How To Determine Whether Your Business Idea Will Fly

At least once a week, someone comes to me with a business idea – typically, one for a new product or service – and asks, “Will this work?” Perhaps you too have an idea for a new product or service … but would like to know whether it has a realistic chance of success before you invest your time and hard-earned money in it. I will give you the same piece of advice I give to everyone else: Look around to see whether anyone else is doing the same thing.

If you find at least one other person doing it successfully (in other words, making money at it), it could work for you, too … if you are smart and lucky. On the other hand, if no one else is doing it, there’s no reason to think YOU can … and you should probably look for something else. This may be somewhat counterintuitive. Then again, a lot of business success principles are. “But isn’t it great that no one else is doing my idea?” you may be thinking. “Doesn’t that mean I thought of it first … and there’s no competition?”

Actually, it’s almost certain that many others thought of it before you. What should trouble you is that these individuals – some of them as smart as or even smarter than you – evaluated the idea and, after careful consideration, decided not to proceed. In other words, the reason no one else is doing your idea is because it won’t work! But if others are doing it – and making money at it – that idea has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to work in the real world.

And if THEY are making money at it, there’s a good chance you can too. Forget about re-inventing the wheel. Fact is, most of the successful people you probably think of as innovators were not. Bill Gates, for instance, is thought of as the creator of the first personal computer operating system, MS-DOS. But, actually, another programmer created MS-DOS. The details of the transaction aren’t entirely clear, but Bill Gates apparently bought it from him for $50,000 cash, made some modifications, and sold it to IBM for royalties that made him the wealthiest man in the world.

And MS-DOS was not even the first PC operating system. That honor goes to CPM, a rival operating system that was offered to IBM first. (They didn’t take it, but the old Kaypro computers ran on it.) One other counterintuitive piece of advice … If you do decide to market a new product or service and your test campaign fails miserably, don’t keep pushing to make it incrementally better in the hopes that you can turn it into a winner. It’s much better to cut your losses and abandon the idea – before you pour good money after bad.

Example: An ETR reader came to me asking if I could save her new business by writing a direct-mail package for it. The first thing I did was look at her first mailing. It seemed competent to me (though not first-rate), so I asked her what it brought in. Did it break even? Cover half its mailing cost? Turns out, it pulled only a few orders … with thousands of pieces mailed.

I reminded her, “Even a great package might pull only double or triple that of a package that failed … and even if we triple the response, you won’t be close to breaking even. So this business idea of yours just isn’t going to work.” Needless to say, I did not write the package for her. She wasn’t happy, but I am convinced I saved her from wasting many thousands of dollars on another test doomed to fail.

(Ed. Note: Bob Bly is the editor of Mailbox Millionaire, ETR’s program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business. For information, click here.)