I had a teacher at New York University’s Stern Business School who was fierce, intimidating, and a sweetheart.
Ian McMillan is a wiry South African with a quick wit and a quick temper. He taught one of my favorite and perhaps most valuable classes entitled “Entrepreneurship.”
This class included a weekly assignment where we were instructed to find and describe a business opportunity that came from our own experience. We had to spot a need that could be met by forming a business. Then, on one page we were to describe the need, how our business idea or business offer would meet this need, and the general business and financial proposition.
I remember that we all received C’s or D’s on the first week’s assignments.
As Professor McMillan handed them back he emphasized, dramatically, that our efforts and our papers were complete trash. He said we weren’t really looking for needs, for real problems, and that our business ideas stunk.
He announced that we needed to be focused, even obsessed with seeking out needs and with finding solutions and that we needed to offer proof that our idea had the potential to become a viable business.
Week after week this assignment continued. By the fourth and fifth week of the semester, there were a few B’s, and by the twelfth week, the grades were primarily A’s and B’s.
Look for what’s needed
Having this assignment each week forced me, and trained me to look everywhere for needs. I was indeed obsessed, looking at the world in a different way.
Wherever I was — while riding on the subway, in my home, or taking the elevator to class — I was always looking at what was needed and thinking about how these needs could be met through creating a business.
I began to see needs everywhere.
On the subway, there was a need for better maps of the subway system, a need for a place to store wet umbrellas, a need for a system of letting people on and off the trains. While caring for my infant son I thought about the need for more information about child-rearing, about better car seats, and things that were needed to help him (and me) get a good night’s sleep.
I started my first company, Brush Dance with the intention of meeting a need to help the environment by using recycled paper products.
At that time it was nearly impossible to find products made from recycled materials. It soon became apparent that we were inadvertently meeting another need — the need for sending greeting cards that combined meaningful words and beautiful, unique artwork. Very few companies were making cards that had quotes on the front, and few cards had much depth. We began licensing the words of the Dalia Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, the poetry of Rumi, and even Yogi Berra and we worked with a number of terrific artists to create products that combined inspiring words with beautiful artwork.
To this day, I find the training of looking for what’s needed and getting clear about what I can offer to meet those needs to be practical and valuable. I am regularly evaluating what needs my business meets and experimenting with a variety of business models.
When I was CEO of Brush Dance, the retail market became more and more difficult to reach. We began exploring meeting needs and making offers in other areas; such as partnering with schools and nonprofits that were looking for ways to raise funds by selling cards and calendars. In the late 1990’s this wild and new thing called “the internet” emerged and we were an early player in this space.
Now, the need that I’m meeting is helping people to create more trust and greater clarity in their work and lives. My offer is teaching and training others in the areas of mindfulness and emotional intelligence, through speaking, coaching, training, and writing.
Businesses exist to meet the needs of people. The larger and more technologically-driven business becomes, the easier it is to lose sight of this simple truth. This truth seems so old fashioned in our complex society, but if we look closely, the model remains the same — businesses provide goods and services to meet the needs of people.
A core aspect of leadership and of growing a business is seeing needs and crafting your offer. I find that in my coaching practice people often get stuck by asking themselves questions about how to make money. Instead, I find that the most useful and powerful questions are: What needs are there that are not being met? What can I offer to help meet those needs? This is often where businesses begin, and where businesses and lives flourish.
- What needs does your work or business meet?
- What needs do you see as unfulfilled in your life or work environment?
- How might your current business or offer meet these unfulfilled needs?
- What new product or service might could you offer to satisfy those unmet needs?
As a way of following up and expanding your answers to these questions, you might take on the exercise from my MBA class. Once you’ve identified a need, what exactly will you be offering to meet this need? What actions will you take and what are some of the financial models? The key point is to keep coming back to the question:
What needs are you meeting and what are you offering?