THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Start me up: How to get your own idea rolling

The majority of people in the U.S. would like to be self-employed, according to Dartmouth economist, David Blanchflower. This makes sense because people who work for themselves are happier than people who work at someone else's company, according to research from Estaban Calvo at the Harvard School of Public Health. However the majority are not self-employed, and one of the most important reasons for this is that people do not know how to come up with an idea for a business.

1. Read all the time, among broad sources and materials.

In a study spanning 60 years of economically underprivileged Harvard graduates, psychiatrist George Valliant concluded (in a great article in the Atlantic) that the only consistent indicator of who will be happy later in life is who did chores as a child.

This information should make almost everyone happy, since obviously just graduating from Harvard isn't enough to guarantee happiness. It also gave me a burst of hope for our new life on the farm. The type of farm we live on has big cash flow and little incomes. I'm not sure if this qualifies us for the Harvard study demographic, but just in case, my kids do a lot of chores. They take care of farm animals and get rewarded with computer time. Not quite American Gothic. But still, maybe a path to happiness.

2. Ask a lot of questions about a lot of businesses.

You know you're an entrepreneur if you can't stop thinking of business ideas. I started thinking of farm business ideas from the day I discovered the farm that I now live on. I asked about margins on pigs, cost of goods for eggs, cash flow during a bad harvest. At first my partner was jarred by my distinctly non-girlfriend date-chat. But once he realized I was thinking of business ideas, he said to me: "I will never go into business with you. Ever. You would be a pain, and I'm already doing enough with you now."

That's when we were only seeing each other once a week so you can imagine how much he doesn't want to go into business with me now that I'm living with him.

Still, I run all my ideas by him, which is another sign of a good entrepreneur. You can't tell if you have a good idea until you tell people. Let others poke holes in your ideas. All ideas have holes in them. The trick with starting a business is telling enough people the idea so you gain enough knowledge about the holes in the idea so you can see if these are the types of holes you want to figure out how to plug.

3. Identify an emotional need in the marketplace.

So I tell the farmer that I'm thinking of starting a business for kids to learn how to farm. "Chores for the summer, happiness for a lifetime!" That's my pitch. I tell him it leverages my marketing strengths because I will play to the parents being sick of parenting: They know they should make their kids do chores, but they don't want to fight about it. I take the fight out of chores.

The farmer says that while marketing is my strength, spending day after day with twenty kids (the number I'd need for profitability) is probably not a strength.

4. No idea is precious. If it's bad, just move to the next one.

So I keep thinking. Then I meet a guy who wants to invest in a company where I sell cheese online. There are lots of small-town cheese makers who don't market nationally. I'm thinking about that. The farmer likes that idea more than the chores one because he doesn't know about cheese so I don't bug him about it. He also likes the cheese model because he sees how my other venture takes investor money and spends it without making the money back. "We'll exit on traffic," I tell him. And he gets scared that he's living with a member of a financial cult.

Another idea I had is to buy a herd of Waygu cattle. The farmer laughs when I tell him, and he says. "You're going to be a rancher?"

"No," I say. "It's marketing. I think there's a consumer market for Kobi beef that's not being addressed. And an investor will buy a herd for me to get started."

"But you know sales and marketing. You don't know cattle. How will you run the company?

I say, "I have a core competency in hooking up with good cattle farmers."


Penelope Trunk has launched new businesses for multinational corporations and she founded two of her own companies. Penelope's most recent book is Brazen Careerist: New Rules for Success (Warner Books).~

Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more.


1 comment

Great article Penelope. I think the biggest hurdle most people face is they don't have the resources or take the time to invest in failing a few times. I've started a dozen "businesses" but only one provides stable income and pure joy to work at every day.

This stuff takes patience, clear expectations and a certain willingness to go beyond your comfort zone.