Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

The Three Windows of Opportunity

6/6/2005
A new book, Made in China, delivers lessons learned by Chinese entrepreneurs in the rugged and dynamic environment of that country. This excerpt zeros in on determining if your timing is right: Is the window of opportunity open?

Editor's note: We all know the stories of famous American entrepreneurs such as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and Bill Gates. But in China, the stories of pioneering business leaders are less widely known. Donald Sull's Made in China: What Western Managers Can Learn from Trailblazing Chinese Entrepreneurs gathers the experiences of successful Chinese companies such as Legend Group, Sina, and AsiaInfo, which have thrived despite an incredibly turbulent environment. Our excerpt deals with identifying the correct timing of an opportunity.

Three windows of opportunity
Golden opportunities hold out the promise of great rewards but generally require risky concentration of resources without the benefit of knowing whether the bet will pay off. The critical question is clear: How do entrepreneurs and managers recognize a golden opportunity from fool's gold before putting all their chips on the table to pursue it? The obvious questions are whether an unmet customer demand exists and how big the market might be if a company filled that demand. [Qinghou] Zong, [founder of the leading beverage company Wahaha] for example, knew from personal experience that parents were concerned about their little emperors' nutrition, and calculated that he could make a killing even if he served only a modest fraction of the country's 300 million children.

These questions of whether the customer need is real and the potential market big enough to constitute a golden opportunity are critical. They are also painfully obvious, and we add little by reminding managers to address them. The tougher question is whether the timing is right to concentrate resources to pursue the opportunity. People often use the phrase window of opportunity to describe a time period during which an opportunity must be seized or lost (perhaps forever). The notion of a window that opens for a while and then closes highlights the fleeting nature of opportunities, where timing is everything. Too early can be as bad as too late.

The reality of golden opportunities, however, is more complicated. Entrepreneurs and managers must consider not just one, but multiple, windows of opportunity—including customers, competitors, capital markets, technical evolution, and government policy among others. To further complicate matters, these windows vary in importance over time and are constantly shifting—opening a crack or threatening to close altogether. As a result, entrepreneurs must get the timing right to get through the windows that matter.

How do entrepreneurs and managers recognize a golden opportunity from fool's gold?

To simplify the task of evaluating the timing, it is helpful to focus on three windows of opportunity, specifically customers, competitors, and context (including external factors other than buyers and rivals), which consistently matter in evaluating whether the timing is right to pursue an opportunity. Many people have discussed time-based competition, in which the faster rival beats the slower. The three windows of opportunity model, in contrast, focuses on timing-based competition. There is no assumption that faster always trumps slower. Wahaha, for example, pioneered the children's nutritional drink segment. In other cases, however, Wahaha followed early entrants who educated consumers on the benefits of enriched milk, bottled waters, and cola. Success depends on concentrating resources on the right opportunity at the right time. Getting the timing right, to a large extent, requires managers to make their move when all three factors are aligned. Timing will, of course, also be influenced by internal factors. Much of timing, however, depends on forces largely outside the control of an entrepreneur or manager.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all list of questions to assess whether the timing is right for all opportunities, the following questions can help managers to think about the factors that influence whether it is the right time to make a move.

Excerpted by permission of Harvard Business School Press from Made in China: What Western Managers Can Learn from Trailblazing Chinese Entrepreneurs. Copyright 2005 Donald N. Sull.

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Donald N. Sull is an associate professor of management practice at London Business School.

Footnotes:

1. Constantinos C. Markides and Paul A. Geroski, Fast Second: How Smart Companies Bypass Radical Innovation to Enter and Dominate New Markets (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

2. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Lionel Giles (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002).

3. In an extensive study of newspapers' responses to the Internet, Clark Gilbert found that executives were more likely to allocate resources to the Internet when it was seen as a threat to their core business. Ironically, when executives framed the Internet as a threat to the core business rather than an opportunity, they failed to pursue the upside opportunity aggressively and concentrated on defending their core. See C. Gilbert, "Change in the Presence of Residual Fit: Can Competing Frames Coexist?" unnumbered working paper, Harvard Business School, Boston, 2004.

4. C. Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996).