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Data Analytics Help Entrepreneurs Decide Where to Boldly Go

January 2015

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Category: Theory and Research Tags: Social Media & Networks Information Technology Research Methods

Just as space programs must carefully think out which parts of the cosmos can and should be explored, so must entrepreneurs navigate a seemingly endless universe of possibilities for their intellect, time and money. Predicting winning opportunities can be daunting, but data analytics can serve as an indispensable instrument panel. These tools help entrepreneurs zero in on possibilities that may become opportunities; eliminate those that are impractical or already well served; and improve upon established products and services to serve consumers’ needs more effectively. While they will never supplant the entrepreneurial instinct, these tools can help entrepreneurs decide where to boldly go.

Zhu Zhang, a faculty member in information systems at Iowa State University with expertise in artificial intelligence and big data, has shown in a new paper how entrepreneurs can harness the power of data analytics, even if they are not experts in that field. Along with co-author James C. Wetherbe, Professor of MIS at Texas Tech University, Zhang demonstrates how search engines and social media can help entrepreneurs choose opportunties and hone their strategies.

“Most entrepreneurs find themselves drowning in possibilities but starving for opportunities,” says Zhang. “While it’s not a silver bullet, data analytics can be a powerful aid in helping identify problems in need of solutions.”

Entrepreneurs face three major challenges, Zhang points out:

  1. How do I identify the right “neighborhoods” of opportunities among a universe of possibilities?
  2. How do I explore the targeted neighborhoods more thoroughly and grow the opportunity space systematically?
  3. How do I prune out possibilities that are not worth pursuing and areas of the neighborhood that are not worth investigating?

For the first challenge, Zhang and Wetherbe show entrepreneurs how to use Google Trends, Twitter, and analytic tools based on Twitter to find the promising regions of the universe to explore. “These will help you confirm that your ideas are not just a hunch, and provide empirical grounds for exploring further,” says Zhang.

Google Trends shows Google users’ search trends, which often hint at what they might be willing to buy in the future. Twitter tweets reflect what people are talking about, and programs like Topsy, which analyze aggregate data from Twitter, can help entrepreneurs make better sense of social trends.

“Entrepreneurs want to ride an upward trend, not a downward trend,” said Zhang. “The hottest, or maybe the most controversial, hashtags help us sense the pulse of potential consumers.”

Once a region of possibilities is cordoned off as a ”promising land,” other analytical tools help entrepreneurs explore it more deeply, an exercise Zhang calls “growing the space.” The goal is to find concrete consumer needs that are not being met.

Data analysis of social media posts – especially product reviews-- can provide some critical insights here. It can show where others have innovated successfully (Zhang calls it “publishing the location of a gold mine”), and point out where current products are falling short. This is one area that may require a data scientist who can use the right keywords and algorithms to ascertain whether comments are favorable or unfavorable.

“The human language is very different from computer language…humans are more ambiguous,” said Zhang. “For example, a computer alone would not know, at least now, how to parse the emotions behind a review that reads, ‘I can’t imagine anybody sitting through this movie.’”

Zhang does not de-emphasize the use of traditional methods for this stage, such as focus groups and surveys. “If you can do some groundwork first, then test your findings through analyzing social media sentiments, your findings will be more large-scale and robust,” he said.

Once opportunities are identified for further exploration, another type of data analysis can help entrepreneurs figure out which ones are likely to be impractical to develop or already over-saturated. Using Google Adwords can help entrepreneurs see who is already marketing similar products, and what it might cost to market a new one.

“Google Adwords is a proxy for understanding the amount of competition out there,” Zhang said. “It’s a useful tool to understand where there is a worthy market. If there are no Google ads for a product concept, this could mean two things: it’s either not lucrative, or nobody’s built the product yet.”

The Takeaway

  • Google Trends, Twitter and Topsy can help you understand hot topics and trends, a harbinger of what people may buy in the future. Even those generating a lot of controversy can still be a good opportunity.
  • Analyzing product reviews and social media comments may require a data scientist, but it will help you understand where current products and services are falling short.
  • Google Adwords can help you understand the competition and the potential marketing costs for your innovation.
  • Data analytics is no substitute for entrepreneurial intuition and traditional research, such as talking to people. However, it can validate your hunch.



In formulating the opportunity identification process as a search problem, we show the power of marrying big data analytics and entrepreneurial insight to manage the huge hypothesis space in the hunt of winning opportunities.


The key question all would-be entrepreneurs face is finding the business opportunity that is right and profitable. An opportunity is an idea for a new product or service. An opportunity is a sensed, rough match between an unmet need and a possible solution. In scientific lenses, with all the uncertainty that shadow the future, an opportunity is a hypothesis about value creation. Some opportunities ultimately become new products or services while others never come to life.

Ulrich and Eppinger (2012) divide the opportunity identification process into six steps as follows.

  1. Establish a charter
  2. Generate and sense many opportunities
  3. Screen opportunities
  4. Develop promising opportunities
  5. Select exceptional opportunities
  6. Reflect on the results and the process

In the eyes of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) researcher, this formulation bears a striking similarity with state space search, a common problem solving strategy. According to Russell and Norvig (2009), a well-formulated problem has the following components, mapped into the corresponding counterparts in opportunity identification:

  1. Initial state -- rough product concept
  2. Possible actions -- adding/removing feature-value combinations
  3. Transition model -- actions leading to change of design
  4. Goal test -- satisfying the charter?
  5. Path cost -- development/implementation cost

Together, the initial state, actions, and transition model, define the “state space” of the problem. A “search” algorithms traverses the space and finds a sequence of actions that reaches the goal. In the opportunity identification context, the space is the hypothesis space or the design space, and the sequence of actions constitute a design (“solution”) that is the winning opportunity. Figure 1 illustrates search happening in a product design space, where the process starts from a very rough initial idea which evolves into more concrete designs through feature additions.

The search formulation of problem solving, though conceptually simple, is practically challenging. The fundamental reason is the size of the state space: suppose there are d features to consider, and each feature takes b possible values, the total number of designs amounts to the order of magnitude bd. Even if b and d are moderate numbers, this is a daunting space to manage. A classic example of combinatorial explosion, and a practical challenge in entrepreneurial activities. The extremely rich, effectively overwhelming amount of, information available in the world around us gives rise to a strange, yet real, situation for entrepreneurs: we are drowning in possibilities, yet we are starving for opportunities.

The lessons we have learned from decades of AI research is that exhaustive search is not feasible in general, and we need “smart” ways of exploring the hypothesis space. The general strategy, and the key idea, is to “inform” the search algorithm with some estimation of how “promising” a state/hypothesis is. Such estimation is called “heuristics”. In the rest of this article, without claiming completeness or optimality, we argue and demonstrate that the combination of data analytics and entrepreneurial insights serve the exact purpose of a search algorithm in an opportunity space. More specifically, we elaborate the following key components in the search process:

  • Sketching the initial idea by understanding industry trends
  • Growing the hypothesis space through the addition of features
  • Managing the daunting size of the hypothesis space through heuristic pruning.

Industry Creation: Fools Rushing in?

The decision to commit to a particular market sector, existent or not, is a strategic entrepreneurial move that affects the long-term well-being of a business, startup or established. From the search perspective outlined above, it is analogous to picking a landing point for your starship in a vast universe of potential opportunities, which has a huge effect on the prospect of treasure hunt in the neighborhood.

While traditional ways of market study (e.g., interviews and surveys) are certainly still useful (yet expensive), we can increasingly rely on the power of big data to shed light on the strategic positioning of a business. The key driver of industry creation or involvement is sensing consumer needs. Incidentally, in formation sciences, it has been a long-held belief that what a person searches reveals her intent, which very often translates into a purchase need.

Google Trends is a powerful tool that can provide a quick birds-eye view of how some information need (potential consumption need) has been evolving and how it will evolve. Figure 2 illustrates the trends of four different product concepts, as measured by search volume over time. Clearly the public is more interested in commodities such as smartphones and energy drinks than luxury vehicles or science fiction, as indicated by the average volume of search. Google has different projections (represented by the dotted portions of the lines) for the two commodities, and a flying car seems more attractive than a real thing with a lot of drawbacks? Which trajectory do you want to ride as you look for intrapreneurial and entrepreneurial opportunities? Let both the history and forecast guide you. While intuitions can be very valuable when we have direct experience, they are very likely prone to errors in an unchartered territory. The trends are not necessarily scientific, but when quantified, provide good empirical grounds for something that we call “a hunch.”

The potential opportunity may call for geography-related consideration, Google Trends also provides location-based break down (Figure 3). If the entrepreneur had a hunch, for example, about smart phone markets being less saturated in the developing countries, here is some data support for further expansion of the idea.

For further brainstorming, Google Trends also provides volume statistics for related queries, and characterize their trends. See Figure 4.

Search engines do not represent the only type of platform that embodies public interest. Social media platforms such as Twitter lead us to a more viral view of the picture. Twitter is not only a place for marketing or political campaigns, but also a gold mine for business opportunites. While search behavior may be motivated by a broad spectrum of information needs, people’s tweeting behavior is sentimental by nature, typically associated with feelings such as initiation, endorsement, or disagreement.

Twitter does an amazing job keeping its users stay on top of the “pulses” in the current time window, yet it does not lend itself to an easily usable tool for opportunity identification, the essense of which requires keeping track of statistics and seeing patterns through clouds. Until very recently, seeking intelligence similar to that provided by Google Trends has had to involve programming the Twitter API (“Application Programming Interface”), a non-trivial task that requires some non-trival computer science training.

Luckily enough, powerful services have been emerging that bridge this gap. For example, Topsy, a new social analytics engine, provides something very similar to Google Trends, based on Twitter historical data. See Figure 5.

Where do we want to land our treasure hunting ship in the universe of possible opportunities? Some coordinates featuring a “hot” topic surrounded by a lot of positive sentiments, or maybe surrounded by a lot of controversy! While we all dream of our product being unanimously loved, Zhang et. al. (2012) show that sentiment/opinion divergence actually leads to good market performance for consumer electronics. Whichever you believe, Topsy, powered by Twitter data, again offers a nice lens (Figure 6).

Idea Refinement: Growing the Opportunity Space

Running an effective opportunity tournaments (Ulrich and Eppinger, 2012) demands generating a large number of high-variance, high-quality candidate opportunities. Adopting better methods for generating opportunities and mining better sources of opportunities can increase the average quality of the opportunities under consideration, which will also increase the quality of the best ideas resulting from the tournament.

In the treasure hunt metaphor, now that the ship has landed in a promising land -- i.e., we have an initial concept -- next on the agenda is to scout the neighborhood, i.e., to fine-tune the idea and generate concrete designs to be examined. In light of Figure 1, we have roughly pinned down the root of the tree, and now we are ready to grow the tree by adding new features to the initial concept. The question is: where do the features come from? Clearly a lot of domain knowledge is indispensable in this process. We demonstrate how such brainstorming can be empowered by social media analytics.

New product or service innovations almost always arise from unmet needs. In the old days, to find new business ideas, one would do this:

  • Ask the group of people around himself/herself (friends, neighbors, relatives, social circles, etc.): What bothers you? What’s inconvenient? What wastes your time or money? What makes no sense? What frustrates or angers you?
  • After hearing the responses, work with people to come up with a better method or product, one that would solve the problem.

And yes, the entrepreneur can ask himself/herself the aforementioned questions! The new perspective is, enabled by Web 2.0 technologies, such questions can be answered at a much larger scale --- unmet needs arise from negative evaluation of existing products or services, and social media provide an unparalleled platform for consumers to share their product experiences and opinions, i.e., through word-of-mouth (WOM) or consumer reviews. There has been increasing amount of work in the marketing community to understand how WOM content and metrics thereof influence product sales and firm performance. We believe social media embody as much, if not more, value for intrapreneurial and entrepreneurial opportunities.

To be more specific, social media mostly contain consumer-generated textual data that describe and comment on the purchase and usage experience. Figure 7, for example, captures a consumer review of a baby travel system on Amazon.com. Text mining tools are available, and are still being developed, that are capable of finding the following:

  • The locale of negative opinions, highlighted by the box
  • The factors in the negative comments, e.g., “hardware”, “upper-end capacity”, and “handle-canopy interaction”, which will naturally become candidates of features/considerations (in other words, branches in the search tree) for someone who’s looking at the stroller market.

The rationale behind the approach above is the so-called “imitate, but better” strategy that has been discussed in the product development literature. When another player innovates successfully, it in effect publishes the location of a gold mine. A keen innovator can exploit this information by either considering alternative solutions that could address the same need or alternative needs that could be addressed with the same solution.

The “mining for negative comments” approach can be generalized to discover unmet needs in a competitive picture, instead of focusing on one target. Zhang et. al. (2013) discover from social media an implicit product comparison network underlying a market segment, where each product is situated in a competitive landscape (Figure 8). Notice that now the “imitate, but better” strategy can now be implemented in a much more holistic space like this, and every feature addition onto an idea-in-development is going to be based on much more informative understanding of consumer sentiments. More specifically, for example, one can deploy “crossover” and “mutation” operations in light of genetic metaphors.

Opportunity Screening: Pruning the Search Space

The search process illustrated in Figure 1 does not continue infinitely, even though there are still candidate features available for consideration. A path/branch may not be pursued due to:

  • High barrier of entry
  • Strong competition
  • Prohibitive implementation cost
  • Repetition of ideas or existence of substitute products (notice that adding new features onto an existing product based on consumer comments does not guarantee novelty.)

Computationally, it is also important to “prune” some branches in the tree instead of further growing them, in order to manage the daunting size of the search space that arises from combinatorial explosion of candidate features. While again domain knowledge plays an important role in the pruning process (e.g., estimation implementation cost), let’s demonstrate how data analytics can come to aid, and more specifically, how Google Adwords keyword tool can help us understand several (though not all) of the pruning considerations above.

Google AdWords is an online advertising service that places advertising copy at the top, bottom, or beside, the organic search results Google displays for a particular search query. The choice and placement of the ads is based in part on Google’s proprietary determination of the relevance of the search query to the advertising copy. As we all know, AdWords has evolved into Google's main source of revenue. In this context, we argue that it can be used as a tool to quickly approximate entry cost of product ideas. See Figure 9 for an example. Several components are worth noticing:

  • The search volume for “flying cars” and related keywords are quantified over time, and as we discussed before, this measure can be used as a very rough proxy of consumer interest.
  • Competition: based on the number of competing advertisers relative to all keywords across Google, the competition level for a keyword is labeled as “low”, “medium”, or “high.” A measure of advertising competition in the cyber space, it is a good proxy for actual competition in the market space.
  • Suggested bid: calculated by taking into account the costs-per-click (CPCs) that advertisers are paying for this keyword. The amount is only an estimate, and your actual cost-per-click may vary. Another way to look at it is that it is Google’s proprietary estimation of other online advertisers’ willingness-to-pay. Though a high dollar amount may be perceived as a cost, it can also indicate the potential lucrativeness of the potential market. For comparison purposes, “apple computer” is a high-competition keyword with a suggested bid of only $0.64, yet “flying cars” in our example is “worth” $5.24.
  • The data view can be customized for specified location and language, a good tool to create a more “localized” understanding.

It is also helpful to gain further insight by examining the SERP (Search Engine Result Page) on Google. In Figure 10, for example, the search engine returns over 3.6 million pages for “flying cars” as organic search results, yet there is no paid ad! Here are the possible responses:

  • Pessimists say: the lack of paid advertisers suggests that this query word is not lucrative and that the flying cars is a tough market to make money in. At 3.6 million competing pages, i.e., possible product/service providers, it will be extremely hard to launch a new product/service/website and rank above the fold on Google SERP for the term “flying cars.” Hence it is not worth the time to further develop the idea.
  • Optimists say: looks like most of the 3.6 million pages are information sources. The fact that there is no paid ad indicates that there is no mature business available yet in this market. Let me occupy the territory by developing an exciting product and become a leader in the industry!

Which characterizes you? A question to be answered by reality and further research, of course. The key in this section, though, is that data analytic engines such as Google Adwords keyword planner play the role of “heuristic functions” (Russell and Norvig, 2009) in the search problem formalized at the beginning of this article. Based on the demonstration above, one can conceivably develop a cost estimation heuristic for a potential opportunity based on some function of search volume, CPC pricing, and keyword competitiveness, as well as other domain-knowledge-based variables. Heuristics are estimations, so they do not have to be perfect. If we remember the lessons learned in AI, a good heuristic function that leads to completeness and optimality should be “admissible.” What does that mean? It should never over-estimate the cost. What does that really mean in English? Well, it says, we should be optimistic in life.

Entrepreneurial Insights? More Indispensable than ever!

The techniques discussed above are specific, but not mechanic enough to be fully automatable (i.e., programmable). As tempting as it seems, we may never get there. Why? In our discussion of industry creation, the “seed” ideas have to come from human insights or intuitions; when growing and pruning the hypothesis space, human judgments are critical in the assessment of fuzzy situations. Think of all the tools as an embodiment of HAL; it is still David Bowman’s call to land his ship.

There exist different types of opportunities (Terwiesch and Ulrich, 2009). In Figure 11, the techniques described in this article exhibit strength in identifying horizon 1 and 2 opportunities, but clearly fall short on horizon 3 ones. The data analytic algorithms are as good as robots scouting a neighborhood for gold nuggets, yet the “teleport” capability in the idea space is inevitably human.

More importantly, when big data and analytics tools are more and more commoditized, the playground is more and more leveled. Expert insights and intuitions are more critical for success than ever. Big data analytics makes it easier and cheaper to test concepts, yet big money has to arise from big ideas. The bad news is, few of us are like Steve Jobs, who was daring enough to believe that customers did not know what they wanted until he showed it to them. Though a much needed virtue, gut is more often unreliable than not. In his seminal work, Tetlock (2005) describes a twenty-year study in which 284 experts in many fields, including government officials, professors, journalists, and others, were asked to make 28,000 predictions about the future, finding that they were only slightly more accurate than chance, and worse than basic computer algorithms.

Looks like we are in a very unfortunate paradox here: data are great at quantification, but terrible at imagination; analytics are less transcending, human intuition is less reliable. Yet another instantiation of the classical Maravec’s Paradox (Maravec, 1988). What do we do?

After decades of battle between human and machine intelligence in the game of chess, here is a story told by Gary Kasparov, the human chess master:

In 2005, the online chess-playing site Playchess.com hosted what it called a “freestyle” chess tournament in which anyone could compete in teams with other players or computers. Normally, “anti-cheating” algorithms are employed by online sites to prevent, or at least discourage, players from cheating with computer assistance. (I wonder if these detection algorithms, which employ diagnostic analysis of moves and calculate probabilities, are any less “intelligent” than the playing programs they detect.)

Lured by the substantial prize money, several groups of strong grandmasters working with several computers at the same time entered the competition. At first, the results seemed predictable. The teams of human plus machine dominated even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

So, do we have the verdict?


The techniques illustrated in this article, as well as the co-evolution history of human and machine intelligence, suggests a secret formula for successful opportunity identification in today’s information-rich business world:

Entrepreneurial insights + big data analytics = winning opportunity

What makes our story different from chess playing is: the search process for opportunities has an infinite time horizon by nature, while a chess game has a clearly defined end. In a fast-changing business world, what is today’s winning solution may be worth less than a dime tomorrow. Following, or even in parallel to, the exploitation of a champion opportunity, is a new episode of exploration.


Moravec, H. (1988) Mind Children. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Russell, S. J. and Norvig, P. (2009) Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (3rd ed.), Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Terwiesch, C. and Ulrich, K.T. (2009) Innovation Tournaments – Creating and Selecting Exceptional Opportunities. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Tetlock, P.E. (2005) Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How Can we Know? Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ulrich, K.T. and Eppinger, S.D. (2012) Product Design and Development. Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Zhang, Z., Li, X., and Chen, Y. (2012) Deciphering word-of-mouth in social media: Text-based metrics of consumer reviews. ACM Trans. Management Inf. Syst. 3(1): 5

Zhang, Z., Guo, C., and Góes, P. (2013) Product Comparison Networks for Competitive Analysis of Online Word-of-Mouth. ACM Trans. Management Inf. Syst. 3(4): 20


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