How to spot opportunity

Get up early. Look. Listen.

You have to focus on what’s out of place.

I was up early while my friends slept in.

The birds were chirping, the first rays of sun were lighting up my tent, and there was a whole new world to explore. So I laced up my boots and got up.

We were camped in the mountains in a place full of secrets. We had hiked in the day before with only a rough idea where we were going. Old government maps labeled our campsite “Indian Cave,” but agencies had erased the name to protect the area from vandals. After scrambling through a jungle of poison oak and taking lots of wrong turns, we finally found the cave. And we found out why it was such a secret.

Its walls were covered with art — psychedelic white, black and red figures. Dancing salamanders, rabbits and spiders. They were painted centuries ago by the area’s Native Americans, but some of them still looked so fresh, you would swear the artist had only just left.

Their presence still felt strong, somehow.

It was probably much the same for them then as it was for us now. A quiet half-acre under magnificent oaks beside a babbling stream. A great place to find yourself with friends on a quest.

In the early morning light, I wandered upstream where I saw more signs of them. At my feet, on a wide flat boulder above the creek, I found grinding holes — round mortars in which Indians ground acorns into a mush they soaked in baskets in the creek to wash out its bitter tannins.

I could imagine them — a group of women, sitting in a circle, gossiping and enjoying the autumn sunshine while one kept a wary watch for marauding grizzly bears. It was fall now too, and acorns were lying about. But there was no one to gather them anymore. The Indians were gone. And the grizzly bears were gone.

Then something caught my eye — something out of place.

In a nook of the rock a few inches from one of the grinding holes there was a strange stone. The river boulder and the whole mountain range around us was made of sandstone, a very soft and porous rock. But the stone in the nook was granite, even though there was no granite within fifty miles. Someone had taken the trouble to bring it here for a reason. It fit the mortar perfectly. Hard and durable, it was the perfect stone to mash acorns in a mortar. This was the pestle.

Something caught my eye — something out of place.

This was the very tool the Indians had used in this exact spot, centuries ago. Somehow it was still here, despite floods and hikers and the curious hands of boy scouts and amateur archaeologists.

Suddenly, the Indians were present again, all around. We had only barely missed them. They had laid down their tool just moments ago and would soon take it up again.

The next week, back at the office, I showed a photo of it to my colleague, Kurt. I was no geologist, having taken only two geology classes in college. But Kurt was a master. He had tramped all over the West working for big gold mining companies. He would spend hours poring over geologic maps covering a table, then spend hours more looking at rock samples under a microscope, so he knew how to focus on the big picture as well as on the details that mattered.

Kurt smiled when he saw the mortar and pestle.

He said he had lost count of how many treasures like that he had found over the years.

He had seen stone fish traps along the edge of a prehistoric lake. Lots of arrowheads. Broken clay pots. Rock paintings. Nuggets of gold gleaming on the desert floor.

After a while, he said, you find a common thread. Something doesn’t make sense.

You’re in a new place, looking around, trying hard to understand it. There’s something gnawing at you the whole time, but at first you can’t put your finger on it.

You have to focus on what’s out of place.

Only then it appears. Only then it makes sense.

The land speaks. It tells stories. But you have to know how to listen.

It works for many things, he said. A pile of crumbling white rocks in the middle of a brown desert doesn’t belong there. It might be the top of a reef of quartz that gold is attached to. It dives deep underground for miles, but that little pile of rocks is your only clue.

A patch of a rare species of grass or wildflowers is another sign. It tells you the ground is different — with different minerals or different chemistry. It’s hiding a secret you have to try to figure out.

Years later, I saw the same principle at work in business and investment: successful friends and clients who reaped big rewards by finding opportunities in things that looked out of place to them.

One client struggled to understand why there was a parking lot on one of the city’s busiest and most historic intersections while big buildings sat on the other three corners. It was out of place. He cleared up some liens that had scared other investors away, then built a five-story apartment building on it.

Another couldn’t understand why there was a used car lot in the middle of a thriving industrial corridor near a busy port. He did his research and found out that it was a former landfill, which other investors thought too risky. So he dug it up, filled it back in the right way, and sold it for a $10 million profit.

My friend Belinda couldn’t understand why there was no housing in her community for youth transitioning out of foster care. It didn’t make sense to her. So she did her homework, started a non-profit, and started building some. Now she runs five facilities and employs fifty people providing housing and health care services to young people who really need them.

You could call them contrarian investors, but that’s not quite right. They didn’t do their projects just because other investors were going in a different direction.

They saw something wrong, something out of place, something that didn’t make a lot of sense.

Where others were shy or scared or lazy, they weren’t. Instead of walking away, they took the time to think and ask…

What’s wrong here?

How can I make it better?

They were a lot like the artists and gatherers I had met at Indian Cave.

They were observant. They were curious. And they weren’t afraid to do the work.

This article first appeared on the Varamark Research blog at https://www.varamark.com/post/how-to-spot-opportunity

Investor | CMO, Varamark.com | Engineer | Explorer