Bringing Eyesight to the Blind

by Rob Spiegel

Find a need and fill it. That's the age-old formula for success. But does it work? Here's how two different entrepreneurs put that principle to work.

I recently interviewed Jim Stovall for a business magazine. Stovall almost became a shut-in when he lost his eyesight as a young adult some 20 years ago. He decided to spend the rest of his life in his room. But as the days passed, he gathered up the courage to go out to the mailbox. That first step into a frighteningly dark world led to another step and another.

Stovall went on to become a national weightlifting champ, then became an entrepreneur and highly regarded motivational speaker. In business, he held true to the premise that to succeed, you must find something to offer that people really need.

Before going blind, Stovall loved movies and enjoyed watching television. Yet without visuals, television falls flat. Stovall figured there were 13 million visually impaired people in the United States who shared his frustration. So he had a vision, so to speak. He decided to create television for the blind.

Stovall’s Narrative Television Network (NTN) launched in 1988. He used his own funds and some support from friends. NTN adds a narrator’s unobtrusive voice to explain what’s happening visually. The spoken narrative avoids interfering with the original audio and visual of the programming.



NTN is now available on more than 1,000 cable systems. Stovall’s interview show, NTN Showcase, is part of the programming. As host of NTN Showcase, Stovall has interviewed Frank Sinatra, Jack Lennon, Katherine Hepburn and scores of other celebrities. So much for hiding in his room.

The lessons in Stovall’s success are many. One that stands out is the principle that success comes to those who identify and fill a clearly defined need. Stovall realized there were millions like himself who were not able to fully enjoy the most popular media in our culture, television and movies. As he filled that need, he enjoyed considerable success.

I had my own little brush with this principle about 15 years ago. I ran a small publishing company that cranked out custom publications for corporations and associations. A cookbook author who concentrated on hot cuisine, Dave DeWitt, suggested I publish an annual guide to chile peppers in magazine form.

I had my doubts, but the truth of the project’s potential would come from the response of advertisers. I traveled around the Southwest visiting chile producers. They liked the idea. With DeWitt as editor, I launched “Chile Pepper” and sent sample copies to newspaper food editors across the country. In the press release accompanying the sample issue, I included our address and the cost of a sample issue: $2.95. The food editors included the note in their papers. Over the course of the next few months, the release appeared in dozens upon dozens of newspapers. I remember one day alone receiving more than 300 checks for $2.95. Most of these previously-hidden chile aficionados inquired about our subscription rate. We apparently hit a nerve.

Over the next couple months, I turned the “Chile Pepper” annual publication into a bi-monthly subscription-based magazine. I sold the sucker to a Texas company in 1996 so I could return to writing – you can’t run a full-fledged magazine in your bathrobe in the living room. You can, however, write at home all day long without shaving. “Chile Pepper” continues to fill the need for a continuing supply of hot recipes and chile information for thousands of pepper lovers.

Identifying a need doesn’t take the work out of launching a company, but it takes a good amount of the risk out. It was tremendous work getting “Chile Pepper” off the ground, but I was bolstered by the enthusiastic response from readers and advertisers. As long as I was willing to work day and night for virtually nothing for two years, I knew I could get “Chile Pepper” to succeed.

Stovall told me it took two years of losses and one year of breakeven before his Narrative Televisions Network turned a profit. Yet he knew early on that he would eventually succeed. He had identified a clear, unmet need

Rob Spiegel is the author of Net Strategy (Dearborn) and The Shoestring Entrepreneur’s Guide to Internet Start-ups (St. Martin's Press). You can reach Rob at robspiegel@comcast.net

 
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