“PS—We also walk dogs”

There are many people I talk to who wrestle with the challenge of thinking up a business for themselves.

They often make this more difficult than they need to. We’re all so enamoured, after all, of the great success stories. Jobs building Apple (twice!), Gates building Microsoft, Page and Brin building Google, Zuckerberg building Facebook — stories of starting from nothing and making billions in just a few years.

Wrong target. So, too, is the notion of “I’ll make my company so valuable to Cisco, or Microsoft, or Google that they’ll buy me”.

As a Personal Due Diligence advisor, I spend a lot of time telling people, younger and older, that that’s not how it works. Instead, look for a way to create something novel and useful in a market that already exists.

Robert Heinlein, the science fiction author, wrote a short story in 1941 entitled “—We also walk dogs”. It was the tale of a company called General Services, which would do anything legal for a client. Its tag line was the title of this post: they’d come in and clean, they’d walk your dog, they’d run your errands. But they’d also do fascinating new things, finding the engineers and scientists needed, to carry out demanding projects (such as, in the story, inventing an effective gravity field generator to nullify the planet’s field and replace it with one of their own).

It’s a great insight into making your way in the world: not necessarily having the skills, but knowing how to identify what’s missing and fill the gap, and providing a service in a different way.

Think about the following examples of so-called “businesses killed by the Internet”, and how to make them prosper.

  • The Bookstore: the remaining bookstores tend to find avid browsers, but few purchasers. But you can specialize in book knowledge and “meet the author” events; you could do the “sit and read” coffee bit but with a twist: pay for your coffee if you don’t buy, your coffee purchase applies to the book in your hand if you do buy (to stop the “browse to find out what I want, then order from Amazon” phenomenon; you could employ a cyclist to “run your purchases home for you” while the customer continues their stroll unencumbered”. Even coat racks in winter can help with differentiation.
  • The Travel Agency:some still survive, but now they specialize. Custom holidays, not just the sale of pre-packaged resort/flight deals; cruise specializations (these are harder to put together on the web); but what about the kind of holiday where you live in a place for a while and have a local contact ready to help you with language, culture, supplies, etc. (something AirBnB can’t do). Local phone SIM cards (to avoid roaming costs) are another simple wrinkle to differentiate.

Or perhaps you could put together some interesting combinations:

  • Roaming office plus coffee shop: Most independent consultants (and many other independents like artists and writers) make coffee shops their “home away from home” between meetings and simply as a place to work around people. Coffee shops, in turn, go for uncomfortable chairs to help keep people moving in — and out. Suppose you took the idea of the shared office facility (rent a desk with WiFi for the day) and did it in a coffee shop: drink for free, and pay for the time you spend there. (This idea is being done in Russia, and is coming to Canada.)
  • Neighbourhood play centre plus café: I’ve seen this done in Vancouver: a café constructed around being the place for at-home parents to bring their youngsters. Half the floor space is the play area. Parents sit around it (and there’s a mix of kid-sized and adult-sized chairs). Dual menus: panini, pastries, espressos for the parents, and mac-and-cheese, fresh fruit and veggies chopped “kid size”, and fruit juices for the youngsters. Come and spent a couple of hours getting adult conversations and playmates for the kids!

Now none of these ideas are going to make you into the next high-tech billionaire. But what all of them illustrate is that innovation to create our own personal security is open to all of us. Any of us could come up with any of these ideas, and build a job for ourselves out of it. (Who knows, you might even enjoy the business you build!)

That’s why your personal due diligence about your own life starts with assessing your education needs with a weather eye on transferrable skills, not just “job-ready programs”. It’s why we say “pay cash” rather than use debt: not having student debt as a millstone (or personal debt, later in life) means you can take the risk of starting a venture more readily. Even if you’re comfortably on the career ladder with no immediate danger signs in sight, or still so far from completion of your schooling that the “job problem” is still way out there, you can start training your brain to think innovatively.

To do that, simply play a game with yourself. Wherever you go, whatever you do, train yourself to ask “what could I ‘twist’ here to do this differently?” Don’t worry about good ideas vs bad ones yet. Just get used to looking for ways to do things differently. (Later, you can add on the “how could I find the expertise needed” and so on to train your mind to think about that as well.)

It may be an ever-tougher economy, with more and more jobs at risk — but it’s also raining opportunity like never before. We can help you become one of the ones who thrive.

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