How to Succeed at Opportunity Discovery

Brant Cooper
7 min readOct 20, 2022

Opportunity discovery is the practice of figuring out where a business can find new growth. It’s the phase that comes before customer discovery and before product idea. (You can actually start with either of those, but one should take a big step backward to learn more about the actual opportunity.)

There are 4 parts to opportunity discovery: 1) Build the “Sandbox”; 2) Observe the Environment; 3) Find the Personas; and 4) Define the Jobs.

Define the Sandbox

The sandbox defines where you play. The universe is a big place and there are, quite literally, an infinite number of opportunities. Many people get mentally blocked by the magnitude of possibilities. While some people naturally seem to be “idea people,” that’s not necessary to be “entrepreneurial.”

If you work for a large organization, you should leverage the company’s existing strengths. It’s likely that senior executives will not want to stray too far from these, and for good reason. It’s very difficult for an existing company to move into completely new spheres. It’s better to buy one’s way in.

Strength might come from technology invention, distribution, raw materials, or dominance in a particular market. A strength could even go back to what the founders’ ethos, the DNA of the company is: what are the values and cultural mentality of the founders that’s still a driving force inside the company.

How to define the sandbox

Guardrails that define your sandbox are established broadly by the markets you’re already in. Thinking of your existing products, consider:

  • Who buys? Who uses? Describe both the company (if selling to businesses) and the titles of users and decision makers. If selling to consumers, describe the private role an individual plays when buying or using, like parent, or soccer-mom, or family “accountant.”
  • What “problem” or “need” is the product addressing? In other words, why do they buy your product?
  • What is the product’s competitive advantage or differentiation and why is it important to the customer?

Say you manufacture refrigerators. You sell commercial refrigerators to food service companies. One user (among many) are restaurant owners. The buyer might be a local owner or manager, or could be a corporate finance person who manages purchasing for restaurant chains. Competitive advantage might be product quality (durability) or green technology.

Once you understand your sandbox from a high level, you now have the ability to track observable trends to evaluate how your markets might evolve.

Adapt to the Changing Environment

In the uncertain world we live in today, existing core markets shift more rapidly than in the past. These changes represent both a threat to market stability and an opportunity to market capture. It’s therefore important to monitor the big wide world for trends like these:

  • Demographics: How are macro changes in age, income, education, etc. likely to occur over the coming years. For example, 4M less people will be college educated in the next year or so compared to pre-pandemic. How will this affect businesses selling to college students?
  • Economics: For example, countries experiencing economic growth will have an emerging middle class. Does this create an opportunity in a different geography?
  • Technology and startups: Where are venture capital investors putting money related to your markets? Is there a signal you should monitor with respect to how needs will be addressed with emerging tech?

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all “innovation” framework. After all, they’re all simply human created models. “All models are wrong; some are useful.

Well-researched trends don’t predict disruption (nothing really does). Rather, trends keep you informed where investment should occur in the short, medium, and long term to maintain your existing markets. They also provide a window into new opportunities as the markets shift. Some examples might be:

  • Boomers are aging out of your market, do you follow them with new products?
  • A new generation is coming into your market, do they have different expectations that require new technology?
  • How will adjacent markets be affected by the coming changes?

Your time, resources, and the complexity of your markets determine the size of your sandbox. Expectations on when you must show progress will determine the time horizons reflecting the changing environment that you will focus on. In other words, if leaders demand near-term return on investment, then you won’t focus on demographic changes coming in 5 years.

The next step is to look deeper into WHO is “in” your sandbox.

Define the Job To Be Done

Demographics are great for understanding macro trends, but poor for evaluating customers’ needs. Traditional market research uses personas to represent an amalgamation of data in effort to humanize data. This is useful when you’re marketing and selling at scale. In a mature market, you’re seeking to capture the attention of a large segment or multiple segments of a particular set of demographics. You can cost effectively target the entire demographic. This is where statistical significance is important, because you’re targeting a large, “random” audience characterized by the demographic.

When you’re seeking to understand the needs, perhaps because it’s a new or changing market, this method is not efficient. Instead, you seek to establish patterns in the market that represent shared needs. Demographics likely play a role, but are not determinant. Think of the group as a community. No matter what each person looks like, or how much money they make, they come together because they all share: Bike to work? Concern for the environment? Fans of fantasy literature? And so on.

Creating a persona

So, considering your sandbox and the time horizon, what patterns exist in the customer data? For example here are people who all need to drill holes:

  • College freshman who want to hang a flat screen TV on their dorm wall.
  • A landscaper who needs to hang a hose holder on an outdoor stucco wall.
  • A surgeon who is reconstructing a knee.
  • A technician drilling for a new water well,

Create a persona for each segment that describes the characteristics, behaviors, desired outcomes and obstacles related to the market. I don’t care if the landscaper reads romance novels, but I do care if she shops at local nurseries.

Define the Jobs

With an h/t to Tony Ulwick for his outcome-driven innovation process, Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) is a disciplined way of establishing customers’ needs in their quest to accomplish something, i.e., a job. A job might consist of several mini jobs, or steps that a persona takes to (hopefully) achieve a desired outcome. Each mini job has a desired outcome. We often glaze over them, because they’re usually small and relatively trivial. For example, nobody wants a hole, but it’s necessary to accomplish specific jobs, like knee surgery.

To perform JTBD, list all the “tasks” out, beginning to end, for a particular persona to accomplish their job. To hang a TV, these might be:

  • Buy a flatscreen TV
  • Acquire the correct hardware for installation
  • Find an assistant
  • Read the installation instructions
  • Assemble required tools
  • Measure, measure, measure
  • Drill holes
  • Mount hardware
  • Mount TV

Finding Opportunities

Opportunities could potentially exist in any one or more of these mini-jobs or steps. How can a step be improved? How can the desired outcome of the step be improved? Should it be? Will changing it actually provide enough value that it will improve your business? Inquiring minds want to know!

To research, you might go visit college dormitories in the Fall and observe teenagers trying to mount TVs. Which steps are messed up? Which are the most frustrating? Using “human-centered design” skills, you want to learn where the biggest problems exist with the current approach AND how important those issues are to the students. It may be that making friends with neighbors renders the issues trivial. It may be that the issue is real and frustrating, but the duration is so short it will never realistically be of concern to the students. Maybe there’s actually no opportunity at all.

The Power of Opportunity Discovery

To summarize, the Opportunity Discovery phase helps you determine the different needs that exist for each customer persona within your sandbox. Once you’ve figured out all of the steps that are being taken in the journey of a particular job, then you hypothesize where you might make an impact leveraging your company’s existing competitive advantages. You test whether these ideas positively impact the job, if the customer cares, and whether there’s a viable business model using rapid experimentation, e.g. Lean Startup.

It should be noted that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all “innovation” framework. After all, they’re all simply human created models. “All models are wrong; some are useful.”

The job being performed by a customer now is addressing an underlying need. Needs don’t change much. Who has the needs and how the needs might be addressed continuously evolve. This is what creates new opportunities.

Your time, resources, and the complexity of your markets determine the size of your sandbox.

All products and services require people to behave in specific ways. Getting like-minded people, i.e. those having similar needs prone to address them in similar ways, is a challenge met by marketers, sellers, product designers, engineers, etc.

Moves The Needle employs the best of various frameworks, e.g., design-thinking, jobs-to-be-done, lean startup, and agile to best address the NEEDS of businesses. The practices vary a bit based on the nature of the uncertainty (product growth, innovation, etc.), the capabilities of the group (technical, marketing, etc.), and the time horizon of desired outcomes (immediate, 3 years, etc.).

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Brant Cooper

NYT Bestselling Author. October 2021: Disruption Proof: Empower People — Create Value — Drive Change