Great ideas in uncommon places

Struggling to come up with a great business idea? The answer might be easier than you think!

 

I was 12 years old and eager to make money for the new shock-resistant Sony Discman that had recently come out at Future Shop (yes, I'm dating myself here). Unfortunately, money isn't something a 12-year-old typically has and I wanted it bad so I could listen to the new Dance Mix 93'!

As the youngest of the family, my older brother passed the torch and it was now my duty to shovel the driveway each time there was a snowfall. Anyone who has spent a winter in Ottawa knows the Ottawa Valley rarely gets the light fluffy snow you see in the movies. I wish! Ottawa is known for two types of weather in the winter: thick, heavy, wet snow, or, freezing rain and ice. Oh yes, it sucks. 

Motivated by my love of music and wanting that Sony Discman more than anything, I decided to start my own snow shovelling business by going door-to-door on snow days and offering to shovel driveways for $20 a pop. Business was ok, but I often found myself beaten to the job by other kids doing the same thing. It takes so long to shovel one driveway by the time I had finished two or three most people had already done it themselves or hired another kid from the block. At this rate, I was going to have to work YEARS before getting that Discman.

When Spring came I thought long and hard about this dilemma until I finally managed to come up with a solution. 

Fast-forward to September. The days began to shorten and school had returned. With winter only a few months away I spent an afternoon going door to door in my neighborhood. With the help of my Father (and our first ever Windows computer!) I typed a contract for each client that ensured their exclusivity for the year. In exchange, I guaranteed that their driveway would be cleaned no later than 9 am, and as such, I charged them an annual flat fee of $250 ($150 upon signing and $100 due in February should they be happy with my service.)

This was no-doubt a gutsy move for a 12-year-old; how the heck was I ever supposed to have all these driveways cleared by 9 am when it took nearly half an hour to clear just one?! Throughout my months of summer brainstorming I had come up with a solution, and my clients happily signed up.

Praying for a mild winter it was anything but. As early as late November the snow began to fall. Our first big storm of the season rolled in and I awoke to find our street blanketed in nearly one foot of snow! I laced up my boots and headed out with my shovel to start working on my first driveway. I was an early riser but as soon as the other kids on the block noticed me they quickly followed suit.

Fortunately for me, as they began knocking on doors they quickly realized there was no business to be had since I had locked all the neighbors into exclusivity agreements two months prior. 

The other kids quickly became discouraged. Having anticipated this frustration I used it to my advantage and was now in a position to offer the other kids the opportunity to work for me at a rate of $10 per driveway. I held all the cash and called all the shots. I could now sit back and watch the other kids fulfill the work on my shovelling agreements, and the best part: I got my Discman! 

The story goes on into the following year as I expanded the business, but I'll save that for another time. The key lesson here is to realize that no matter how small or niche your business may seem there’s almost always a way to optimize and scale your model.

You might think to yourself, “but I don’t have an MBA or any experience in the business world. There’s no way I could ever start my own company.” Everyone is skilled at something, even if it’s something you might not yet realize. 

 

Can you walk? Do you like animals? – Start a dog walking business. 

Do you enjoy knitting? – Create a series of instructional YouTube videos and monetize your channel with advertising. 

Can you push a lawnmower? – Start a landscaping company. 

Do you have a pickup truck? – Offer to dispose of peoples old junk. 

 

There are literally endless options out there and don’t worry if you don’t think your skills are mainstream, niche is the new big.

No matter how crazy or unique your idea might seem I can almost guarantee there are other people out there with a similar interest or looking for a solution to the same problem. 

eBay started as a place to sell unique collectibles, quickly growing into one of the world largest online marketplaces. Facebook started as a way for university students to connect with classmates–we all know how that turned out!


Key takeaway: Think about the simple tasks you perform on a daily basis then ask yourself if it can be replicated and scaled into a working business model. The results might just surprise you!