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 / Autumn 2011 / Issue 64(originally published by Booz & Company)


10 Clues to Opportunity

8. Customers have discovered a product (but not the one we offered). Joint Juice, a roughly $2 million company that produces an easy-to-digest glucosamine liquid, was founded by Kevin Stone, a prominent San Francisco orthopedic surgeon. He learned about the nutrient from some of his patients, who took it for joint pain instead of the ibuprofen he had prescribed. Many doctors might have ignored this or even scolded their patients for falling prey to fads, but Stone recognized he might be missing something. He looked up the clinical research on glucosamine in Europe, where it was the leading nutritional supplement. (Veterinarians, he discovered, swore by it, and their patients fell for neither fads nor placebos.) Then he built a business around it.

9. This product or service is thriving elsewhere (but no one offers it here). In the early 1990s, a Swedish business student named Carl August Svensen-Ameln tried to store some of his belongings in Sweden while at school in Seattle, but found that all the local self-storage facilities were full. He studied the storage industry, already prevalent in the United States, and discovered a business model characterized by high rents, low turnover, and negligible operating costs. Yet self-storage, at the time, was virtually nonexistent in continental Europe. Svensen-Ameln and a friend from business school set up a partnership with an established U.S. company, Shurgard Storage Centers Inc. The resulting company, European Mini-Storage S.A., was the first of several such companies that Svensen-Ameln started in Europe, to great success.

10. That new product or service shouldn’t make much money (but it does). Established competitors are often surprised when upstart rivals do well. In his 2008 book, The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs (Penguin Press), Charles D. Ellis noted that for decades, Goldman Sachs partners had avoided investment management, which they believed generated lower fees than trading and investment banking. When Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc. published its financial performance as part of a 1970 stock offering, Goldman partners were startled to learn that fees and brokerage commissions on frequent trades added up to a highly profitable business. Shortly thereafter, Goldman expanded into managing corporate pension funds, and aggressively built its business.

Incongruities like these can offer a critical clue about where your assumptions no longer match reality. From there, you are more likely to uncover the kinds of opportunities that you might otherwise have missed — and that your competitors still don’t recognize. Start by asking yourself, What are the most unexpected things happening in our business right now? Which competitors are doing better than expected? Which customers are behaving in ways we hadn’t anticipated? Take yourself through the list of top 10 clues. Leaders who consistently notice and explore anomalies increase the odds of spotting emerging opportunities before their rivals.

Reprint No. 11304

Author Profile:

  • Donald Sull is a professor of strategic and international management at the London Business School, where he is also the faculty director for executive education. His books include The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World (Harper Business, 2009).
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