Every Problem is an Opportunity
William Sahlman: If you view all problems as opportunities, and then you think about ways to re-engineer a process, then I think you find opportunity is absolutely everywhere.
William Sahlman is an entrepreneur and professor. His research focuses on the investment and financing decisions made in entrepreneurial ventures at all stages in their development.
Sahlman has written numerous articles on topics including entrepreneurial management, venture capital and private equity, deal structuring, and the role of entrepreneurship in the global economy. He has published over 150 case studies on entrepreneurial ventures around the world.
Sahlman is Senior Associate Dean for External Relations at Harvard University. He was co-chair of the Entrepreneurial Management, Senior Associate Dean, Director of Publishing Activities, and chairman of the board for Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.
Opportunities come in many different forms. So, for example, I could get someone to answer a series of questions, like “What’s the worse customer experience you have?” And could you go through systematically and talk about what was wrong with that customer interaction and ways in which we might improve it? So if you start with a problem, indeed, if you view all problems as opportunities, and then you think about ways to re-engineer a process, then I think you find opportunity is absolutely everywhere.
The story I like to tell is of a friend who happened to be in the toy business for a period of time and had developed something called a spin pop, which was a battery driven lollypop. Now, this is a remarkably American product, for Americans so lazy that they need a battery and electric motor to turn the lollypop in their mouth.
But at any rate, he sold the company and then grew relatively restless and went off to Wal-Mart to look for an opportunity. And what he discovered was there was a huge gap between manual toothbrushes and electric toothbrushes. One sold for 4 bucks, the other sold for 80 bucks. And he said, “Well, what if I could take in what I learned in making a battery-operated lollypop and turn that into a battery-operated toothbrush.” It seems slightly ironic when you think about it.
But at any rate, what he was able to do was use his contacts with the Chinese manufacturer, to use his knowledge of how to distribute in mass markets through big retailers, to create a product originally called Dr. John Spin Brush, but eventually purchased by Proctor & Gamble and then renamed the Crest Spin Brush. At its peak, P&G was selling 425,000 of those toothbrushes a day. So you can look for gaps, look for places where consumers might not be buying something because it’s too expensive and too complicated.
As Clay Christiansen would say, “The existing players are on a sustaining path.” And then you come in with a product - that electric toothbrush people think is a toy, but which is at a price point where non-consumers will actually embrace it, and then you begin to improve that product over time, actually to the point where the product becomes directly competitive with the high end product of a typical electric toothbrush.
So I think there are lots of things you can learn about gap identification, problem identification, things you might want to have that aren’t out there on the market. It’s absolutely learnable and I think teach-able.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
Science and the squishiness of the human mind. The joys of wearing whatever the hell you want, and so much more.
- Why can't we have a human-sized cat tree?
- What would happen if you got a spoonful of a neutron star?
- Why do we insist on dividing our wonderfully complex selves into boring little boxes
Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.
- America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
- Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
- Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.
- How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
- To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
- The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.