Go where the problems are

By Ray DePaul

In every entrepreneurship program in every university, there are thousands of students struggling to come up with an idea for a new venture. Most will look for opportunities to solve problems in their own life. This helps explain why, year after year, we see students trying to make it easier to clear their windshields in winter, squeeze another ounce of convenience out of their battery charging woes, desperately try to keep their coffee warm, and reduce the infuriating lines they have to suffer getting lunch.

If you want to uncover a unique opportunity, my advice is to go where the problems are. Shift the focus away from yourself and seek to understand the problems of a different group of people. If thousands of students are analyzing their own life, take the less travelled path of understanding someone else's. A student idea that solves a real problem for the elderly would be wonderful. A group of students that spent some time with recent immigrants to our country would uncover dozens of problems screaming for a solution.

When we do see a group of students veer from the familiar, it is almost always because one of the members of the group has a personal connection to a unique customer segment. They tackle the problems of being in a wheelchair or suffering hearing loss or struggling with mental health challenges. These unique experiences expose them to opportunities not even considered by most students.

And while this rant might sound like I'm talking about social innovation, it isn't limited to that worthy goal. Great, profitable companies have been created by focusing on underserved markets. People of colour, the LGBTQ community, the "plus-sized", and lower income populations were largely ignored until entrepreneurs realized that these segments had unique needs and were willing to spend money to solve them.

A common starting point for anyone thinking about starting a business is to consider what they are passionate about. This is a great place to start, but it's not the only place. Get out and talk to some underserved segments and you'll be amazed at how quickly you'll have empathy for their problems. It's just a short walk from empathy to passion, so don't be surprised if you end up obsessed with solving those problems.