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This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

One thing I love about living in Waterloo, Ont. is that I am sitting in the middle of a startup hotbed. Every time I meet with an entrepreneur, the first thing I want to hear is the story behind their company – what their startup is all about and how it creates value for whom. Founders often provide me with a detailed explanation about their company's product or service but I often have to wait for an explanation of the value equation – and sometimes it never comes.

Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs seem to believe that a killer product or service is the key to startup success. However, one thing I've learned is that, if you want sustainable success for your new venture, it's better to build on a killer opportunity.

The problem with focusing on an idea instead of an opportunity

Don't get me wrong: focusing on creating that "killer app" isn't a bad strategy – unless you're hoping for sustainable success. By focusing your startup on an idea – the product or service you offer – rather than an opportunity you risk becoming boxed in. What happens if your product or service becomes passé (think Kodak and film)? If that product or service defines who you are in the market's mind then you may just find your company becoming passé as well.

The better approach is to be opportunity-focused with the product or service you offer today being your current response to a long-term opportunity. Building your firm and brand around an opportunity gives you the flexibility to change what you offer should the opportunity evolve – it increases your company's chances for longevity.

What exactly is an "opportunity"?

While an opportunity often begins with a deep customer need or societal problem, an opportunity requires more. Author Pam Henderson tells us that an opportunity exists when there is an ability to meet a compelling need or fill a gap and the surrounding ecosystem brings everything together in a way that facilitates the realization of value.

For example, a problem may exist but, until a certain technology that can address the problem in a cost-effective way is available, the opportunity isn't really there. However, even when the ability to solve a big problem exists, if the environment prevents the matching of the solution with the need, opportunity remains elusive.

Opportunity exists at the intersection of a deep customer need or problem, the ability to actually meet that need, and the surrounding environment. When conditions are right, leveraging an opportunity should translate into value creation.

Here are some essential steps for finding and leveraging the big opportunities that exist around us.

Discover deep human needs and sustainable trends then identify stubborn problems

There is value to be found in solving the persistent problems associated with deep human needs or sustainable trends. For example, the deep human desire for independence paired with trends such as an aging population, the rise of complex chronic disease, and the fact that families live further apart creates a series of problems people need to solve. What big, high-value problems can you identify for a specific target customer group? This is a good place to start when hunting for opportunities.

Understand the current and future landscape for the levers of opportunity

What will it take to address that high-value problem you've discovered? What products and services will do the job? What resources, tools, technologies, knowledge, capabilities, networks, and other tools are required to deliver them? Are they available today and can they be leveraged cost-effectively? If they don't exist today, will they exist tomorrow? What will it take to bring them on line? Will the current physical, political, policy, business, and economic environment enable the creation of an opportunity? If not, what will it take to change the situation? These are just some of the questions you need to answer to assess whether an opportunity truly exists.

Decide whether you need to create, seize, or pass on an opportunity

When it comes to opportunity potential you have three options: seize it, create it, or move on. Sometimes opportunities are created organically – the stars all align and voila there's an opportunity staring you in the face. The key is to recognize it and run with it (assuming the financials all add up). More frequently, opportunities require a little orchestration. Occasionally all the elements are there and they just need someone to bring them together and create some magic.

Other times two of the three levers exist but someone needs to create the remaining lever to capture the opportunity. Sometimes an opportunity exists but it just can't be leveraged profitably. When this occurs it might be best to move on to seek out a different opportunity. Usually, unlocking the potential of a high-value opportunity requires the entrepreneur to make a decision and take the right action.

Change what you do and offer as the opportunity changes

The interesting thing about opportunities is that they change over time. So when you build your business around an opportunity rather than a product or service, evolution isn't a problem. You just change how you address the opportunity and your customers will get it because you're a high-value problem solver in their eyes. Don't get me wrong, evolving your business isn't always a snap – it requires an ability to identify the change in opportunity potential and develop new skills. All I know is that it's easier to survive the ups and downs if you are opportunity-oriented rather than idea or product or service focused.

Is your startup built on an idea or an opportunity? Nether focus is wrong of course – just be sure to select the right one based on your vision and goals for value creation and the longevity of your business.

Sandy Richardson (@collabstrategy) is president of strategy execution and strategic planning firm Collaborative Strategy, and the author of Business Results Revolution.

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