Have you ever noticed how some of your best business ideas come when you’re traveling? While you’re no longer going through the motions in the well-worn grooves of your old habits, all five of your senses can be engaged in absorbing the different ways things get done.
I have found traveling to new places (the farther the better) and actively observing local business models to be the best source of new business ideas. Spending the month of July in France and England inspired this list of the Top 5 Ways to Find Your Next Million-Dollar Idea:
1. Look at how they mash up business models.
On the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, I visited a sports superstore that was a combination of an REI, Dick’s and the best specialty bike shop I have ever seen. There were tennis ball machines ready to launch balls on a mini-court for customers testing different rackets, camping gear set up so the kids could scurry into all different sizes of tents, a practice driving range to help golfers choose their new clubs, and a mini soccer pitch complete with practice nets.
In North America, we see the same retail concept for sports stuff again and again: you buy your camping gear at REI and your new Trek from your local specialty bike shop. Visiting Decathlon in France made me realize, however, that there might be a market for a sports superstore in North America. It also made me think about other retail categories ripe for a mash-up…
Could you jam together two good store concepts to come up with one great one?
2. Look at their business models for “consumables.”
Nobody in southern France goes to Starbucks. Given my raging coffee addiction, this immediately seemed problematic. The house we rented didn’t even have a drip coffeemaker. All it had was a Tassimo single-serve espresso maker. Any port in a storm, I thought and bought a package of Tassimo cartridges. I quickly became reliant on the Tassimo coffee. Each week, I bought a new 24-pack of coffee cartridges, and now I have swapped one addiction for another.
In North America, Starbucks is so ubiquitous, it’s hard to imagine getting espresso anywhere else. The Tassimo cartridges made me think about other consumable business models—razor blades, gas, toner cartridges—that may be ready for a shake-up.
3. Look at where they sell stuff.
My hotel in England had a mobile phone charging stand. Regardless of your phone model, you could insert £1 into the machine and get a few minutes of juice. While I have seen these stands in some North American airports, I had never seen them in a hotel, but this seems an ideal place to make them available.
Could you find a new place to sell your old stuff?
4. Look at how they save energy.
I needed a “big” car there to lug a family of four (and all of the gear I would end up buying at Decathlon), so I got an Audi A3 Sportback. While most North Americans would think of the A3 as a small car, Europeans consider it a large family car. It has a small but capable 1.6 liter turbo diesel motor that got me 1,000 kilometers (about 620 miles) per tank.
Instead of using air-conditioning, the homes in Provence are equipped with heavy shutters over the windows and doors, which owners close at sun-up and open at sundown. Protecting the glass from the sun keeps the house cool. Although the daytime temperature reached 90-plus degrees throughout July, thanks to the shutters, our house remained comfortable for sleeping.
5. Look at how they package stuff.
In North America, I take energy gels—single-serve packets of sugary syrup—when I go for a long run. They keep my legs moving but can play havoc on my stomach, so I often can get only half a gel down. But once I open a Powershot, there is no way to reseal it, so half is wasted. In Europe, I found energy gels packaged with a resealable top.
Could you repackage what you sell to make it more convenient for consumers?
On your next vacation, keep your eyes peeled for the way the locals do things. Their different approaches to everyday life may just give you an idea you can bring home—and take to the bank.
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John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. He writes a blog about building a valuable – i.e. sellable – company atBuilt to Sell.