20 Questions to Help You Choose a Business Idea

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Have you seen these headlines before? They've all come from websites or ads promising the earth and just like the imported idea of MLM (multi level marketing) I would avoid these if your intent is to build an enjoyable, sustainable business. Oh, by the way, the last headline is actually true. Action - not just good ideas, is the key to starting a business.

There are a multitude of websites and books giving ideas for starting a business. If you look carefully at the Company Partners member's profiles, you will also get ideas and maybe you should follow these up with the member.

The following 20 questions are more thought provokers than answers. A starting point, for you to build upon. Incidentally, these are the sort of brainstorming questions that you could get together with other Company Partners members to thrash out. You'd be surprised at the lateral ideas that a few different minds come up with.

1. What skills do you have?

First, look at your own skills and knowledge and those available to you from your family, friends and members of Company Partners. It is no good setting up a dental surgery if all you have ever done is drill roads. What is your present occupation? Could you do your present job working for yourself rather than being employed by someone else? Successful businesses are frequently started by people with practical experience in the type of work that the business is in, but who find that they want more independence in their working lives.

2. Could you adapt your existing skills?

Sometimes the skills people have are already over-supplied. You may feel that there is no room in the market place for yet another joiner, furniture restorer or undertaker. You may not want to carry on doing the same thing for yourself as you have done working for others in the past. Could you modify the skills and experience that you acquired while working for somebody else? A former joiner could concentrate on manufacturing a limited range of quality furnishings, eg beds, instead of competing against well-established tradesmen for work in the home.

3. Could you turn your hobby into a business?

Do you possess skills acquired as a hobby, which could form a basis for a business? Do you like gardening, for example? What about a gardening firm? Are you good at cooking? What about a catering service for people having parties at home? Enjoy tracing your family's history? Provide a service for Americans to trace their British roots. Do not write off your hobby just because you do it for fun; somebody may be willing to pay for it!

4. What type of person are you?

Does your personality or physique suggest any business ideas? If you have persistence, enjoy meeting people and are persuasive, you might be a good salesman. There are frequent openings for self-employed salesmen to sell other people's products. If you are good at dealing with people, you might be just the person to take up a retail franchise. If you are organised and methodical, provide a PA (personal assistant) service to busy people. Choosing an area to complement your natural inclinations will not only make your new business more enjoyable for you, but make the chance of success higher.

5. Could you work from home?

If you are a parent and tied to the home, how big is your house? You could set aside space to sew, knit or perhaps make soft toys. Could you sell products for other people over the phone? Increasingly there are opportunities for people to do office work using a computer and modem. This can include anything from word processing through accounts, to freelance writing and consultancy.

6. What goods or services are needed locally?

Look around in your own backyard. Think of the problems and difficulties, which you have experienced in getting things for your home, or at work, or in your leisure activities. What problems cause you most inconvenience or cost you most to correct? What service was not available when you most needed it? What parts, or products, were hard or impossible to obtain locally? What do you and your neighbours and friends most frequently complain about? Listen to people talking in the pub, or in the supermarket checkout queue. Find out what they have difficulties obtaining. Is there any way of providing a local service or product for any of these markets, which somebody will pay for?

7. What goods or services do local companies need?

Are there any goods or services that local companies have difficulty in obtaining locally? A new industrial estate for example may contain a number of small and medium sized firms, none of which have their own staff canteen, but which all need some kind of catering service. Perhaps a sandwich bar could be set up on the estate. There may be room in the market for a despatch service linking the estate with other industrial centres. Are there professional services that are lacking for local businesses.

8. Do colleagues at work have any ideas for businesses?

Talk with the sales representatives and the people in the technical department and with your workmates. People who have been working in the same company for a long time frequently have a range of ideas for improving a product or service, which they have never managed to take further. It may be a simple part like a spring for a manufacturing process or it may be a particular service which the company has difficulty obtaining.

9. Are there any opportunities for tourism or leisure businesses in your area?

Apart from the growth in internet sites dealing with travel and tourism, there are still traditional opportunities for hotels, restaurants, sports & fitness and other leisure activity businesses. Try talking to people working in sports centres or Tourist Boards, they may have suggestions for market opportunities in the area. Listen to your friends comments on lack of certain leisure facilities.

10. Can you identify any ideas in local universities?

Students and academics often spend many years on research projects, which are not subsequently pursued. Someone may have invented, designed or discovered some interesting new process or product which could form the basis of a business. Many Universities have entrepreneur centres to spin-off ideas into industry. Contact your local University and ask them about it.

11. What do large companies, local authorities and other public bodies buy in from outside the area?

What do existing companies in your area make and what do they buy in from outside the area? In many cases they will be buying goods from outside the region because there is no one to supply them locally. Similarly, local councils and organisations like the Area Health Authority and the Police Force are purchasers of equipment and services. Try contacting the purchasing officer of your local council to find out what large and frequent purchases they make. Some companies produce briefs aimed at small businesses explaining what they buy and their purchasing procedure in order to help new suppliers. There is government pressure to involve small businesses more.

12. Is there potential for import substitution in the area?

One stage further is to look at things, which are currently being bought from abroad. Look around in shops and factories to see where the goods on sale, or being used, were made. Customs and Excise keep lists of imported products. The single European market has opened up new opportunities abroad too. Do you have language skills? Have you worked abroad before? You could have sufficient local knowledge of another country to enable you to act as an export agent.

13. Could you sell goods made by other people?

Many new firms start off by selling goods that somebody else makes. A number of opportunities exist to distribute foreign goods in Britain. For example, the US Department of Commerce publishes a regular magazine listing companies looking for facilities and distributors (this is available from all US embassies and consulates). Chambers of Commerce have regular listings of businesses seeking partners willing to manufacture under licence or to act as sole distributors.

14. Can you identify any new ideas?

Try brainstorming with friends or relations to see if you can identify any totally new ideas. There are opportunities for entirely new products or services such as in energy conservation, providing better insulation in homes and factories. You may have an idea for a simple device, which you think people might use. The patent office now has a very good on-line search facility espacenet. It is worth seeing what has been thought of before and perhaps not followed up, or at least you can find out if your idea is not new.

15. Can you look at an existing idea in a new way?

Contrary to popular belief there are few original ideas. Most successful businesses come from modifying, refining or re-thinking an existing business idea. Post-It notes resulted from a glue product that went wrong. Perhaps more important is the fact that it might not have happened if the company had not deliberately set aside time when staff could think about innovative product ideas. Try thinking laterally about existing products or materials you know about.

16. Can you copy somebody else's idea?

Try visiting a museum of folk history or industry - you might be surprised at how many discarded products from the past could still be of practical use or amusement today. A number of businesses have been formed making replicas of such products. Many items relate to self-sufficiency such as making butter and cheese or bread. Travel can be a valuable source of new business ideas that have not been tried where you live. The founder of Kwik-Fit, Tom Farmer, got the idea from the 'muffler shops' he saw on a visit to the States. The Body Shop got the idea from a Californian business. Is there currently a poor implementation of a good idea?

17. Are you watching the news?

There is an old saying that it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Our newspapers, TV and radio today tend to concentrate on the bad news; but many of the items, if you read them as though you were looking for an opportunity, will reveal problems, which need a solution. Scanning the small ads section of your local paper is a good way to get a feel for local patterns of supply and demand.

18. Can you see opportunities for natural produce?

Recent food scares, have raised public concern about the way in which food is produced.Consumer attitudes are changing: people are becoming increasingly interested in naturally produced food, eg organic food and buying from local producers.Farmer's markets have become popular and offer a wide range of natural products.At the same time, some people have become suspicious of traditional medicine and drugs and are turning to complementary medicine.Business opportunities can include retailing naturally produced food, eg organic food retailer; or offering complementary medicine services, eg aromatherapy, or homoeopathy.

19. Do future changes in the law offer business opportunities?

New legislation is often a rich field for business opportunities. Every new piece of legislation generates opportunities in terms of administration and compliance - not to mention avoidance. There may be a need to supply parts to adapt an existing product or process to meet new safety or health regulations. There will be additional services that businesses require to satisfy the new regulations.

20. Could you buy an existing business?

You might consider buying an existing business - but if you do, make sure you find out why the owner is selling up. Even if the seller is retiring, why was it not worth his family's while to continue? Businesses for sale are usually advertised in the local paper, various websites and could also be advertised in relevant trade magazines.


Finally - Don't get "paralysis by analysis". Sometimes you just have to get on and do something. Action is as important as the idea. Do your research, make contacts, chose an idea that you will enjoy and do it. Remember the headline that was true: "Don't get caught daydreaming and retire broke!"