Does opportunity knock or slip in through the back door?

Posted on March 16, 2015

Taking advantage of opportunity is a lot harder than it sounds. Opportunities rarely come wrapped like beautiful presents. In fact, there are times when opportunity looks suspiciously like a setback or failure. I have confidently declared something to be a bad idea only to reflect on it later and realize it was actually closer to genius.

One thing I like to remember when an opportunity slips past me is that even the best opportunity seekers periodically get things wrong. Bessemer Venture Partners (BVP) is gracious enough to share their misses on their “anti-portfolio” web page. If you’re ever kicking yourself for missing out on a great thing, just wander over to that page. It’s not so much that misery loves company, as it is a good reminder that even the experts periodically get it wrong. To give you an example of one of their misses – they turned their nose up at Google.

So how do you know when opportunity is staring you in the face… or even quietly sitting next to you? Mark Rice and Gina Colarelli O’Connor describe opportunity recognition as, the match between an unfulfilled market need and a solution that satisfies that need. Seems straightforward enough right? The challenge is that unfulfilled needs are often no easier to identify than opportunity, especially if you don’t have a deep understanding of your market. So, starting with what you know, is the best way to hone your ability to spot an opportunity.

You have to have incredible knowledge of your market or area of interest. Imagine what your response would be if someone offered you shares in LinkedIn, Pinterest or even Facebook if you didn’t know anything about social media. How could you assess your options? How would you know what might happen? Even if you did know about social media – things change. BVP said no to Facebook because “MySpace” was already in existence.

The challenge of opportunity is that it can be shrouded in risk or the possibility of failure. Even if you get past the fear factor that risk imposes, you might still only partially recognize value. Something might seem like a good concept, but the application of the idea is limited. Only after new perspectives are discovered does the full potential for the original idea become fully realized. The story of the post it note illustrates that well.

Given all the variables at play, what kinds of questions can you ask yourself? For me it begins with the basics:

  • What are the advantages?
  • What are the disadvantages?
  • How long will it take to come to fruition?
  • Do I have the time it takes to make this work?
  • What variations on the idea can be considered?

The thing about asking questions about ideas when they are presented to you is that you are not only continuing to learn, but you are also assessing your environment. Opportunity sometimes knocks, but for those times when it slips in the back door, open-minded curiosity is your best ally against missing out on a good thing.


18 responses to “Does opportunity knock or slip in through the back door?

  • Janet M says:
    March 16, 2015 @ 09:20 am

    Yes. One thing that has always stuck with me from my days in economic development is that “an idea does not a business make.” Figuring out how to operationalize successfully is the key.

  • Debra, in this day and age an important issue is probably to listen to everybody that approaches you with an idea. Am personally very quick to dismiss something as a bad idea. Someone approached me recently and I almost declined to see her. Instead decided to be open to all opportunites, have a meeting with her and listen to what she had to say. Most likely I made the right decision. Time will tell

    • Good for you for taking the time to listen. I’ve second guessed myself a few times lately and given someone a chance and ended up in situations where people surpassed my expectations and delivered beyond what I could have hoped. It’s those situations that have prompted me to remember how important curiosity is.

  • I’m in the middle of making opportunities for myself right now. I figure I have no other choice since I really don’t want to go back to the classroom. Time will tell, but it’s clear when I look back on my life, all the things I chased were opportunities I played a great effort in making happen.

    • Good that you know your strengths. When you said that you were in the middle of making opportunities for yourself, I thought, as an author, that’s what you always do. 🙂

  • In my experience I think the thing I have seen most is that people that don’t really listen; don’t ask about implementation or logistics. Even if it is being done (as in MySpace) could it be done better or with a twist that sets it above? It’s good to know that even the experts miss. Ther’s a lot to be learned from that!

    • There is an old saying, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we speak.” Unfortunately, I think your perspective on people’s reluctance to listen is regularly true. Listening is all too often the biggest challenge to seeing opportunity.

  • In my experience, opportunities have usually arisen from what seemed like a setback, or in some cases a complete disaster (ie losing your corporate job and having to recreate yourself when you are 50+). But who knew where it would lead me and all the wonderful things that have happened between then and now. I try to look at “setbacks” in a whole new light now. 🙂

    • Yes, Susan, this has been my experience too. I’m leery of the opportunities that seems to arise right in front of me out of the blue. The ones that peek out of the setbacks just feel more doable to me somehow.

      • Hahahahahaha… I agree that setbacks are often a good breeding grounds for opportunities, but I’m not sure if I’ve completely written off the ones that walk up and give me a kiss on the cheek.

    • So true Susan. I think we get preoccupied with the status quo when things are going well and then become so risk averse that we miss the very opportunities that will create a safety net.

  • Too often for me, I completely miss everything around me cause my mind is lost to other thoughts.

  • Debra — I’m probably one of those people who wouldn’t jump on a new solution-with-no-problem if it hit me in the head. I think it takes a lot of creativity, and guts, to try the unknown. As you point out, even companies like BVP rhat have armies of researchers don’t always get it right. Yet there is always money to be made. Remember “pet rock?” That was, without doubt, one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever seen that made a ton of money. You bought a rock in a box to pet. What?! More seriously, Steve Jobs did not conduct market research. He believed that consumers don’t know what they want. Did any of us think we needed an iPhone or iPad?

  • Debra — I’m probably one of those people who wouldn’t jump on a new solution-with-no-problem if it hit me in the head. I think it takes a lot of creativity, and guts, to try the unknown. As you point out, even companies like BVP who have armies of researchers don’t always get it right. Yet there is always money to be made. Remember “pet rock?” That was, without doubt, one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever seen that made a ton of money. You bought a rock in a box to pet. What?! More seriously, Steve Jobs did not conduct market research. He believed that consumers don’t know what they want. Did any of us think we needed an iPhone or iPad?

  • Thx for this insightful post, Debra. I learned a long time ago that things happen (or don’t!) for a reason. That allowed me to stop pushing for something that just wasn’t happening. I’m much happier and content now that I just let things unfold organically.

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