TBA picWe often hear, “Follow your passion” as the universal prescription for happiness and success. But we say “Follow your opportunity, passionately” as a more plausible road to success. Opportunities abound! The key is to find a way to take advantage of them using your passion. So how do you recognize opportunity and pursue it passionately? And more importantly, how do you achieve sustainable success?

Those were the questions we were asked to address at Rowan University in Southern New Jersey where we spoke last week to students of entrepreneurship.

To recognize opportunity you have to first recognize a need. What’s missing? Where’s the void? What problem needs to be solved? By starting with the problem, you alert your brain to look beyond the superficial and search your experience for keys. You begin to look for and not just at. Sometimes the solution is staring you right in the face but you don’t see it, no one does, because we have accepted the situation as not being improvable, or we are stuck in the rut of things that have been done in the past.

There was a time, not too long ago when people had to carry their luggage everywhere. No one had thought of putting wheels on luggage even though the technology was there for over a century. Likewise students used to hold all their books in their arms. No one had yet thought of a backpack for school supplies. For a decade there were no convertible cars until Lee Iacocca introduced the Ford Mustang. Similarly a decade past with no serious science fiction movies until George Lucas brought back the genre with Star Wars. These needs were there all along, but only a few of us noticed and responded to the opportunity.

We saw opportunity in a debt that wasn’t even our own. We took over the debt owed to a grape grower by a bankrupt winery, and negotiated a trade for bulk wine and bottling services in lieu of funds. Then we had to develop a brand to monetize the goods and services to pay the debt. We asked questions of everybody who would touch our product from the retail buyer to the clerk, from the forklift operator to the bottling line manager, and from the customer to the community. What should it look like? How should it taste? Who was the consumer? How did it get to them? We listened and Barefoot Wine was born. But wine wasn’t our passion. Conservation, education and human rights were our passions. So we supported non-profits that championed those goals to get the word out on our products.

Pursuing an opportunity passionately requires a mindset of humility, discovery and adventure. Ask tons of questions and listen closely to the answers. Don’t give up on your passion, but instead, find a way to incorporate it into your opportunity. We wove support for hundreds of worthy causes into the very fabric of our brand which ultimately made it into a success, and an icon.

Sure, our product had to be a superior value from a mercantile perspective (price, quality, availability and positioning). But what really sustained it and grew it was the membership of the non-profits we passionately supported who had a social reason to buy it and spread the word. Our passion for their worthy causes actually gave us a marketing advantage. Who would have guessed?

So we challenged the students to look for a need and an opportunity that satisfies that need, ask lots of questions, and pursue that opportunity with their passion in mind. In other words, follow your opportunity passionately!