An entrepreneur who has launched 19 companies, and created over 50 million human life years as a result, shares his approach to recognizing opportunities.
It seems to me it all comes down to this moment: it’s 5:30a.m., and while I write, shivering in a still-cold house, my kids are warming my bed, which they stumbled into last night. When the world is calling you back to sleep, how do you know the opportunity you keep waking up for is the right one?
When you know you are doing the right thing; when the venture you are developing, degree you are pursuing, or career you are building is what you are meant to do, you reach a state of calm clarity.
But how do you know? How can you be sure the opportunity you are investing your time in is worth your effort?
Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mir Imran (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mir_Imran) knows. He stepped into my office, put down his bag, and pulled out a PowerPoint slide with a simple equation on it: 5 x 10 = 50. He explained to me that years ago, as a young engineer and medical student, he got a chance to work on the first implantable defibrillator. Since its invention, this device has been implanted into 5 million people. On average it extends life by at least 10 years. So this one invention “has created over 50 million human life years,” Imran concluded.
You can feel the clarity and passion in him as he describes each of the ventures he has launched – 19 so far. He holds over 140 patents. His InCube Labs (http://www.incubelabs.com/), of which he is founder and chairman, with laboratories in California and Texas, finds medical problems, solves them, builds a business around them, and then sells the business to large health science firms.
Imran shared his process for recognizing opportunities with me, then I dug into the academic research of how a successful entrepreneur like Imran does it. I did this, to be honest, because I have been questioning for myself whether I am pursuing too many opportunities. What came out is a set of tests to help us all identify the opportunity that is right for us right now:
1. Start with a worthwhile problem, not a solution
The research and Imran agree – it’s better to start with a meaningful problem than with a technology looking for a problem. As Imran explained, “I ask, what are the attributes of the problem that make it worthy of a solution? Don’t fall in love with the technology. I let the problem tell me how the problem wants to be solved.”
Imran’s process involves two more steps after finding a worthwhile problem: deciding if they think they can find a solution and then deciding if the solution is commercializable (i.e., would someone pay to acquire the company that owns the solution?).
I realize I’ve been doing the opposite. I’ve fallen in love with my “IDEAS” process – my book, workshop, consulting methodology – and have been looking for places to apply it. But if instead I explore the problems to solve, this opens up possibilities: unlocking creativity in large organizations, maybe.
2. Three tests
Great companies are born in the intersection of three spheres: market needs, passion, and capabilities. Assess your opportunities across these dimensions to make sure they are right for you. See where you are falling short and then adjust or drop the idea.
For example, I know that what I am doing hits my passion and capabilities buttons. The market has afforded me a nice salary doing what I do, but it’s not clear the market will support a whole business.
3. Create confidence
Companies that know they are going to solve the problem and build a valuable business around it play with the confidence of a champion sports team. They don’t question themselves. They know what to do. And this confidence helps them win.
But here enters a dilemma. When you are playing a game that has been played before (basketball, for example, has been around since 1891), you have champions to learn from. You can figure out the success formula.. You know that if you practice daily and perform the right actions, you have a good chance of winning. But winning a game that has never been played before is more difficult.
Academics point to that entrepreneurs somehow have the “guts” others lack to start, persevere, and evolve a business. But often they jump in not because they are braver but because they can reduce risk. Put as many variables as you can into your control and better predict what you can’t control.
Do this by studying how others who have successfully pursued a similar opportunity. Then your game is no longer playing entirely new. InCube has launched 19 companies so it knows how to avoid many of the business-building errors first-time health science entrepreneurs will make. This helps you put more into your control.
Then study the market to better predict what you cannot control – like market and economic changes – to build the confidence that you are playing the direction of the tide. Research shows entrepreneurial teams who stay better on top of industry developments have a better chance of success.
With more in your control and a good assessment in how those things you can’t control will evolve, you and your team can play with confidence. This increases your chances of success.
4. Develop pattern recognition
Most research into opportunity recognition centers on “pattern recognition” – the idea that people like Imran, who have domain expertise, are able to recognize opportunities more accurately as they appear. But you don’t need to rely only on industry expertise; you can additionally or alternatively use street smarts, people expertise, or creative ability. Which of these four types of pattern recognition – domain, street, people, and creative – are you using to find your opportunity
5. Create more options
We often get attracted to an idea because it is the only one we have. When we see the value of our other opportunities, it is easier to say “no” to ones that are not the right fit.
This is why successful entrepreneurs actively search for opportunities. Imran, for example, is developing an innovation program for school children in Texas and has each student come up with 100 problems to solve in his or her house. “Coming up with one problem to solve is easy, but coming up with 100 really forces you to think.”
So don’t choose your opportunity from a field of just one. Line up a list worth your passion and capabilities.