How to Spot Trends Before Everyone Else

Last Updated Sep 20, 2011 12:59 PM EDT

My career has been winding and unexpected, but one thing is true: Each turn my career has taken happened because I spotted a trend.

When you think about startups, and subsequent rounds of funding, each pivotal moment of the company usually hinges on an identified trend. So you need to get good at spotting trends. Here are three ways to do it:

1. Notice crowds of unmonetized people.
I played volleyball in college, but my summers unfolded on the beach. Beach volleyball was big in Chicago. After college, I turned down many job offers and went to Los Angeles. I told people I was going to play beach volleyball. People told me it wasn't a job. And, in fact, it wasn't. But I was certain that where there are large crowds of women in bikinis, somehow, there is money too. (And I was there to play when beach volleyball became a professional sport.)

Beach volleyball was essentially my first startup. I ran it like a business, getting Fortune 500 sponsors and even a contract with Budweiser. Other players wondered why I spent so much time cutting deals and not as much time playing the game. I wondered the same thing. From there, I was able to identify my skills as a marketer and focus on my next business idea.

2. Notice crowds of disenfranchised people.
In the late 1990s, I was getting paid to write about my career. I was supposed to write stories about my wacky adventures in the work world. These stories wound up having huge appeal for kids just out of college. Turns out they did not think my career was so wacky; they wanted a career like mine that was about adjusting work to my personal life rather than climbing a corporate ladder. So I did some thinking: If people stop climbing a corporate ladder, then what will they do? If you're in that situation, "job hop more" is good advice, "stop job hunting" is good advice, and "live with your parents" is good advice, too. I was able to launch my most recent company, Brazen Careerist, because I could see what they wanted before they could.

3. Find what's broken before people will admit it's broken.
The public school system is not going to get fixed in our lifetime. The problems are too deep. And, there is a decent argument to be made that good public schooling in the United States is similar to Social Security: It's a great idea, but we can't afford it.

Once I saw this, I realized that homeschooling is going to be huge. I did some research and found a great homeschooling blog written by Lisa Nielsen, a teacher in the NYC public schools. And I learned from the CEO of the educational resource company Project Foundry that homeschooling is growing at a fast rate among mothers who have bachelor's degrees. And only about 35% of homeschoolers today do it for religious reasons.

The first thing I did when I realized this trend was launch a blog about homeschooling, because I understand things by writing about them. The next thing I did was take my kids out of school. (First one, then the other.)

I realized that public school is the best babysitting system in the world, but as an educational system, it's only effective for educating kids to work in factories. This is not going to be a popular thing to say, but I'm sure this is going to lead me to my next business idea.

Try to understand new, unpopular ideas instead of arguing against them. Because by the time an idea is popular, it's too late to start a business around it.

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