Some Ideas for a Natural Enterprise

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In my writings on how to start your own Natural Enterprise, I’ve stressed the importance of starting with the search for unmet needs, and outlining a research process for doing so.

But I acknowledge that this is a complex process, and one that may require a lot of iterations. It may make sense for you to start by finding a group of partners with complementary skills that you’d love to work with, and then search collectively for unmet needs that you can collectively address.

If you’re like me, you’re always on the lookout for unmet needs. For example, I keep hearing from people that the number one cause of laptop failures is the power cord and the power supply, and in particular the connection between the two. This is a high stress point, with cords constantly being pulled, bent and folded, and that flimsy connection at the back of the machine takes the brunt of this stress. It’s a terrible design, and a crucial unmet need. Why hasn’t anyone come up with a solution for this, like moving the connector inside the back of the machine, or using a more robust connection method than friction-fit?

If you’re not like me, you may not know where to begin to look for unmet needs. In that case, Wayne Roberts and Susan Brandum’s 1995 book Get a Life may be useful in provoking your thinking (it’s apparently out of print, but you can find used copies online, as I did, and Roberts is now working as a food security expert and can be reached by e-mail through his work as coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council.

The book identifies categories of unmet needs that can be addressed through sustainable enterprises, and provides real-life examples of each. Here are the categories in a nutshell, along with a few examples of each (some of the terminology is mine, where the terms didn’t exist in 1995):

  • Biomimicry enterprises: Those that entail technologies and processes that copy nature. Examples: chlorine-free swimming pools, natural water purification and sewage treatment, natural healing, natural childbirth and natural physiotherapy, therapeutic foods and herbs, non-toxic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, fibres and cleaners, composting,rediversified plant seed distribution, natural construction (including “bringing the outdoors inside”). Don’t forget to read Janine Benyus’ book for lots more biomimicry ideas.
  • Cost-reduction enterprises: Those that allow consumers to reduce costs without reducing quality and durability, and without offshoring jobs. Examples: energy and water conservation projects self-financed by the savings they bring (e.g. solar water preheaters), coordinating employee commutes for large corporations (organizing carpools etc.), urban planning that reduces traffic congestion, buying co-ops, wood and furniture recycling, arranging discounts for the poor to fill otherwise-empty seats at events, work-sharing programs that prevent layoffs and give employees more time to do things for themselves.
  • Holistic enterprises: Those that conveniently combine two or more products, services or advantages, ý la Support Economy. Examples: holistic community development instead of just housing developments, moving stuff underground so that “the land can be used twice”, tree-planting that improves soil, beauty, and reduces noise, green tax-shifting programs (reduce taxes on good things and increase them on ‘bads’ at the same time), enabling additional use of schools, public utility space etc. e.g. by making walls reconfigurable.
  • Cradle-to-cradle enterprises: Those that recycle everything back to its origin, so there is no pollution and no waste in the process. Examples: energy cogeneration, biomass energy, permaculture projects, reusable and recyclable non-tree paper, non-factory organic farming, unprocessed natural foods. McDonough’s book Cradle to Cradle has more ideas and examples.
  • Problem prevention enterprises: Those that help prevent the occurrence of problems instead of trying to fix them later. Examples: preventative medicine, renewable energy and other global warming alleviation, flood prevention, pollution prevention.
  • Giving-stuff-away enterprises: Those that use alternative business models to make money ‘at the edges’ while giving the public something valuable free. Examples: The Web is replete with examples, such as file-sharing, free apps and self-help services, but some more prosaic ones include giving away free compact fluorescent bulbs, paying people to read to children and the aged, offering free exercise and health programs to employees, providing free public transport and pools of bicycles to citizens. Seth Godin is the guru of giving-away-free. 
  • Energy-saving enterprises: Those that save non-renewable resources and/or produce more energy with less. Examples: Light pipes, solar walls, recycled-material pellets for fireplace inserts, animals to keep grass ‘mowed’, mechanical devices that replace electrical ones, rooftop gardens, ‘green’ audits.
  • Community-focused enterprises: Those that decentralize production, delivery and service to the local community. Examples: Unique diverse organic fruits & vegetables, bed & breakfast facilities, local meeting facilities, continuous (renewable) logging, local renewable energy co-ops, local delivery services, straw-bale home construction, local information services, used goods swap services, microcurrencies, local eco-tourism (both adventures and educational).
  • Peer production enterprises: Those that involve the customer in the design, manufacture and marketing of the product. This wasn’t around in 1995, but if Get a Life were reissued it would be an additional idea category. Read Umair Haque for the opportunities in this area.

The thing to keep in mind, before you get too enamoured with any of these ideas, is that there is a reason why someone isn’t already doing these things. It’s essential to understand what that reason is, and to ensure you have a way to meet the need, that gets around this reason. The reason may be simple (e.g. not enough money in it for the big players, so the niche is there waiting) or difficult (e.g. the economics aren’t there and won’t be until some challenging improvements in the technology have been developed).

Then you’re back to the basics: Who would you go into this business with? Do you and these partners, between you, have the skills, knowledge and resources to deliver, with no significant overlap in competencies? Is this something you and your partners would love doing? Have you done your research to prove that there is actually an untapped need here? Is the market ready, and can it afford to pay for what you offer?

Getting clear and positive answers to all these questions takes time, patience, and hard, face-to-face work. If you’re put off by this challenge, trust your instincts — perhaps you’re unconsciously perceiving real problems that you haven’t yet articulated, or perhaps this isn’t really what you want to spend a lot of your future waking hours doing after all. If you have the Gift and Passion to provide a particular product or service, the worst that can happen is that your research will prove that you’re too far ahead of the market, and that if you had charged ahead with this idea it would probably have failed. The best thing that can happen is that the research will be a labour of love, you’ll discover customers who love your idea so much they’ll do your marketing for you, pre-order and maybe even pre-pay to be first in line, and freeyou forever from a life of wage slavery.

It all starts with paying attention to what people need, and with one good idea.

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3 Responses to Some Ideas for a Natural Enterprise

  1. Derek says:

    With regards to laptop power supplies, never had a problem with any of my IBM Thinkpads, but Apple has a new magnetic connector that just unsticks when pulled/yanked too hard. As always, buying lowest common denominator hardware from a company like Dell or Compaq is not going to get you innovations any time soon.Anyways, back to the complex task of building a community in my own backyard.

  2. Jason says:

    One of the tools out there to uncover reasons why a need hasn’t been met and how to meet it is TRIZ, an inventive problem solving methodology. It takes more than a weekend learn but it is effective.

  3. Mike says:

    Dave, some of this, in particular cradle-to-grave production, is covered in Bruce Sterlings _Shaping Things_, which if I remember correctly you dissed some time ago…

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