Stuck for an idea? Start here


Perhaps you’ve decided that since your job search isn’t going well, you should maybe accept your fate and become self-employed.

Perhaps you’re sitting in cubicleland, and are dreaming of being your own boss.

Or maybe you’re still in school, but thinking that you’d rather build your own future than depend on the kindness of strangers to give you employment.

Whatever your motivations for going down the entrepreneurial route — and remember, “entrepreneurial” can apply to starting a not-for-profit just as much as a for-profit venture — there’s usually one stumbling block that holds most of us back.

Lack of an idea.

That’s because, of course, when we think of entrepreneurs that make it we focus on the big guns. We think of the billionaires — the Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg types — and not the hundred million plus self-employed individuals around the world.

No, you haven’t heard of them the way the Silicon élite come trippingly to the tongue, but guess what, all of them are feeding their families, putting something away for the future, and having a good time doing it.

So here’s some ideas to stimulate your ideas — a small example of what conversation with a PDD advisor might look like (and then go on into much more depth).

Fractal patterns: Go to Manhattan, and walk up Broadway, or up Lexington Avenue. (Both have a subway for when your feet get tired). Tell me what you see.

If your eyes are open, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Every four blocks or so it starts over again. What, another deli, another dry cleaners, another variety store?

Sure, in a huge city like New York you can find shops that sell things that you can’t get anywhere else in North America. That’s the advantage of world cities.

But for ordinary people, the neighbourhood has to have very ordinary services. And in a large urban centre, when you commute using transit you do your errands on foot walking home. So giving good service doing something perfectly ordinary can create a vibrant business that serves a neighbourhood.

Look around where you live, and see what its pattern is — and then, how you might carve out a niche to differentiate a perfectly ordinary offering there.

Import replacement: Jane Jacobs, in The Economy of Cities, talked about why some cities grew and others languished. She said import replacement — businesses starting up to make something the region used to import from somewhere else — was the key to their growth.

In a world with 3D printers sitting on desktops, it’s become easier than ever to build replacements. Literally, the garage or basement as your office is possible again for far more than computer stuff.

But it’s even more than manufacturing. Sometimes, it can be as simple as brokering what already exists.

You’d think, with the Internet as we know it turning twenty, that all the information would be out there and intermediaries no longer required.

Yet how many people that need printed materials — letterheads, envelopes, and the like — deal with their local print shop, as opposed to some firm they found on the net thousands of kilometres away? Mostly, the local providers don’t communicate all that well to their own community, and businesses in a hurry go with the first good offer they find on a search.

Put the pieces of your community’s economy together, and you’ve got a profitable business in finder’s fees and shares of transactions, especially since remote suppliers often require quantities on order that tie up working capital in inventories where a local provider, even if slightly more expensive (they have to pay you, too, now) can do runs on demand and same day service.

Look for connections that substitute for things being imported to your community, and you’ve got a business opportunity.

Many players under one roof: You like quality meats hand cut to order, superb cheeses, and many other delicacies. You’d like all-organic produce. Yet there’s no affordable specialty grocer where you live.

Don’t wait and hope that someone like Whole Foods comes to your community. Think of building it.

After all, what is a grocery store, but a produce vendor, a butcher, a cheesemonger, etc., all under one roof.

You can put together a cooperative venture to put small independents into one space that a traditional chain might think of as “too small” — but plenty big enough to serve a neighbourhood well.

It doesn’t have to be food. What could you combine, to make something unique, and share the risks at the same time?

It doesn’t have to be cutting edge: There’s a lot of interest these days in renewable energy solutions. But there’s also questions about how long all these take to pay back.

But most homes in North America get their hot water from a hot water tank. Periodically they use copious amounts of electricity or natural gas reheating the whole tank.

Customer payback is fast whether the customer choses to go to inline water heaters (as are used in Europe), or a solar hot water system (forty year old technology). What’s more, fewer people are doing that, compared to all the people doing solar electrical panels on roofs.

You can catch a current wave, and yet pick a part of it that isn’t heavily populated, and do quite well, indeed — especially since proven older technologies will often come with faster paybacks for customers (making the risk of doing business with you less).

The whole point of today’s post was to stimulate your own thinking. Self-employment isn’t for everyone, but it should be a real option for far more of us — and if you’re one of those handed a forced early retirement package or buyout, it may be a lifesaver if you’re not actually ready to stop working yet.

One of the advantages of the Personal Due Diligence advisor relationship is that it’s for far more than just a moment of crisis. It’s for constantly seeking ways to minimize your risk, and generate opportunities. Perhaps you’ll be passing them to your children — but why forgo having them?

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