I am fortunate enough to be in a relationship with a woman who says things like “can we watch Happy Gilmore tonight?” I’ve got it pretty good.
Upon hearing this request on Tuesday, however, I found myself unexpectedly worried. Why? Because: Adam Sandler. Adam Sandler? Adam Sandler. What? Yep. Adam Sandler. If you are reading this article based on the title, it means at some point in time you probably loved Adam Sandler. Like me, you may still be in love with him. He gets a lot of criticism these days for the movies he’s been putting out and I always have to sit back silently as he gets ripped apart, because defending him can be a challenge. For example, during a long flight this spring, I watched The Cobbler – a movie from last year where Adam Sandler plays a modern-day cobbler who is able to transform his body into a replica of his customers by putting on their shoes. This is a real movie made by real people who took more than a weekend to create it.
As I contemplated disappointing my girlfriend by avoiding Happy Gilmore (my lady had never seen it), I realized that Adam Sandler is so high up on my mental pedestal that he has nowhere to go but down. I’m comfortable with that. The solution is simple: do my best to avoid his new movies. Then something horrible happened. Over the summer, I watched Billy Madison, Sandler’s break out hit from 1995 that made him every young boy’s hero. I was nine years old at the time. Watching it now, as a sort-of-adult, it made me cry how little I laughed. What happened??? I can accept that his new movies don’t rock my world, but are my fond childhood memories now getting ripped apart??
As my girl waited for me to respond to her request, I was excited but also overtaken by fear: would Happy Gilmore stand the test of time?
You bet! Gilmore was awesome. So awesome that it inspired this blog post.
You’re wondering: what does happy Gilmore have to do with entrepreneurship? He pursues his dream of being a hockey player, works lots of shitty jobs to pay the bills along the way, and after grinding for years putting in the sweat equity, he goes from broke to rich in an impressively short time span. While he doesn’t start a business, his path does resemble the American Startup Dream.
To recap: Happy wants to be a hockey player. He believes his niche in the hockey industry is to have the hardest slap shot and be the toughest fighter. He devotes all his efforts to dominating this niche, and succeeds, but also compromises his other hockey skills… like being able to skate. Much like any startup company, he strives to differentiate himself from the competition: he breaks the glass with his slap shots and holds the record for being the only player to ever take off his skate and stab somebody. But despite working hard and successfully carving out his niche: he fails as a hockey player.
Then Happy gets entrepreneurial. He looks at other ways of monetizing his slap shots. He pivots and starts printing money on the golf course.
How can you apply this observation to improve your own entrepreneurial efforts? I will give you a few concrete examples from my own path and you can see how it translates for yourself.
I started a commercial LED lighting company in 2011. We offered property owners lighting retrofits at zero out of pocket cost: we paid for their LEDs, they saved money on their energy bill, and paid us back a portion of their monthly savings over time. When I started the company, I thought I was selling free money with some nice lights as a kicker. It turns out I actually started a finance company. Oops. Did our lighting customers need our financing? Not really. Our big clients had great credit and had their own financing. The small clients had poor credit and were better off buying the lights outright and enjoying all the savings themselves. We had carved out our niche in the lighting space, attracted a lot of attention, but weren’t closing the big deals we wanted. We were effectively Happy Gilmore on ice, except we hadn’t resorted to stabbing anyone with ice skates to close deals (though we were also based in San Diego where it was hard to find ice skates).
Then one day, we were approached by a fast-growing LED manufacturer that was in need of financing to 1) produce products to meet their growing demand and 2) buy out some of their current shareholders who wanted to exit. And just like that, our financing power was used to perform a leveraged buyout and acquire the manufacturer. The fish had swallowed the whale. Big pivot.
Not every pivot needs to be this monstrous. I have a couple smaller examples too.
For one, I perform stand-up comedy. I’ve successfully carved a niche as being the only stand-up comic who drops the occasional physics lesson into his jokes. But if success is measured in revenue, I’ve been missing out (though I do have my first comedy album coming out next month!). Again, an opportunity presented itself to pivot and become a powerful public speaker who drops the occasional joke into my presentations on physics, lighting, education, and entrepreneurship. And public speaking engagements pay much better than stand-up comedy.
Another good example of applying a niche to a different market is in building Open Source High, a peer-to-peer learning community powered by student-made video lessons. Our goal is to empower teens to help each other learn so they can unplug from the failing educational system. Since I want this platform to be free to the students, monetizing it has been challenging. My way of distinguishing ourselves from the other EdTech platforms has always been by pushing peer-to-peer engagement and our target users have always been high school students. Sure enough, a pivot presented itself in a new market: a university professor asked to use our peer-to-peer platform for their course as a way of encouraging peer-to-peer engagement between their distance learners and their in-class students. The peer-to-peer niche we had carved out for the high school market suddenly had a monetary value in another market we hadn’t considered. With this insight, I’m also exploring ways to bringing our peer-to-peer platform to other communities like entrepreneur and mental health support groups.
So while you are enjoying your Friday, look at your business and assess how you are distinguishing yourself from your competition and how this niche may translate to other markets. You may find solutions to get the immediate revenues you need to grow your business organically rather than seeking out private investments to fast-track your long-term (and unproven) goals. And… go watch Happy Gilmore, it’s just as awesome as you remember it.
P.S. If you are wondering whether I’ve given up on LED lighting, stand-up comedy, or helping high school students… you are wrong. I’m now exploring creative ways of bringing state-of-the-art biotherapeutic LED lighting to hospitals, at zero-out-of-pocket cost to the facility. I continue to get on stage telling physics jokes. I continue to promote our free peer-to-peer platform for high school students. But by looking outside the box for other revenue streams, I am building the financial resources to achieve these goals while maintaining ownership and control of my activities. And I like to believe Happy Gilmore took his golf money to pay for skating lessons. Happy Friday!