Looking back on my journey as an entrepreneur, it is quite clear that everything I have ever done has stemmed from a desire to provide as...

Share story

Looking back on my journey as an entrepreneur, it is quite clear that everything I have ever done has stemmed from a desire to provide as many people as possible with products and services that they absolutely need and want.

Because my work is primarily about domestic arts, this has been a relatively easy task; I consider myself to be a part of my audience.

I really can and do determine what my customers need and want by what I need and want, whether it is a delicious new recipe, a useful garden tool or a memorable way to celebrate a traditional holiday.

My advice to you as an entrepreneur? Take off your shoes and step into your customers’ shoes for a while. Ask yourself, “Is there a use for my idea in her life?”

It is important to think about your business ideas in a clear and disciplined way, tuning in to precisely what it is that your customers need and want; then concentrate on thinking big.

Often you’ll find that your personal frustration can help you experience a Big Idea. My own brand of paint was created this way.

I have frequently observed how natural objects can blend together with perfect balance of tone and subtlety.

Years ago, I was preparing to redecorate several rooms in my home, and when I went to the paint store to choose colors, the natural hues that I longed for just were not available.

It suddenly became clear to me that I would have to formulate my own paint colors, so the palette I wanted — needed — would be attainable.

What a fun and exciting project for me and my employees. We started with the eggs from my mix of rare and exotic chickens.

In addition to the delicate whites, rich creams and subtle beiges of the shells, my Araucana hens’ eggs came in gorgeous shades of pale blue and green.

Inspired, I also studied the myriad hues on a large, lovely seashell.

Then I gathered leaves, bark and stones and dissected them, separating each of the many colors.

We soon had 600 ideas for new colors, and we chose Sherwin-Williams as a partner to manufacture the paints.

My favorite part to this story is that Sherwin-Williams initially told us that their computers contained every color imaginable and that matching my shades would be very easy.

But when we brought them our 600 samples, their computers could match only 10 or so! So you see, you should never accept what is offered to you if you feel it can be improved.

There are many unmet needs in our complex world.

Seven necessities for assessing your business idea

Developing and refining ideas for a successful business is exciting, but ideas for new products or businesses have to meet a specific set of important criteria:

1. Is your idea better than alternatives on the market?

When deciding whether an idea is strong enough to become the foundation of a good business, you must determine if that idea offers advantages to customers.

In other words, is the product better than the customers’ alternatives? Does it have the ring of originality?

2. Is your idea simple for you to develop and simple for customers to understand?

My first book, “Entertaining,” is a good example of this. It has a one-word title that tells the reader exactly what the book is about.

If you want to learn about entertaining and doing it well, then you know that this book might be useful.

Once you open the book, a focused yet lavish display of hundreds of ideas, recipes and pictures will likely convince you.

To simplify an idea or several ideas, start by writing down every possible element involved in developing your idea. Ask for input from experts and friends.

Next, begin the editing process, crossing out elements that complicate the picture or overtax your resources.

Then determine how to deliver the most value to your customers with the resources you have.

3. Are you in a location where your idea will work?

Moat people could surmise that opening a swimming-pool company in Alaska in not a very good idea.

However, many people do not appreciate the more subtle contributions geography can offer to the success of a business.

Are the suppliers for your materials nearby?

If you’re opening a mail-order business, are there affordable warehouse rentals for your merchandise?

Parking and traffic patterns are critical factors to a retail operation’s success.

4. Is your idea affordable?

Many successful businesses start out small with very little capital.

In Silicon Valley, there is a long tradition of “garage” inventors, such as the late Bill Hewlett and David Packard.

These men started out puttering around in their garages, putting inexpensive parts together with soldering irons.

The company they ultimately created, Hewlett-Packard, is now legendary in the world of computers.

Other business ventures demand significant investment before the first customers appear.

Retail stores require leased space, utility payments, alarm services, liability insurance, and, of course, inventory and sales personnel.

Be realistic about your resources.

5. Is your idea too big?

Many entrepreneurs take on too much too soon or address too large a market with their first ideas.

Even experienced executives with capital to spend often make the mistake of targeting too large a market, without proper messaging or without the ability to execute the highest-quality products.

An interesting example is the grocery-delivery company Webvan. Webvan (based in Foster City, Calif.) had a good, sound idea but did not survive its “too big, too soon” expansion and its loss of focus and control.

Looking to expand very rapidly to head off competition, Webvan bought HomeGrocer.com, a rival company (based in Kirkland) that was expanding gradually.

They built large distribution centers and bought vast numbers of trucks.

They needed hundreds of qualified drivers and deliverymen and encountered a labor shortage. Webvan became too big an idea.

Without enough customers to support its huge mountain of expenses, it failed.

6. Can you expand and extend your idea?

My definition of a Big Idea is one that may start small but has the potential to be expanded, to develop into something much larger.

In other words, it has potential for leverage, which means that any investment you make only adds value beyond its original purpose.

7. Does your idea make the world better?

A truly great Big Idea has all the attributes I have described, but it also has something else — that special “something” that affects people in a most positive way.

J. K. Rowling certainly made the world better with her Harry Potter series.

She is a gifted writer and entrepreneur.

Look at what she did: In an era of television, video games and Internet distractions, she single-handedly enticed millions of children to read — children who might otherwise have never discovered what a fabulous world awaited them inside a book.

Next week: Part 2 of the three-part series: So the pie isn’t perfect? Cut it into pieces.