I recently took my first trip to Iceland in order to do some speaking and consulting with one of my clients. As I rode in the car to my hotel, I noticed a huge manufacturing plant--obviously a major source of income and employment for the country.
I asked the driver what it was, and he said, "That's an aluminum plant. We make aluminum here."
I thought that was interesting, so I asked, "Is there a source of bauxite nearby?" Bauxite is made of alumina, which is a primary ingredient for manufacturing aluminum.
He replied, "No. There's no bauxite here. We import that."
"Who uses the aluminum you create?" I asked. This plant was gigantic. It took a while just to drive by it.
"We export it all."
I was perplexed, so I continued my questioning: "You mean you're importing the material to make the aluminum and you're exporting the aluminum you create. Why are you making it here, in a relatively remote part of the world?"
And the answer then popped out: "We have the cheapest electricity in the world. Iceland has a lot of rivers and large lakes, and therefore has a huge amount of hydroelectric power production. There's also a lot of volcanic activity, and that has created geothermal sources for creating energy and electricity that are very productive."
That's when it all made sense. I knew that making aluminum requires a lot of electricity. And with hydro and geothermal power production, Iceland has extremely inexpensive electricity. It's so inexpensive that it is cheaper to make aluminum in Iceland, even though they ship in the raw materials and ship out the final product, than it is to make the aluminum somewhere else.
That made me think: What else could grow their economy? Iceland was hurt quite severely by the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 and still had high unemployment.
One of the principles I teach is to ask better questions in order to get better answers. With that in mind, I asked myself: "What kind of business is growing right now, regardless of how slow the recovery might be? And, most important, what business needs a lot of electricity?"
Since Iceland is not balmy warm--it's actually cool in the summer and cold and dry in the winter--I came up with a quick answer: Server Farms.
As Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and other companies like them build huge server farms, they need massive sources of electricity. And they also need cooling systems to keep the servers from overheating.
If the cheapest electricity is in Iceland, and they have access to a fiberoptic digital highway that spans the globe, why not put those server farms there? Since the climate is cold and in the winter, very dry, keeping the systems cooled will be less expensive as well. In fact, server farms could be a huge, new economic growth area for the entire nation of Iceland.
How did I come up with that? By asking a better question. If we have something--in this case, super-cheap electricity--let's focus on it and ask, "Who needs a lot of electricity?" And, "Who is growing regardless of economic situations?" That's when you get your answer.
So how does this Iceland story apply to you? It applies to you regardless of whether you're trying to grow a state economy, a national economy, or grow your business. Rather than look at all the things you don't have, ask yourself, "What are the unique elements we do have?" In times of crisis, we tend to look at the things we don't have, and wish we had them, instead of focusing on what we do have, like Iceland having a lot of cheap electricity. And then follow that up with, "Who needs that?"
Ask better questions. You'll be surprised at the better answers you reveal.