After seven decades as a successful entrepreneur, I would like to pass on what has been the most valuable piece of career advice I've ever come across. It has proven itself again and again despite changing economic conditions, market locations, employment trends or industry type.
In January of 1946, I was discharged from the Army Air Corps and joined the world of business in earnest. The G.I. Bill of Rights had just been introduced and offered tremendous opportunities for starting a career in civilian life. I was 23-years-old and my brother Saul was 26, and we decided to go into business together.
"It's real simple," I remember telling Saul. "We only have to find a need and fill it." This was a quote I had remembered from Henry Kaiser, one of America's leading wartime industrialists. We felt that there was enormous opportunity in the export/import business. Much of the world's infrastructure had been destroyed, and there was great demand for new civilian merchandise as most resources had gone into military production. Clearly, our best bet was to buy and sell anything that was in demand, regardless of the distances involved. We opened our first office as Transpacific Traders.
At that time, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce was making a special effort to solicit foreign trade inquiries. Specific requests came from all over the world. The one that caught my eye was from a Chinese group seeking large quantities of navy blue, woolen material. The problem was that there was no inventory anywhere. For the last several years the bulk of textiles manufactured domestically was olive drab for military uniforms. The Chinese need was certainly there, but how could it possibly get filled?
We came up with a simple idea. We would buy cheap, surplus material from the army, dye it navy, and then sell it to the Chinese. It didn't faze us that we would be selling large quantities of wool fabric that we had not seen to people that we had never met and with no money to finance the deal.
Saul and I purchased a few yards of olive drab material and found a dye works that could fulfill the order. We established a relationship with Union Bank, which was back then and continues to be, very active in working with small and medium-sized businesses. The vice president for foreign trade became our mentor, and he showed us how the deal could be structured. We succeeded in getting an irrevocable letter of credit from the Chinese and were able to use this as security for all the financing that followed.
Everybody involved was able to make a profit because we had dramatically improved the value of a surplus commodity. We did not know until much later that the material was used to make uniforms for the Chinese army of Chang Kai-Shek.
Find a need and fill it became our lasting mantra for success as the business morphed from Transpacific Traders into Jack Nadel International, a global leader in the specialty advertising and marketing industry with 25 offices around the world and 60 plus years of profitable operation. Today, this career advice continues to serve our own JNI employees as they find ways to fill their clients' marketing needs.
This advicecan apply to service businesses as well, whether they are giant corporations or tiny startups. For example, a friend of mine who is an excellent bridge player is now making a profit by teaching bridge. The demand was there; she just had to fill it by making her expertise available to the public. In addition, she uses current technology to answer questions online for a fee, serving clients worldwide.
Federal Express, now FedEx, is an example of a service business on a global scale. Fred Smith could see the need for expedited and overnight delivery of consumer goods using air transport. His company was first to market these services as he saw an emerging demand, and today FedEx is the world's largest courier transportation company. The concept was simple, the execution was somewhat risky, but the need was compelling.
A brand new startup that recently identified a need and decided to fill it is GroupGets.com, a crowd-buying platform that allows anyone, anywhere, to set up group buying campaigns for goods or services that are only available in high minimum order quantities with high ticket prices, thresholds that are particularly cumbersome for innovation with new technology components. The founders discovered an opportunity after their own challenge emerged with needing to purchase a component for a project that was only available in large order quantities of $100,000 or more. They created a secure website that works for those who only want to buy in smaller quantities, as it unites single buyers to fill bulk orders collectively, as well as those selling the goods and services as it provides merchants access to new customers.
There simply is no end to the possibilities for filling consumer needs. The advice I followed back in 1946 is just as relevant today.