What Business to Start? Look in the Mirror

So you want to start a business, but don’t know what kind? Sure, you can get a list of franchises or ask the experts what are good businesses to start. That works for some people. Lists of businesses to start are easy to find. My advice, however, is don’t look for a list of good businesses. Don’t ask what the big opportunities are. Get a clue. Go look in the mirror. And as you look in that mirror, ask yourself these questions:


  • What do I like to do? How am I different? What is there about me that sets me apart? What excites me? What am I good at?
  • What do I like to do that other people (or companies) want to have done? What do I like to do that people will pay for? What do I like to do that I do better or differently from others who do it?
  • What value can I add? What’s missing? How can I do something better than what’s now available? What can I see about the future that others can’t see?
  • Where can I give value that isn’t there right now?

I’m down on lists because I don’t see the startup process as beginning with some idea that’s on a list, followed by research and putting together a team and developing a plan and starting a business. Instead, I see most good businesses starting with something that the founders believe in, something that they think ought to be done or ought to exist, something that excites them or intrigues them, all of that followed by planning and building a business to make it happen.

Here’s how it goes: you develop the original business plan to establish that your idea is an opportunity. Ideas are a dime a dozen, commonplace, and without any essential value. Opportunities are a subset of ideas. The planning process separates the opportunities from the ideas.

The heart of the business is that trio of identity, market, and focus. A lot of that is about you and what you want to do and what you can do better. And if building the business, I hope you fall in love with the business first. I hope you recognize the need and see how you can fill it. And, I hope you like the vision, know that you want to do it, and discover that you’re excited by it.

Do something you want to do and believe in. That restaurant you’ve always dreamed of, or skiing equipment, or a newsletter … success isn’t based on the idea, it is based on how hard you work at it, how much value you deliver. When somebody close to me wanted to start a graphic arts business, I didn’t say ‘no, don’t, there are a million of them.’ Instead, I said their success would depend on getting customers, providing value, and, in short, working hard.

In the Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki offers a list of ways to generate new business ideas. If nothing else, read his first chapter. Guy talks about getting going, about ideas being generated by impulses like “I want one” and “I can do this better” or “my employer wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do this.” There too, it doesn’t come out of the blue, it starts with you.

In Growing a Business, Paul Hawken shows how a business grows naturally out of the owners and founders doing something they want to do, filling a need they believe should be filled. I recommend it.

To be fair, there are exceptions. Franchise businesses, for example, when they work, are a business formula you pay for and implement, guided and taken by the hand every step of the way. Being a McDonald’s franchisee means you’re a millionaire, it doesn’t mean you like eating or preparing what McDonald’s restaurants serve. You buy a business to run. They tell you how to run it. If it isn’t a set formula and if they don’t give you all you need to know, then it’s a bad deal.
Thanks for asking.

(Note: I posted this on Up and Running several years ago. It’s as valid now as it ever was.) 


  • lucia says:

    Hi i have nothing bt i want to start a bussnes near my location am good in doing peoples hair but no cash to buld up plz help

  • Jackson Leavitt says:

    I think it would be kind of hard to start a business. The hardest part would be finding an idea that would succeed. Once you come up with the idea, I’m sure you could create a more concrete plan, but even then it would take a lot of work to get things going.


  • Tinamarie says:

    Hello All 🙂

    I hope someone can be the one to help me. I currently work for a large utility and have been here for 7 years, however, this type of work does not fulfill my needs internally. I have a business management degree as well as a real estate license that I never used. I am secure and stable in my current career, but for the last 5 years I have been looking for the small business that I can start part-time out of my home and slowly grow it. In the next two years I want to open a salon/bar in the town I live in. But until that day comes, I need to fulfill my urge of getting my small business going.

    I was thinking of cosmetology because I can operate from home, but I would have to go to school for an additional 2 years and pay a good amount. I dont want to do that.

    My husband is starting his contracting business next year, so I was thinking something that can feed off of that?

    Here are the top things that have interested me:
    interior design
    detailed oriented
    boutique shop
    boutique clothing
    a skilled trade that I can take anywhere

    and I would like my own business cards (I dont know why this is important to me, but it is).

  • Ancuta says:

    I think ‘look in the mirror’ is the best advice someone can get when intending to start a business. Successful businesses are always build on visions and ideas their founders believed in and not on recipes or other people advice. Just think about Disney, Ikea, Apple or Amazon to name just a few from the most famous ones…

  • If You Want to Start a Business But Don't Know What Business to Start | Business franchises says:

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  • If You Want to Start a Business But Don’t Know What Business to Start says:

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  • Caleb Page says:

    I couldn’t agree more. For starting a small business, I’d suggest that available resources should be included in this list. Your example of starting a franchise is good for some, but the entry cost to buying a McDonald’s may be prohibitive for some. The intersection of idea, market, and focus is bounded at some point by the resources (financial, capital, human or otherwise) available. Thanks for reposting this timeless advice.

  • Renee Few says:

    Excellent information. It reminds me that I have to go full force in providing the great hnks for the encouragement to move forward with my vision.

  • Garrett Foster says:

    Great article! Your advice to the person who wants to start a graphic design business is spot on. Those three things are so important to remember. It’s nice to be reminded!

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