When Mary Naylor wants to find new ideas to better promote her business, Capitol Concierge, she looks where most people don't: in the trash. "I collect junk mail and keep it in a box I call `Mary's Ideas'," says the 34-year-old entrepreneur, whose Washington, DC, company sets up concierge services in office-building lobbies to provide business and personal services for tenants and their clients. Last year, her business produced $5.5 million in gross revenues. "I get inspiration from things most people throw away," Naylor explains. "I look for ideas of how people market their product or service, what makes the piece effective and what doesn't. When I want to kick-start my creative processes, I go to my box of ideas to see what's new."
Keeping creative ideas flowing is a challenge entrepreneurs face every day, whether it's by finding ways to lower production costs, motivate employees or stretch dollars during lean times. Fortunately, creativity--that mental energy that spawns new thoughts and problem-solving solutions--isn't a talent reserved for composers, writers and painters.
"Innovation and creativity are not just for artists. These are skills with a direct, bottom-line payoff," says Joyce Wycoff, author of Mindmapping: Your Personal Guide to Exploring Creativity and Problem-Solving (Berkley Books, $8.95, 800-447-2774). "Every person can be taught techniques and behaviors that help them generate more ideas. Unfortunately, these behaviors and techniques are seldom taught in schools or management-training sessions. We need to make a special effort to learn them."
Here are eight proven techniques you can use to sharpen your creative thinking skills and keep your ideas flowing:
1.Start with your own experiences. Working as a placement counselor for a New York City nanny service, Maurice Wingate thought he'd have no problem finding quality child care for his infant son. But when he and his wife went looking for a nanny, he was turned off by many agencies' lax procedures for checking personal references. "I looked at the issue not as a professional, but as a parent. There were many things the agencies should have been doing but weren't," says Wingate, who filled the void by starting Best Domestic Services Agency Inc. in 1993.
Wingate also drew on his personal experiences to carve a niche for Best Domestic in New York City's competitive temporary-care-services industry. Wingate figured other parents might encounter similar problems finding babysitters. "If a client had to attend a last-minute, work-related function or was called out of town unexpectedly, how could he arrange for child care?" Wingate wondered. As a solution, he introduced 24-hour, emergency child care for his clients.
2. Seek other points of view. David Wiggins, president of American Wilderness Experience Inc. in Boulder, Colorado, values input from his wife, Carol, and a network of advisors, including friends, stockholders and past business associates, to generate new ideas for his adventure-travel business. "I find it extremely helpful to get different perspectives from people I respect and trust," he says.
Wiggins called his support team to help expand the company's offerings beyond its summer horseback-riding and river-rafting trips. "To make a business like this go, you need to offer year-round adventure-travel opportunities," he says. "I was strapped for cash and couldn't visit with new guides to discuss new travel options. Carol suggested contacting our current guides and seeing what winter adventures they could offer." The idea worked. One guide who ran summer horseback-riding trips wanted to introduce snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park.
"That one connection single-handedly gave us the winter program we needed to expand our business, and it's been our strongest trip ever since," Wiggins says. "From there, we've developed trips in Hawaii and Mexico, and are now willing to try new and unusual adventures such as dog sledding and sea kayaking."
Naylor seeks better ways of running Capitol Concierge by talking with owners and managers of noncompeting companies about how they run their businesses. "I'm not a competitor, so people are very receptive. They like to share what they've developed," says Naylor, who spent half a day with the human-resources manager of a company that had a great employee-recruiting program.
3. Listen to your clients. Great ideas can come from the people you're trying to please most: your clients. "I glean helpful information by listening to parents talk about what experiences they'd like their children to have," says Cheryl Beck-Benjamin, founder and co-owner of Happy All Day Inc. and Becky Bailey's Creative Kids in Los Angeles, which offer youngsters after-school classes in art, theater, dance and other subjects. "I got the idea for a cooking class from my partner, Ruthie Bailey, when she was a client," she says.
4. Brainstorm. Many small-business owners brainstorm with employees to generate new ideas for their businesses. "Our management team meets once a week," Wiggins says. "It's an excellent forum to bounce new ideas around. Everyone is asked to submit topics beforehand. We have an agenda and we stay focused."
5. Avoid negative people. Nothing will kill the creative instinct faster than someone who spreads words of doom and gloom with comments like, "We've tried that before" or "It will never work." Doomsayers can be particularly harmful during brainstorming sessions, when employees are expected to share ideas freely. "We don't allow negative thinking at our sessions," Wiggins says. "We let people know that taking risks is acceptable and encouraged, and there is no `stupid' idea."
6. Read. Naylor got the idea for her corporate concierge service from a magazine. "There was an article about a California woman doing something similar, but no one was doing anything like this in Washington," she recalls. So Naylor visited California to check out the woman's operation, and returned to the nation's capital to plan her business.
Donna Chaiet reads business publications to generate ideas for promoting Prepare Inc., her self-defense education business in Los Angeles and New York City. "I read a magazine article that said small-business owners don't have a problem finding new leads, but using the leads they already have," Chaiet says. "The idea hit me: I have 100-plus people coming through my classes every month. Wouldn't it be great for me to sell to them?"
Chaiet now calls each of her students for feedback on his or her class experience. "I ask for referrals; opportunities to do workshops in their area; and leads for media coverage, such as their favorite local newspaper or radio station," she says. "It's great outreach."
7. Play. Taking time to kick back and relax is a great way to keep your creative juices flowing. Some business owners go hiking, work out at the gym, read or take a nap. "I do some of my best thinking in my hot tub at home," Wiggins says. "I sit there, look at the stars and come up with some pretty good ideas."
8. Write it down. Idea-generating entrepreneurs know if you don't record your ideas when they're fresh, chances are you'll forget them entirely. That's why it's important to keep a pen and a pad of paper handy in your office, your car, at your bedside or anywhere else you spend time. "The only problem I have," Wiggins says, "is keeping a dry pad of paper next to the tub."
Freelance writer Carla Goodman described how to convince retailers to stock your product in the August issue of Business Start-Ups.