For 19 years, Kim Watt-Senner worked as an RCMP officer in Kamloops, B.C. While taking notes and collecting evidence at sudden-death crime scenes, she'd often worry about the family left behind, and how they'd deal with handling the deceased person's estate while coping with their grief.
"It's hard, planning a funeral and dealing with all the effects at the same time as going through this kind of trauma. I'd often check in on them later to see if they needed anything," she recalls.
Then one day, she saw a professional organizer on Oprah Winfrey's show, and suddenly a connection for how her professional work could lead to a new entrepreneurial niche clicked: to become an organizer herself, offering a service to help grieving families in the aftermath of a family member's death.
About three years ago, she began researching what would eventually become Everything Organized , a professional organizing service that specializes in what she calls bereavement estate liquidation: separating keepsakes from junk, auctioning off valuables and cleaning up a home to become ready to sell.
"Nobody had been doing what I wanted to do. And I'd never owned my own business, so I was starting from scratch all the way around," she says.
Getting a business idea on the job like Ms. Watt-Senner did offers advantages. You can see a specific need on the ground and figure out pretty quickly your target market. You also often have existing contacts to tap into, says Andrew Patricio, co-founder of Toronto-based BizLaunch, which runs training sessions for small business owners.
"If you've been in an industry, you understand the challenges some are facing, and that is quite an advantage. Finding a niche this way is a very good idea," he says.
Using the self-discipline she had learned in her police work and tapping into local contacts, including lawyers and funeral homes, Ms. Watt-Senner quickly found a market for her service.
In three years, she leveraged a $10,000 investment into a company that last year brought in $300,000 in revenue. She now has three locations: her home base in Kamloops, as well as offices in Kelowna and Vancouver, and has 50 employees, most of whom work part-time as organizers in the field. She will open a Victoria office this year and has just connected with her first Ontario franchisee, who hopes to launch by the summer.
While Ms. Watt-Senner began her business focused on bereavement liquidation, she has since branched out.
When staff and clients began telling her about the potential of offering her organizational services to help older adults downsize to condos or nursing homes, she created custom packages to serve them. This now makes up about 85 per cent of her business, she says.
Ms. Watt-Senner was also able to leverage her understanding of psychology through her police work, plus several certifications, including through the Professional Organizers in Canada and the I nstitute for Challenging Disorganization to move into help for hoarders.
While such clients don't come along too often, an appearance on TLC's reality TV show Hoarding: Buried Alive, helped raise her company's profile.
Her services run $60 an hour, or $2,000 and up for bereavement packages, and $3,000 and up for downsizing. As for hoarding, she once did a cleanup that took four months, for which she charged $50,000.
Lawyer Felicia Salomon also came up with her business idea while working in a professional role, in her case, at a large insurance company dealing with mergers and acquisitions, human resources, lobbying and other in-house issues.
She found that keeping track of the wide array of federal, provincial and international regulations that her company had to follow was holding the legal team back. "The system we had was not sufficient. So I wound up creating a new system so everyone knew exactly when we were in compliance, and when we weren't."
Colleagues who saw her system — which organized a myriad of complex compliance information in one place — were impressed and suggested it could be spun out as a standalone business product. Her employer was supportive too: if she left, she could take the idea with her.
It was a risk Ms. Salomon was willing to take after nearly two decades as an in-house lawyer. "I wanted a change, I wanted to do something for myself," she says.
Ms. Salomon formed Corporate Responsibility System Technologies Ltd. (which goes by CRSTL Solutions) in 2002. She left her job a few months later and starting selling her software-based system, which organizes compliance information, to corporate clients in the fall of 2003.
Ms. Salomon knew the industry and predicted she'd find eager clients. "The last thing general counsel wants to do is spend time doing compliance when you can do the sexier stuff like mergers and acquisitions," she says. She knew tracking government regulations was an expensive nuisance and large companies would pay to get their compliance information put together by a third party.
Today, the Toronto-based company has 10 employees and annual revenues just under $2-million. Ms. Salomon, who is president and chief executive officer, helps major companies keep track of government rules on everything from food safety to financial reporting to privacy. Her clients are served under year-long contracts that cost about $30,000, much less than it would cost for companies to collect and organize their own compliance information.
Ms. Salomon says her previous position gave her a leg up when it came to understanding her clients, their needs and budget. "I got a real benefit from working in a large corporate environment; how people are motivated and how they learn and how they make decisions."
Like many new entrepreneurs, Ms. Salomon found it a challenge to move from a hierarchical corporate environment to having to do all sorts of things for herself. "The great thing about a big company is someone else does that for you."
Still, for those who might like to take a similar path, finding an entrepreneurial niche from a professional role, Mr. Patricio suggests starting by asking a lot of questions of customers and co-workers to identify needs that might need to be filled. Business niches can come from anywhere, from internal supply chain challenges to unfulfilled needs of consumers, he says.
Ms. Watt-Senner also recommends being extra-aware on the job. "Pay attention to what is going on around you and really look at a situation without emotion," she says.
Good contacts cultivated on the job can be mined later, as well.
Such a path can take you from a traditional career into a work life that's all about you and your own ideas.
"I love it," Ms. Salomon says. "It's been a phenomenal change being stimulated in so many ways. There's been a lot of sleepless nights, but it's been very satisfying."
Special to The Globe and Mail