Recognize a Winning Business Idea

To gauge future success, know how the concept will help the target market and whether it will fit into how those customers identify themselves

By Karen E. Klein

Which are the best business ideas: those that tap into our seven deadly sins, or those that fix a pain or solve a problem? —C.C., New York

The answer to your question depends on details such as your target market, production costs, and price point. For instance, take tax planning vs. wealth management. One is an essential service that sells at high volume to a wide audience, but at a price that can approach that of a commodity. The other sells to a smaller niche, but appeals to customers willing and able to pay more.

Another concept to mull is that wants and needs may not be so far apart. Indulging one’s greed or pride may be the flip side of solving a problem or stopping a pain, says Peter Sheahan, chief executive officer of ChangeLabs, an Australian business consulting firm with U.S. headquarters in Denver. “The problem is the pain,” he says, “and the pain is we want more of our seven deadly sins. All human desire comes from a form of dissonance—dissonance just being a fancy word for a gap, and a gap just being a metaphor for the space between where we are now and where we want to be.”

Traditionally, business ideas that solve problems seem to be most effective, although sometimes a new product or service solves a problem that people aren’t consciously aware of until they see the solution. Still, if you can identify the problem in a compelling fashion, your message may be easier to get across.

“I always feel like fixing a pain is best, since more people can really relate to that. They’ll be more willing to listen to your marketing message if you’re solving a problem or taking away their pain,” says Sarah Shaw, a consultant at Entreprenette.com.

Jordana Jaffe, a business consultant and life coach at Quarter Life Clarity, agrees that people are often so fixated on a nagging problem or annoyance that if you can fix it for them, your business will excite and empower them. “We’re always so consumed with what isn’t working in our lives,” she says. “When we’re introduced to the possibility of those things becoming easier for us as a result of this possible solution, life suddenly feels lighter and easier and more possible.”

Human Drives

Sheahan recommends that, rather than framing your business idea on the “sin vs. survival” scale, you should structure its appeal more around human drives, a term he derives from the evolutionary biology research of Paul R. Lawrence of Harvard Business School.

Lawrence talked about the universal human drives to acquire, to bond, to comprehend, and to defend. If you can tap into as many of those drives as possible with your product or service, you can predict how explosive your idea will be. “I once did a program with Sega tracking mega blockbuster video games over the last 20 years,” Sheahan says. “All of them had tapped into three of the four human drives.”

What’s most important with a business idea is to identify your target market and become as familiar with your potential clients as possible. “If you’re looking to sell to the high-end, luxury market, your product or service may be something that people might think of as indulging a sin. Just make sure your marketing matches your target market,” Shaw says.

You may have a choice of messages, depending on how you want to position your business idea. Does plastic surgery indulge the sin of vanity, or take away the pain of aging? Do decadent chocolates appeal to the sin of gluttony, or solve the problem of sugar cravings? Whichever way you go, make sure your brand appeals to your customers’ interest in defining themselves, Sheahan says. “Brands say something about us. Think Brooklyn Circus for those that want to be seen as on the fringe, consider Tom’s Shoes for those who want to be seen as evolved and empathetic, and think of Ralph Lauren for those that want to be preppy. What do those brands satisfy? Lust and pride, just to name two,” he says.

[Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.]

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