the Starbucks retail unit as the core of his new business.

6. Customers have adapted our product or service to new uses (but not with our support). Chinese appliance maker Haier Group discovered that customers in one rural province used its clothes washing machines to clean vegetables. Hearing this, a product manager spotted an opportunity. She had company engineers install wider drain pipes and coarser filters that wouldn’t clog with vegetable peels, and then added pictures of local produce and instructions on how to wash vegetables safely. This innovation, along with others including a washing machine designed to make goat’s-milk cheese, helped Haier win share in China’s rural provinces, while avoiding the cutthroat price wars that plagued the country’s appliance industry.

7. Customers shouldn’t want this product (but they do). When Honda Motor Company entered the U.S. motorcycle market in the late 1950s, it expected to sell large motorcycles to leather-clad bikers. Despite a concerted effort, the company managed to sell fewer than 60 of its large bikes each month, far short of its monthly sales goal of 1,000 units. Then a mechanical failure forced the company to recall these models. In desperation, it promoted its smaller 50cc motorbike, the Cub, which Honda executives had assumed would not interest the U.S. market. When the smaller bikes sold well, Honda realized it had discovered an untapped segment looking for two-wheel motorized transportation. (The campaign is still remembered for its catchphrase, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”)

 
 
 
 
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