Identifying Business Opportunities through the Practice of Play


July 2015 | By: By Heidi M. Neck and Patricia G. Greene

Estimated reading time: Estimated reading time: 6.5 minutes
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All too often we see entrepreneurs diving so quickly and furiously into the development of their business plan that they don’t play sufficiently with their initial idea first. They don’t bend, stretch, and twist that early concept to see what other potential opportunities they might uncover. In particular, they don’t adequately explore possibilities outside the actual product or service, for instance, in the business model, the organizational structure, the supply chain, and so forth. Innovation thus becomes sadly limited.

To prevent that from happening, we recommend that educators teach entrepreneurs “the practice of play.” Jesse Schell, in his book The Art of Game Design,1 provides an intriguing synthesis of play, including the piece that we think makes the most sense for our argument for inclusion in entrepreneurship education: “Play is manipulation that satisfies curiosity.” Already, Enspire, a company that specializes in learning programs for different industries, has conducted a study that basically situates the entire world as a gamespace. As such technologies become increasingly sophisticated, we can move away from the rote piling of traditional building blocks to replicate existing kinds of businesses, and we can begin to teach entrepreneurs what it truly means to play with their ideas to create businesses that work differently both within their organizational walls, as well as across boundaries within the larger business ecosystem.

So, how can we teach entrepreneurs the practice of play? It might be through games, an improvisational approach, or even construction contests. The goal is to change our basic approach, rather drastically, in the methods we use to help students become better entrepreneurs. Instead of a step-by-step process with the assumption that a certain set of inputs will lead to a specific outcome, we suggest the use of play-fueled innovation to guide students to new and better answers for how they can create business value. Fun should be encouraged as a part of the overall learning experience. To that end, Heidi Neck, along with her colleagues at VentureBlocks, have developed a playful simulation called the Nanu Challenge, which takes students about 60 minutes and is designed to be played before class.

Understanding the “Nanu” Market

In the simulation, students assume the role of nascent entrepreneurs who live in a small town called Trepton. A few years ago, scientists in Trepton created a popular new pet—the “nanu”—which are cute, bear-like creatures. The number of nanu owners in Trepton has been growing at a fast clip and the forecast is for nanu ownership to surpass dog ownership by the year 2040. The student entrepreneurs believe that business opportunities exist, but to identify them they must learn more about nanus and their owners. The Nanu Challenge is over when students identify a business opportunity that meets the needs of nanu owners. In order to do this, students must complete missions across eight levels of play. In Levels 1-4 students develop empathy for nanu owners by talking with them. In Levels 5-7, students generate customer insights that lead to business opportunities.

The game, which focuses on early-stage entrepreneurial activity, has its foundations rooted in design thinking. The figure below depicts a framework popularized by IDEO, the design and innovation consulting firm, in which lucrative opportunities are found at the intersection of three circles in a Venn diagram: feasibility, viability, and desirability. Feasibility is concerned with whether something can be done from a technical or organizational perspective. Viability is about whether money can be made from doing that activity. And, desirability is focused on what people need.

The Nanu Challenge

Entrepreneurship students often start with feasibility and viability. Of course, those two criteria do represent two very important factors in building a sustainable business model, but sometimes students focus on those areas all too quickly without giving adequate attention to what people need. Consequently, the Nanu Challenge is designed to focus first on desirability—what nanu owners need.

Given that focus, the simulation logic proceeds as follows. Students enter the town of Trepton and notice that nanu ownership is exploding. Their goal is to “spot a space” that is interesting and new, and that has the potential to be a source of substantial new business opportunities. But, in order to identify those opportunities, the students must converse with nanu owners in order to better understand who they are, what their lives are like, and what their needs might be. As part of the simulation, students take a walk through the Trepton town park, where they meet potential customers, including the following town residents:

  • Lucas, a construction worker and father who loves to spend time with his children and build things together for their nanu, Arty, to play with.
  • Anna, a banker by day and band guitarist by night who enjoys physical fitness and spending time with her nanu, Ursi.
  • Ruthie and Chuck, an older couple who spend time with their grandchildren and have recently adopted their nanu, Daisy.
  • Tyler, a young and somewhat irresponsible nanu owner who lives with six roommates and is new to taking care of his nanu, Thor.
  • Jing, an experienced nanu breeder who offers unique insights into the world of nanu cub caretaking, breeding, and licensing.
  • Rohan, a videogame developer whose nanu, Zelda, enjoys taking part in his vegetarian and game-playing lifestyle.

Next, armed with what they’ve learned from those conversations with some of the town residents in the park, the students begin building customer insights regarding what nanu owners need and why. That process then enables them to identify opportunities that meet customer needs. Through such practice of play, students begin to understand how to develop products that have a fit with the market.

From Customers to Business Opportunities

Throughout the simulation, students will gain valuable practice in interviewing potential customers, honing their open-ended questions to obtain useful and relevant information. As professors of entrepreneurship, we are always looking for different ways to engage students. In the past, we’ve used assignments that require students to go out into the real world to interview customers, but we quickly learned that no amount of lecturing can adequately prepare them for that task. Game simulations like the Nanu Challenge enable students to practice talking to potential customers to discover their needs before having to conduct such interviewing outside of the classroom.

Moreover, not only will students gain practice in interviewing potential customers, they also will develop a better understanding of how to use that information to obtain customer insights that will then enable them to identify market opportunities. For the Nanu Challenge, one such insight might be that owners need an easier way to rearrange the nanu play spaces because the animals tend to get bored unless they continually have new environments to explore. This then leads students to uncover potential business opportunities based on that insight such as modular nanu furniture!

In the book, Teaching Entrepreneurship: A Practice-Based Approach,2 we list five practices in entrepreneurship education. One of them is the practice of play, which can take three forms: sociodramatic play, which is based on imagination and fantasy; functional play, which requires interacting with the environment; and constructive play, which encourages students to build, create, or solve problems. The Nanu Challenge incorporates each of these forms at different levels, with a particular emphasis on functional play. In essence, practice-of-play tools such as the Nanu Challenge do more than teach specific skills like techniques for interviewing potential customers. They also help develop free and imaginative minds, allowing people to see a wealth of possibilities, a world of opportunities, and a pathway to more innovative ways of being entrepreneurial.


  1. J Schell, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2008).
  2. HM Neck, PG Greene, and CG Brush, Teaching Entrepreneurship: A Practice-Based Approach (Cheltenham, UK: Edgar Elgar Publishing, 2014).