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AZRIELA JAFFE

8.11.99  
Eureka! A Novel Business Idea...That Nobody Needs
Save yourself grief: Find out if there's really a market for your concept

I write business books that in my estimation fill an unmet need, and I turn down topics everyone seems to be writing about. It can be hard to tell a novel idea that may intrigue readers from one that has already been quietly rejected by other writers. Early on in my entrepreneurial career, a literary agent gave me a hard lesson about the difference, and that has helped me ever since.

I was excitedly telling her that I had uncovered a topic that was virgin territory. "Can you dig up at least one or two best-sellers that are close to this idea?" she asked coolly.

I didn't take the hint. "No one has ever written about this before," I exclaimed. Her response was blunt: "Maybe no one has ever published it because there really isn't a viable market for it." Pop! Boy, was I deflated. She wasn't going to kill herself marketing my idea when I hadn't even done my homework. I needed to demonstrate that the publishing industry had overlooked an enormous opportunity -- and disprove her suspicion, correct as it turned out, that no one needed a book on the topic. I couldn't.

Why do I share this story? Because I'm not alone. This edited letter is from a reader: "I live in a small city in northeast Louisiana. I've discovered that our town lacks a professional party planner. I would like to start a business planning these events. I'd like to be full-service -- designing personalized invitations, writing thank-you notes, purchasing corporate gifts, coordinating weddings. As a former department-store buyer of fine gifts, china, silver, and bridal items, I know that I have the knowledge and the communication and organizational skills to be a success. I am the mother of four small children and feel this could be something I could do out of my home. How do I get started?"

I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but I'm going to do it anyway. You need straight talk. It sounds like you're in danger of falling into a common trap for stay-at-home parents who would like to keep a foot -- or more -- in the business world: You're conjuring up a business that fits your family needs and uses skills from a former job before you know that there's market for your idea. Go down that road, and you risk far more disappointment than I may deliver now.

First, it may be that your town doesn't have such luxury services because few can afford them. The community might support a service for purchasing corporate gifts, but does your area have enough corporate executives who hire outsiders to do such tasks, rather than asking their secretaries to take care them? (The practice is old-fashioned, but it still happens all the time.) Wedding planning is a common enough service. Why does no one in your town offer it? Put together a survey, create focus groups, or network at the Chamber of Commerce to find out. Ask other professionals who serve the market -- say caterers or florists -- whether there's demand for these services.

Second, I'd be wary of trying to develop a business that offers services from A to Z. Focusing on a niche is usually more effective. Who do you want to serve? Corporations probably won't turn to a wedding specialist. Few women will retain your services to coordinate their wedding if they believe that you specialize in corporate gifts.

Last, I hope that you plan to have child care for those four children of yours. You aren't going to be able to coordinate a wedding with four children in tow. Choosing a concept that appeals to you and matches your skills is a good starting point. Now, make sure the clients are out there.


Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at AZ@azriela.com. Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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