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Opportunity Recognition: At the heart of entrepreneurial thinking

The last couple of days at the Winter Olympics have featured on of my favorite of all sports events: the bobsled! And the timing is fortuitous, because bobsledding provides a great example of entrepreneurial thinking that I discuss in my book, The Entrepreneurial Muse: Inspiring Your Career in Classical Music, which comes out from Oxford in a week (!).

You see, a key trait that all entrepreneurs possess and that would-be entrepreneurs must develop is the ability to recognize opportunities. And the history of bobsledding is a fun illustration of opportunity recognition at its finest.

Ever since the Olympics came to my native upstate New York in 1980, I’ve been fascinated by bobsledding. I love the speed and excitement, the precision with which the sleds must be steered to gain the most speed – but also avoid disaster. I’m also fascinated by the tracks themselves: how are they made and maintained? And how did this thrilling (and dangerous) sport develop in the first place?

During the 2014 Olympics, I decided to find out more about bobsledding: how did this come about, how long has it been around, and where did it originate? It turns out that in the alpine resort towns of late 19th-century Switzerland, toboggans had become very popular – so much so that they were a nuisance: folks were racing them, often careening through city streets, taking out pedestrians or colliding with carriages in the process. Clearly something had to be done. The first solution was to design a steering mechanism, and while that helped avoid some mishaps it made riding the sled even more exciting and popular. The calamity continued.

Then an enterprising hotel owner in St. Moritz named Caspar Badrutt had a thought: what if he built a special track for “bobsleighs” that would contain the sleds? This would both allow them to attain greater speeds and also avoid running over the townspeople. He went on to build the world’s first halfpipe-style bobsled track, and it was such a hit that not only did his hotel thrive but he built another resort nearby to accommodate the increased tourism. St. Moritz would go on to become one of the great winter resorts in the world, and host several Olympic games.

So what does all of this have to do with music entrepreneurship? Well, for starters, entrepreneurship of any kind hinges on being willing to see things with new eyes, to see something from a perspective that others aren’t. For Caspar Badrutt, he didn’t see bobsleighs as either a civic nuisance or something that should simply be relocated to a less populated area. He saw an opportunity to capitalize on their popularity and the obvious desire for greater speed and competition. How to execute that idea came next, of course, but without that first insight the business success that followed would never have happened.

This ability to see things through one’s own unique perspective is at the very heart of all entrepreneurial thinking, and it’s also something that I’ve found is surprisingly rare amongst classical musicians. We’re so used to thinking of our options as limited to the traditional ones: performing in a venue designed for musical performance, teaching in the academy, private teaching in a home or rented space, and so forth. But there are so many more opportunities – an infinite number of them, really – if we just develop the habit of looking around with an eye for what’s missing and how we can bring our skills and passions to bear on some issue, problem, or situation taking place around us. I call this habit “strategic observation,” and it’s the first step in learning to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. What sorts of things are the people around you doing (or not doing)? What things do they value, and how do they put those values into action? What are some defining characteristics of your community? Are there iconic places or signature events that you might be a part of or tap into in some way? The more you begin to observe your surroundings in this way the more potential opportunities you’ll begin to identify. Some of them will be trivial, others will turn out to be impractical, and still others might simply reside outside your own circle of interests. But every great entrepreneurial venture begins with an idea – usually borne out of observing people and their needs or sensibilities.

One important thing to keep in mind as you work to develop your opportunity recognition skills is that proverbial “box” we’re always being told to think outside of. It’s worth taking a moment to consider this question: what, exactly, is this box?

Well, to be blunt, the box is you.

The “box” consists of all our assumptions and preconceptions, the things that limit our point of view and prevent us from seeing solutions outside what is familiar and comfortable. While the realm of the familiar is a good place to start developing our habit of strategic observation, the next step of identifying an opportunity requires more from us. To develop an opportunity into a successful idea, we may be forced to challenge our assumptions, find out what knowledge we lack, put ourselves in the shoes of our customers – in short, get outside the box of our own perspective and scope of understanding. The “box” limits us to what we already know; oftentimes, the best opportunities reside beyond those limitations.

Understanding the nature of “the box” is particularly important for musicians. Our musical training tends to focus on a very specific set of skills: technical mastery, historical context, analytical insights, and standard performance practice. If you’re lucky, your teacher will also give you some tools for finding your own artistic voice, but even those tools are likely confined to a fairly strict range of acceptable practice. Unless we’re studying jazz (or composition), we’re not likely to be encouraged on a regular basis to improvise, experiment, or break down the barriers of standard practice.

Being aware of the dynamic of our muse, though, can help us solve the “box” problem. Start with exploring, and then actively creating, the conditions under which your best ideas tend to emerge. It might be as simple as making the time to take a walk by yourself for at least 30 minutes every day. Maybe it’s yoga. Meditation. Working out. Cooking. Whatever it might be for you, find a way to nourish your muse, to provide the conditions under which it best speaks and can be heard. Give yourself the time and mental space to free-associate – and break yourself of the habit of rejecting things out of hand as “too stupid” or telling ourselves, “That would never work.” Learn how to let your mind wander, and see which ideas stick with you.

The more you develop the habit of observation, the more you begin to see that you are surrounded by unmet needs and potential opportunities. You begin to see your world as one of abundance as opposed to scarcity. It’s a process that not only serves to continually stir the pot of our creativity, it can be quite fun as well!

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