Entrepreneurs Should Find and Fill a Need

In search of a consumer need worthy of a startup

More than 50 years have passed since Corning Inc. launched CorningWare in 1958, its most important consumer product since the 1915 introduction of Pyrex brand bakeware. With pre-World War I homemakers marveling at the concept of baking their cakes in clear glass, Corning believed that 1960s housewives were sure to spark to its newest ceramic advance. Imagine being able to fry in a beautiful opaque dish placed directly on an open flame. Made of space-age Pyroceram, CorningWare astonished saucer-eyed housewives with its ability to move directly from freezer to flame without cracking because of extreme temperature changes. At the end of this shocking journey, CorningWare could be conveniently brought, in all its appealing whiteness, directly to any formal table setting.

Corning’s veteran marketing director assigned me, a newly arrived Wharton MBA, to accompany him on the test-marketing phase. Left on my own, I immediately set off to prepare all the materials. I checked off dozens of items—audio-visuals, easels, fact sheets—everything needed for our introductory meetings with department-store buyers and housewares distributors. With only one week remaining before our departure for the New England test area, I sat him down for a run-through and tightened my buttocks while awaiting his response.

His appraisal of my efforts came as a surprise.

“For years, my father has been deeply supportive of the Boy Scouts of America,” he began. “Every Christmas he sends the same card. It features a Boy Scout on the cover.”

Where he was he headed, I had no idea.

“The words inside never change,” he continued. “They say, ‘Find a need and fill it.’ ” I relaxed when he added, “That’s exactly what you’ve done here. You’ve filled our need for organization.”

I’ve carried those words with me for a lifetime and have tried to instill them in my children and co-workers. They originated with Ruth Stafford Peale, wife of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Whether in the form of an acronym—FANAFI!—or in their unassailable six-word counsel, they clearly demand positive action. First, find! Next, fill!

Ruth Stafford Peale, wife of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, who coined the phrase, "Find a need and fill it."

Ruth Stafford Peale, wife of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, who coined the phrase, “Find a need and fill it.” Photo credit: National Council of Churches.

Of the two commands, finding the unfilled need may offer the harder challenge for Wharton entrepreneurs. After Corning, I started using a technique called “problem detection,” a marketing research method developed to uncover consumer needs for General Electric, my ad agency’s client. Identify a problem, the theory went, and you’ve taken the first step toward finding a need.

Sometimes the problem we discovered was tangible—dials too large for a woman’s hand. Sometimes the problem was intangible—difficulty in cleaning. Other times the problem was latent—consumers didn’t know they had the problem until they were offered a solution.

It was a latent problem that brought out the need for the GE smoke detector. Research showed that people had a serious fear of a home fire breaking out at night. But the problem lay hidden until they saw a solution in the form of an affordable smoke- detecting device.

Discovering a problem that leads to a consumer need is a sure way for an entrepreneur to start a business. When, like the smoke detector, the problem is serious and frequent, the chances for success increase substantially. And if another marketer isn’t currently filling the need, well, Wharton entrepreneurs have a business on their hands.

 

 

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