A Small-Business Success Formula

“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” – George Bernard Shaw

Stuart and I clinked glasses, toasting our upcoming success. It was New Year’s Eve about 20 years ago. My entrepreneurial career had just begun. I was a college student living at home with my mom. I didn’t have much money, but I felt good about the $500 each of us had just invested.

About six weeks later, we’d lost our precious money.

We’d been suckered into investing in a poor business idea. The idea? Buying the rights to distribute video memberships where customers could rent videos through the mail for 35 cents. It sounded good, but there were a couple of catches. For one thing, the customer had to purchase an expensive membership. For another, the customer had to pay an exchange fee on every transaction. (Details that weren’t included in the sales literature we saw.)

Eventually, I picked myself up from the disappointment of that first business failure. But several other failures followed. And they all fit the same general pattern: Identifying a product that seemed great, trying to sell it, and then discovering it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

For the longest time, I couldn’t see what I was doing wrong. In fact, it took me several years before I figured it out and made a major change in the way I did business. That single change had an enormous effect on my success as an entrepreneur. By implementing it, I was able to create a string of profitable small businesses.

What I’m talking about here is a strategy I call the F.A.N. (“Fill A Need”) Formula.

What I had been doing was first coming up with the product or service to sell, and then going out into the marketplace to see if anyone would buy it. But with the F.A.N. Formula, I first studied the marketplace to look for customer needs that were not being met. Only if I discovered a hole would I create or find something and try to sell it.

And it’s not hard. You don’t have to come up with revolutionary new ideas. Sometimes you can find a need for a “bread and butter” type of business that just has to be tweaked a bit to make it stand out from the competition.

My first successful business was a pool maintenance service. I was cleaning my mom’s pool when a neighbor peeked over the fence and said, “Hey! You’re doing a good job!” Then he started complaining about how expensive and unreliable his pool company was.

A light bulb went off over my head. I realized that there was a big need right there in my own neighborhood. And where there is a need, there is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to make money.

I printed up some flyers advertising my “reliable pool cleaning services at good prices,” and began distributing them. Within hours of posting the first ones, my phone was ringing. This led to what eventually became a six-figure business… a nice accomplishment for a college student with no capital.

Later in my entrepreneurial career, I became interested in the ballroom dance industry. While working in a dance studio, I discovered two holes in the market. First, virtually every dance studio in the area aggressively sold “packages” and persuaded clients to learn all the dances. Second, I noticed that it was hard for many busy people to make the time to get into the studio.

So I came up with the idea of “pay as you go” lessons. People didn’t have to buy a package, and they could learn only the dance or dances they were interested in. Plus, they didn’t have to come to a studio. They could take the lessons at home.

My approach was so novel that several major metropolitan newspapers did feature stories about me. (Free publicity!) And the business took off. I was soon earning $40,000-$50,000 a year with it. And since I was only working that business part-time, I was able to develop other businesses simultaneously.

Applying the F.A.N. Formula to Your Own Ventures

Here’s how to start a business with the F.A.N. Formula:

1. Pay careful attention to markets that interest you. Then search out information about customer needs that aren’t being served efficiently.

Keep your eyes open. Just look around for things that annoy YOU. Keep your ears open too. You can sometimes hear about a need that’s not being met straight from a disgruntled customer. (That’s what got me started on my pool cleaning service.) You should also read local newspapers, particularly stories about consumer problems. And articles in national magazines can help you identify trends that could inspire you to come up with a business idea.

2. Once you’ve pinpointed a need in the market, figure out how you can fill it. What will your product or service offer? How will it benefit the customer?

My dance instruction business had three main selling points:

  • No contracts to sign or packages to buy
  • Learn only the dances you’re interested in
  • Convenient, private in-home lessons available

3. Evaluate the feasibility of the business.

Just because you see a need for the product or service you intend to offer doesn’t mean you can sell it profitably. Sometimes, the reason nobody is doing it is because there’s not enough of a market for it. So crunch the numbers first.

With my pool cleaning business, I figured out that by being a “no frills” operator with little overhead I could undercut the competition by about 20 percent. And I found that I could still make an acceptable profit even if I hired other people to do the work.

Operating your own small business is rewarding in many ways. It offers you job security. (You’ll never be afraid of a boss letting you go.) It’s a good way to accumulate wealth. And it allows you to spend your days doing something you can enjoy and be proud of. By using the F.A.N. Formula, your odds of success will increase exponentially. Try it.

[Ed. Note: Paul Lawrence is the creator of the Quick and Easy Microbusiness System, ETR’s program for starting a business for under $100. The F.A.N. Formula is just one of the techniques Paul teaches in his “Smallbiz Rocket Launcher Program.” Check out the details here.]