In the entrepreneurial space, I often hear business coaches advising their clients to “follow their passion” and asking questions like, “What are you passionate about?” in order to help their clients find a business idea to pursue.
The problem with this advice is it sends you down the wrong path, one that you likely won’t realize is horrible until you’ve been walking it for a long time.
While your passion will help you jump out of bed in the morning, ready to face whatever the day will bring, it is NOT an indication that there is anyone else interested in what you care so much about!
If no one wants what you are selling, your business will fail.
It doesn’t matter is your idea is good or not. It doesn’t matter if you are passionate about it or just think it’s okay. The only thing that matters is whether there’s a market for what you want to sell.
For example, have you even heard of SixDegrees.com? It was the first social network, launched in 1997, and was based on the game “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” and the idea that we’re all only six degrees separated from any other person on Earth. The basic idea was sound — witness the success of Facebook — but beyond some initial success, it never really took off, and by the end of December 2000, it was closed.
What did they do wrong? First of all, in 1997, the vast majority of people were unaware the Internet existed. In fact, I was first introduced to it myself that year. Even those who knew about the Internet didn’t spend vast amounts of time online (remember, that was before online shopping, Facebook, or Google).
This screenshot (c/o the Google Wayback Machine), from April 24, 1999, shows us just how little time people spent online back then. With over 2 million members, only 484 were online that day. That’s just 0.002% of their membership!
For a social network that offered as part of it’s membership, “find out who’s logged on and learn more about them through their person zoom screen,” the lack of viable community of people online a any given time would have made success difficult.
Facebook, in contrast, took off because they launched quite a bit later (2004) and, instead of trying to enroll the whole world at once, focused first on university and college campuses, where there was an already close-knit group of people who simply wanted an easy way to find out what their friends were up to at any given time (this was key to their success — read below for why).
“Following my passion” bit me in the ass.
In 2008, I was searching for a business idea for the next stage of my life and, like many of you, I was advised to “follow my passion.”
Once upon a time, I was passionate about quilting. In 5 years, I made nearly 100 quilts, plus had a business quilting for others. When I gave up quilting in 2006, I still had 30 quilts that I had made, which is really too many for any one person. Since I had found giving my quilts away to be a rewarding experience, I thought that I could create a charity that would link quilters like me (who had tons of finished quilts taking up space) with people in the world who would really appreciate them.
I built a website, QuiltLoveStories.com and posted pictures of the quilts that I wanted to find homes for, and then set about enrolling other quilters in my passion.
I met a HUGE wall of resistance.
It turns out that other quilters weren’t as prolific as I was. Most made about a quilt a year (or two) and most often specifically for someone. And while there were quilters who quilted for charity (for great causes like Project Linus), they felt they were already giving enough to people in need.
In the end, I gave away just one quilt via my charity website. And it wasn’t the amazing experience I expected it to be.
If passion alone was the key to success, my idea should have worked. In fact, when I presented my idea to my quilting group, the feedback that I got, “You seem very passionate about this,” but not one quilter was interested in participating in my charity. My passion alone wasn’t enough make the idea successful.
Successful ideas fill an existing need.
What makes an idea successful, especially out of the gate, is that it fills an existing need. When Mark Zuckerburg launched Facebook from his dorm room, he didn’t launch what we know today as Facebook, and he never expected it to grow beyond Harvard. But it started taking off almost from the moment people first learned about it.
Facebook’s explosive growth was possible because a need existed and Facebook filled it.
The kids at Harvard were already online. They had Myspace accounts and email and bought things on Amazon. The piece that was missing was being able to see what their friends were up to: Facebook was exactly what they were looking for.
As Facebook has grown beyond college campuses, it has evolved. It probably wouldn’t even recognize itself in the mirror now, if such a thing was possible. As different groups have embraced Facebook, it’s had to evolve to meet their needs, needs that are often different than the original users’.
As long as Facebook can continue to stay relevant to it’s users, it will continue to be successful and stay around. But as soon as it fails to meet their needs, it could disappear and be nothing more than a longer-lived version of SixDegrees.com.
If your passion isn’t your signpost, how do you choose what to base your business on?
The problem with most of the advice out there about “finding your passion” is that it begins and ends with YOU. But as I learned with my experience with my quilting-based charity, you are not necessarily a representation of your target market. Therefore, your passion alone doesn’t tell you enough.
Instead of asking, “What are you passionate about?”, business coaches should ask:
“How can you use what you are passionate about to fill an existing need?”
This second question brings in the idea of other people. You need other people to buy what you sell, even if all you are selling is an idea (to participate in a charity, for example), or your idea won’t go anywhere.
If you are struggling with how to package your passion into a viable business, here’s my advice:
Make a list everything that you are passionate about or that brings you joy.
Instead of looking just at your hobbies or how you spend your free time, explore your past jobs for clues to what kind of work you find fulfilling. After all, once you launch your business, you’ll need to work in it; doing all of that work will be easier if it’s work you actually enjoy! You may need to look beyond job titles or tasks listed in a job description to figure out what you really enjoyed about your previous jobs, to uncover what I call your PSI or Problem-Solver Instinct. Download my free handout called ‘Problem-Solver Instinct‘ (no optin required) to get you started.
Explore different ways you might use your PSI to launch a business.
First, visit online forums and social media platforms to “listen in” on conversations that people are having about their problems; they likely struggle in a different way than you do, even with the same challenges. Next, brainstorm a list of existing needs that you could fill — set the timer for 15 minutes and write continuously until the timer runs out — don’t leave anything off, no matter how far out or unlikely the idea is… just focus on writing everything down that occurs to you. And finally, do some informal market research by asking your friends and family, “I enjoy doing this (or helping people in this way), can you suggest some ways I might turn that into a business?” Only after you’ve done all 3 steps, sit down and sort through them for the perfect idea for your business. Don’t be surprised if this part of the process takes a long time. Try not to rush it, but allow the process to enfold as it needs to in order to bring you the right idea for your business.
Craft an outline of your proposed business.
Once you’ve chosen an idea to pursue, spend some time thinking about who would buy your product or service and how much they might be willing to spend for it (it may NOT be what you would spend). Also consider how you will market your business; remember, putting up a website doesn’t magically earn you clients or make you money. Although your outline needn’t be as formal as a business plan, you should take the time to actually write it down so you have something to refer to as the need arises.
Check the viability of your idea BEFORE you launch it.
It’s a bummer to invest a lot of time, energy and money into an idea, only to discover that no one will buy it (see examples above). Save yourself that headache by creating a survey about your idea and sending it to people who represent your intended market to gauge how easy (or difficult) it will be to get people to buy your product. Based on the results of your survey, you may find you need to alter your proposal or throw it out and start again; both valuable to know before you’ve walked very far down your original path. Check out our free ebook all about crafting great surveys for help putting your survey together.
Launch your new business and enjoy your success!
If I had been given this advice back in 2006, I would have found my way to my current business much sooner, saving me countless hours and thousands of dollars, plus letting me get to helping people much sooner.
See, I enjoyed working part-time at a quilt shop during my years as a quilter, but not for any of the most obvious reasons. What I enjoyed about that job wasn’t playing with fabric, ringing up sales or connecting with potential clients (the obvious details of the job); what I enjoyed about that job was empowering people who were struggling with some of the more technical steps in the quilting process to get past their own frustrations to discover that they were more capable than they realized.
If you change just the bolded words in that description, you describe why I am passionate about my current business:
I empower people who were struggling with some of the more technical steps in growing their businesses online to get past their own frustrations to discover that they were more capable than they realized.
Starting, and running, a business takes a lot of work. Help ensure that work pays off for you in the end by choosing a business idea that fills an existing need and you’ll be more than half-way to a successful undertaking.