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Turn your passion into an innovative business

One golf enthusiast’s story shows how curiosity and innovative thinking can uncover demand for something unique.

It was a pleasant 76-degree day in June, and the last mixed foursome of ladies and gentlemen golfing with their wood-shaft hickory clubs was coming up the 18th fairway. A crowd of 150 patrons waiting at the clubhouse clapped politely as one of the ladies, wearing a full-length gown, high-fived one of the nattily dressed gentleman partners, who wore a proper tie and stiff-collared shirt.

It was the 100th anniversary of the Leland Country Club in northern Michigan, and seated alone off to the side was Bill Reed, the man who’d orchestrated this anachronistic event. He tipped his Scottish golf hat as the shot on the 18th green slowed to within nine feet of the hole, and I walked over and introduced myself. Reed began to tell me about how he’d gotten into the business of helping clubs host throwback golf parties, and as I listened, I realized there was a lesson in his story: You can take your passion, find an interested audience, and turn it into a thriving and innovative business.

Reed had been an avid golfer during his engineering career. In his later years, he began accumulating a collection of wood-shaft hickory golf clubs. “My wife gave me a hickory-shafted mashie [a rare club similar to a modern iron] some 30 years ago,” Reed said. “That was the seed. Since then, I’ve been cultivating the collection.” Bill searches for “hickories” at local pawn shops, estate sales, and via word of mouth. He uses online auction sites and Etsy, too, to grow his collection.

Reed also tapped into, and eventually began to lead, a society of hickory enthusiasts who play in tournaments across the country. These enthusiasts routinely returned from tournaments to share stories of the unique experience with members of their home golf clubs; very few golfers had known the challenges of playing nine holes with authentic or replica hickories. Reed knew that golf club officers and managers were often looking for ways to celebrate important anniversaries or other events. So he decided he would build a business around bringing the authentic experience of hitting hickories to country clubs.

Take some quiet time alone to think seriously about what your passions are, and which are most unique.

Bill now has 37 sets of hickories and travels the country providing his clubs and other services for golf events. He charges a fee for consulting on course layouts to replicate a feel of original designs, and brings old photos of golfers in classic outfits for club members to view. To help with marketing the events, he encourages members to provide their club with family pictures of early members in period garb to display. He also offers other historic context, for example, tapping a local bagpiper to play during an event’s cocktail party or awards ceremony.

Reed turned his passion into an innovative business, and you can, too. Here are the steps to follow to remake a unique interest into a business niche.

Discover your passions and skills. Take some quiet time alone to think seriously about what your passions are, and which are most unique. What excites you and gives you energy, rather than depletes you? (Journaling can be helpful in organizing your thoughts.) Then discuss, with people who know you well and will be honest with you, how a passion might be turned into a business. As a part of that discussion, assess what skills you already have that match up with the various ideas that come out of the talks. Take notes, knowing they will help refine the idea as you go.

For example, you may be passionate about a certain cuisine or cooking style. But are you cut out to be a chef in your own restaurant, which requires long hours of standing in a hot kitchen? Perhaps opening and managing a specialty bistro makes more sense considering your business skills. If you have supply chain expertise, creating a niche meal-delivery service may be a good option. Another choice is catering small parties at times that fit your schedule.

Identify a business need. Once you have decided what unique passions and skills you can turn into a business, ask yourself, “What wants or needs would I be filling? Is this a product or service, or is it both? How do I find the people who would be interested in this? How would I get my product or service to them? Who is my competition? Who can I talk with informally that might have a need for this?”

Reed knew the business need for his clubs would be twofold. First, he observed friends and acquaintances enjoying the experience and nostalgia of playing with hickories, and knew that interest was spreading via word of mouth to people he didn’t know at country clubs near and far. Second, he also knew that clubs were always looking for exciting ways to celebrate events. That combination led him to believe that a business that brought these clubs to events would be fulfilling a need. And he knew exactly where to find the interested parties.

Target any gaps. To provide the best product or service to your customers, you may need to cultivate new skills, knowledge, or relationships. Ask yourself, “Do I have a full awareness of what is already on the market? Do I need to read more about a given topic? Would I, and my business, benefit if I took a class? What networking opportunities are out there? Or can I create and cultivate relationships with others in this field? Is there a club I can join or start?”

Make a business plan. Create a document that sets out your business goals and strategies for reaching them. The plan can include time lines, potential audiences, and marketing ideas. Include at the very least a simple “back of the envelope” calculation of how much you would charge and what it would cost to manufacture/deliver the product or service. Include a mini P&L statement to determine if you can make a profit.

There are many free business-plan worksheets online, and bookstores are also full of texts to help you get started.

Launch and experiment. You can hash out ideas and make plans indefinitely, but at some point, you need to jump in and start your business. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different approaches and audiences and go where the ideas takes you. Don’t be scared to fail; many good lessons come out of failures. Just get started to test the idea. You can always tweak your approach as you go.

Reassess the venture. After some time, experimentation, and tweaks, it’s helpful to revisit your passion to see if it’s still exciting and energizing. Do you continue to approach the subject with enthusiasm even though what was once strictly a pleasure is now a business, complete with responsibilities and have-to-dos? Perhaps the business looks very different in practice than it did initially in your mind. That’s OK if you are still feeling positively about the direction in which you are going and if the business is viable or at least moving toward profitability. If not, it’s time to think about and begin experimenting with new ways of turning that passion, or perhaps a different one, into a successful venture.

Reed was lucky in that his hickories business fell into place easily, without much thinking, planning, or other preparing. But most of us aren’t that fortunate. We need to take the time and energy to research and plan the ways in which we can turn a passion into a worthwhile business.

However, if you take these small steps, one at a time, you will slowly begin to see that what once seemed like a dream is turning into a business reality. Take the steps while you still have your current job. Make them a priority in your personal time. This is your unique story to write.

George E.L. Barbee

George E.L. Barbee is one of the original Batten fellows at the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. Before that he was a PwC partner for 20 years. He is also the author of 63 Innovation Nuggets for Aspiring Innovators (Innovation Etc., 2015).

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