September 2015: Small Business Success

Pick the right kind of wave to ride

Columnist Sarah O'Connell

Columnist Sarah O’Connell

I had a chance to visit Melbourne Beach, Fla., a few years ago and learned that it was one of the top surfing spots in the eastern United States. It was fascinating to watch the line of surfers floating on their boards, letting wave after wave pass by until all at once they’d start paddling furiously toward shore, standing, and then riding the curl until they either fell or it ran out. I wondered how surfers knew that a certain wave was going to be “the one.”

So, of course, I Googled it and found a website,, that broke waves into three basic types.

The first type is a “flat swell.” Basically, it never develops into an actual wave, at least at the right time, and the less experienced surfer will waste time and energy chasing after it and then having to paddle back out to the waiting area.

The second type is a “pitching wave.” This is when the wave is already starting to crest, and it may break over the surfer as he or she tries to stand up, usually with a wipeout occurring, and then the surfer has to recoup and wait for another opportunity.

The third wave is what the accomplished surfer waits for: the “half-built swell.” The rider gets to catch the momentum and the buildup of the wave and surf it to a successful completion.

These descriptions, of course, bring to mind how important it is to gauge both what kind of a business someone wants to start, and how to correctly time the market entry.

Some entrepreneurs decide to start a business because it sounds like a good idea or it interests them. But it might not be an idea that is right for this particular time or consumer market. For example, mobile food trucks are very trendy right now all over the country, and we have many vendors right here in the north country. But the most successful local operators recognize that our market is small and our season for outdoor dining is short, so those issues provide a natural limitation to how many of these businesses can be sustained. This would represent a “flat swell” for some would-be businesses because they may be choosing a business type that’s just not going to pan out in our area.

Other prospective business ideas fall into the “pitching wave” arena. This may be represented by a very popular and seemingly successful model that some people try to jump into too late. I remember the short-term growth of baseball card shops back in the ’90s. The first shops to open did the best for as long as the fad lasted, but the market was quickly saturated by latecomers who also tried to cash in; many of these endeavors wiped out pretty fast. We used to have a sign in the office that said, “If you see the bandwagon, it’s already too late.”

Clearly, I’m making the argument that the preferred entrepreneurial wave type is the “half-built swell.” The would-be business owner has been eying the local environment, doing his or her homework in terms of potential customer base and financial viability of the concept. The entrepreneur has timed the market entry of a fairly new but growing opportunity that would seem to have a good chance of a sustained and successful ride. This concept can also be applied to an existing business that is looking at expansion or opportunities for growth.

If you’d like to assess your business idea or expansion, the Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College offers a seven-week Entrepreneurial Training Course, as well as a 14-week online version, starting in October.

Successful completion of the course and the development of a business plan with an advisor will make qualified entrepreneurs eligible to apply for a local microloan of up to $40,000.

Sarah O’Connell is a certified business advisor with the New York State Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College. She is a former small business owner and lifelong Northern New York resident. Contact her at Her column appears bi-monthly in NNY Business.