Historical research has pinpointed September 18th as “Birth of the Burger Day.” On this date in 1885, a series of fortunate events led two desperate young food concessionaires in their early- to mid-twenties to sell the world’s first “hamburg sandwich.”
How Charles and Frank Menches happened to be in the right place at the right time helps explain how they earned the “V” of their Side Hustle MVP. In fact, their knack for constantly earning this “V” throughout their entrepreneurial careers boosted them from being sons of immigrants in Canton, Ohio, to becoming wealthy movers and shakers in their adopted hometown of Akron. Perhaps this story will help you, too, become a Side Hustle MVP.
When you last left the tale of the serial entrepreneurs Charles and Frank Menches, they were just beginning their new side hustle. They decided to become food concessionaires, servicing the burgeoning carnival, festival, and outdoor event market in the midwest, primarily in and around Lake Erie.
These expositions featured local agricultural contests, various exhibits, and plenty of entertainment performances. People made a day of it, often traveling from far off places just to attend. Railroads regularly offered excursions directly to these happenings. Because they spent most of the day there, attendees ate one or two meals on the premises.
That made being a food concessionaire a very rewarding business. That’s what first drew 26-year-old Charles Menches’ attention. He quickly brought on his younger brother Frank, barely out of his teen years. Neither had any relevant experience. Sure, Charles had worked at the circus and similar shows, but as an acrobatic performer, not as a food vendor. Frank’s only claim to fame was as a champion bicycle racer.
How would they convince event operators to choose their booth in the highly competitive food concessionaire business? The Menches brothers weren’t the first to this market. They weren’t even the second, third, or fourth. If they wanted to get their foot in the door, they had to find a niche. In modern marketing parlance, it’s called their “Unique Selling Proposition.” To keep things simple and visually appealing, you can call it a void. Charles and Frank had to first identify a void then figure out a way to (convincingly) fill it.
They looked at their competition. They surveyed the food items offered and how they were cooked. They saw ham sandwiches. They saw wood-fired grills. Then they asked themselves, “What can we serve that isn’t already being served, and how can we cook it using something other than a wood-fired grill?”
The Canton boys (they hadn’t moved to Akron at this point) settled on pork sausage sandwiches grilled on a gas-fired stove. Certainly, the pork sausage patties looked different from the tubular sausages people were familiar with. In addition, their new technology—a gas grill—featured the advantage of cooking over a steady, evenly spread flame.
The moral: “Zig when everyone zags.” This isn’t a philosophical imperative (although it’s easier to do if you’re predisposed to think this way). Having a tendency to find contrarian solutions allows you to quickly discover and capture voids. Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote in The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing that if you’re not the first to market, find a category in that market to be the first in. Charles and Frank became the first pork sausage patty vendor and the first food concessionaire to use a gas grill.
It’s one thing to know “Where the money is.” But everyone else knows that, too. There will no doubt be a long line waiting to get to that money. That’s why it’s critical that you find the void. The void is that niche that few have yet to pursue. How do you find your void? How can you be sure it’s really “a road less traveled” by your competitors?
It’s the definitive “Where’s the beef?” question.
One way to find it is by trial and error, but that can cost you time and money. It could also get on your nerves. If you’re lucky, once you’ve identified where the money is, you can then find a community that market activity engages in. Sometimes you find the void through your personal wants.
Leigh Coggiola-Belza, Founder and CEO of Leaxy in Dallas, runs a business that started out addressing her own needs. She recalls, “Everything started when I began looking for a solution to my own problem to no avail. When I researched how other women were solving the same problem, I realized there was a big opportunity as many women were creating DIY solutions at home because of a lack in the market. It took me six months of research to realize that designing and crafting breast leak leisurewear was an untapped market worth pursuing.”
Her homework proved a lucrative underserved market existed. “My research showed the potential in Femtech is huge,” says Coggiola-Belza. “I remember reading at the time that the Femtech industry could more than double from $22.5 billion in 2020 to more than $65 billion by 2027, according to Global Market Insights.”
But the proof in the pudding came with some traditional market research. “I joined community message boards about breastfeeding to dive deeper and understand whether leaking breast milk was a large enough issue women were seeking solutions for,” says Coggiola-Belza. “With hundreds of thousands of women a part of some of these digital breastfeeding communities, I quickly saw that leaking breast milk is a universal struggle many breastfeeding women seek community for, while hoping to find trusted solutions for their newfound struggle.”
There’s no question about it, while “Finding the Money” requires the most muscle power, “Filling the Void” demands the most brain power. That’s not to say you won’t have to use a little muscle power, too.
The muscle comes when you go down the rabbit hole of market research. Hopefully, you’ve narrowed things down a bit. Such focus makes this step a little easier and a little quicker. Essentially, your goal is to identify competing products and services, including which are new and which are growing the fastest. These answers suggest to you where the buyers are. Certainly, it’s best if you have actual purchasing data (check out Amazon
or other similar platforms for hints here).
The products/services you’ve identified solve a particular problem for the consumer. Brainstorm what those problems might be and what related problems are not currently being solved.
Now, here’s where many get tripped up. It sounds like the best void to fill is a completely empty one. After all, this one won’t have any competitors, right? Unfortunately, there might be a good reason the void is empty. It could be dead. One clue to this is if you see any failed products that previously tried to fill this void.
That’s not saying you can’t fill a completely empty void or, for that matter, create an entirely new category that no one knew existed. Just understand that this is an uphill battle. Unless the challenge is your passion (and not simply earning a few extra dollars), this is a risky path best avoided.
Please note, don’t confuse creating a sub-category with creating a category. Creating sub-categories merely falls under Reis and Trout’s Immutable Laws. Creating whole new categories out of thin air represents a hill too high to climb for many.
Ultimately, what you’re seeking is the ideal solution to an unsolved (or under solved) problem that you can offer quickly at little to no capital cost. Chances are, like Charles and Frank Menches, you’ll be establishing leadership in a sub-category.
The Menches brothers weren’t first in the grilled sandwich market, but they were the first in two sub-categories: the sausage patty and the gas-grill categories. Both of these set them on the path towards creating the first hamburger.
Alone, however, that would not have led to the birth of the burger. That seminal event called for one final ingredient: Failure.