From the December 1997 issue of Startups

Jeanne Lewin, a Frankfort, Illinois, registered occupational therapist, didn't set out to start a company; she just wanted to solve a problem. The children Lewin worked with needed a piece of equipment that would help them improve their motor skills. It had to be safe, strong, compact, adjustable and easy to maneuver and disassemble.

To come up with her product idea, Lewin could have sketched what she needed and made a prototype. Instead, she used systematic, creative problem-solving techniques to invent a piece of equipment called the Tramble--named after a combination of the words "table" and "ramp"--that encourages children to move in a fun and playful way. Her product fit the bill so well that she has sold more than 500 Trambles to therapists in the United States and Europe.

It's possible that Lewin might have come up with the Tramble if she'd pondered the problem for a few days or did some informal brainstorming with other occupational therapists, but using a step-by-step approach focused her attention on the challenge and enabled her to expand way beyond her initial idea.

There is no one patented problem-solving method that works best for everyone in all situations. But there are many people, like Lewin, who find a step-by-step process most helpful.

One commonly accepted approach is outlined by James Higgins, Ph.D., professor of management at the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. In his book, 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques (The New Management Publishing Co., $17.95, 800-266-8283), Higgins identifies eight steps to problem-solving: analyzing the environment, recognizing a problem, identifying the problem, making assumptions, generating alternatives, choosing among alternatives, implementing the chosen solution and taking control.

"But following the exact procedure is less important than knowing some techniques that you can use to learn about the problem and seek solutions," says Higgins. Out of the 101 techniques listed in his book, he points to brainstorming and mind-mapping as basics that every business owner can use.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is probably the most popular creative problem-solving technique. Many other techniques, including mindmapping, draw from this basic concept and elaborate on it.

The main idea in a brainstorming session is to generate lots of potential solutions to a problem. Brainstorming participants offer solutions as they think of them; each contribution is then listed in the order it was mentioned, without any attempt to categorize or link it. During this initial brainstorming session, judgment is eliminated and wild ideas are encouraged. Suggestions are only evaluated later, once all the ideas have been exhausted.

"A lot of people stop brainstorming too soon. The secret is to keep at it after the easy, obvious ideas surface," says Higgins. "Later, when people's minds are pushed to the limit, more creative thoughts tend to emerge."

While one person can brainstorm about a given problem, more varied contributions tend to surface with at least six participants. "Solving problems totally alone can be very limiting," says Robert Alan Black, Ph.D., president of RAB Inc., a creative-thinking consulting firm in Athens, Georgia, and author of Broken Crayons: Break Your Crayons and Draw Outside the Lines (Cre8ng Places Press, $16.50, 800-447-2774). "Involving others can provide insights--even naive points of view--that offer a different perspective."

Mindmapping

Mindmapping takes brainstorming a step further. This method uses brainstorming to spark ideas and solutions. But instead of generating a long list of possible solutions, mind-mapping creates a structure that displays the links and associations among concepts and ideas.

As Higgins describes it, mindmapping is a simple process: Write the name or description of a problem in the center of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it. Next, brainstorm each major part of the problem, writing ideas on lines extending outward from the circle. As you think of more ideas, add branches to the appropriate lines. You'll eventually end with a map whose lines can be traced back to the central issue, but you'll also be able to easily visualize interrelationships.

Richard Wycoff, president of Quadron, a Santa Barbara, California, communications software company, is an ardent proponent of mind-mapping--and not just because his wife, Joyce, wrote one of the best-known books on the subject (see "Additional Resources" on page 62 ).

Wycoff uses mindmapping for everything from composing memos to charting his company's future. "At one point we needed to decide how to include two different concerns into our company strategy. One: what to do about existing customers and product lines, and two: how to take a new direction by raising money and creating new technology," he says.

Using a software program called Inspiration (see "Additional Resources" on page 62), he drew a mindmap that outlined the main headings of the plan: executive summary, the company, markets, products and services, sales and promotion and finances. Then he mapped items associated with each section. By the time he finished, Wycoff knew exactly what information to assemble and how his plan would be laid out.

Before he started using mind-mapping techniques, Wycoff, like many people, tended to be unfocused and shoot from the hip. "Urgency took precedence over thought and planning," he admits. "But this tool helps me to focus and get work done quickly." No kidding; Wycoff turned out the structure for his business plan in only half a day.

Mindmapping makes a lot of sense for people who are new to business and who know they need to create a business plan, but are frightened by its complexities and unsure of how to start. Simply place the words "Business Plan" in the center of a circle in the middle of the page and see how quickly the connected ideas begin to flow from your head onto paper (or computer screen). If you've done even a little research on business plans, enough appropriate thoughts should surface to start you on your way. As you begin to think about each section of the business plan, make the title of that section the center of another mindmap. You can write the business plan directly from the mindmap or turn it into a more formal outline before proceeding.

Stay Creative

Higgins points out that many entrepreneurs use creative problem-solving techniques themselves, but as their companies evolve, routines instilled to manage growth may squeeze out creative thinking. "Entrepreneurs have no problem starting companies based on one idea," he says. "But what happens when the customers begin to say, `We like the product; what else have you got?' In the beginning, you're so busy getting the company on its feet, you think there's no time to worry about the future. But after the `big bang,' it may be a little late. Develop problem-solving and innovation skills early on, then put them to work in every facet of your company."

Can You Manage?

How To Be A Boss.

The thought of hiring an employee has about as much appeal for some entrepreneurs as being the focus of an IRS audit. But if your business is growing and you can no longer handle the load yourself, there may be no choice. And if you've never been a boss before, you're probably going to need some help. Here are a few hints to ease the way:

  • Treat your employees as you'd like to be treated. This seems almost too obvious to mention. Yet many entrepreneurs are so terrified of giving up power that they intimidate rather than lead their employees.

"Positive reinforcement works best," says Constantine G. Pergantis, president of Nite Lites, a North Potomac, Maryland, indoor- and outdoor-lighting company. "Remember how you felt when the boss chewed you out? Negativity breeds fear, not allegiance."

  • Recognize and reward accomplishment and performance. A simple "thank you" for a job well done will help any employee feel valued. But what form of recognition works best? It's an individual matter. "Be sure to take time to understand the needs and motivations of each employee," says Mark Sanborn, author of TeamBuilt: Making Teamwork Work (Master Media Corp., $12.95, 800-650-3343). "Employers who try to motivate employees without asking `What motivates you?' run the risk of failing to motivate at all."
  • Get organized. Too many entrepreneurs keep their businesses in their heads. That may work fine in a one-person operation, but employees aren't mind readers. They need to understand your rules, goals and expectations. Write everything down to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Be an active listener. Set aside time at least once a month to address your employees' concerns.
  • Empower employees. "Give them a sense of control over their work," advises Tricia Heldmann, publicity and marketing coordinator for the Small Business Development Center at the University of Connecticut School of Business Administration in Storrs, Connecticut. "Allow and encourage them to suggest and make changes."
  • Control results, not methods. "Be clear on what you expect your employees to accomplish," Sanborn says. "How someone gets a job done (as long as they are working ethically), is less important than the results. Don't control the wrong things."

Sales & Marketing

Reaching Your Target Market

By Grace Butland

As tempting as it is to think otherwise, not everyone is interested in your products or services. Your first marketing challenge is to profile those people who are your potential customers--not waste your time and money trying to sell to the market at large.

It's a vital step to prevent wasting both your time and start-up capital. If you're already established in business, look at your records for information such as where your best customers live, how frequently they purchase, how much they spend, and so on. Check government and industry reports for population statistics, spending habits and trends. If you're just getting started, ask questions of friends, acquaintances and potential customers.

You have some idea of who your best customers will be. Ask them what products, prices and advertising appeal to them. Ask them when and why they buy, how much they spend and what qualities they look for in the product or service you plan to offer. Ask what publications they read. Ask what kind of work they do, if they like to travel, if they have children or grandchildren. You can learn this information through surveys or informal conversations.

Once you've collected the information, use the following segmentation process to define your ideal customer:

  • Demographics. Describe your best customers, including age, sex, income, occupation, education, race, language and family size.
  • Geographics. Where do your best customers live? Do your products sell better in cities or rural areas? If you're a retailer, how far are people willing to travel to visit your shop?
  • Psychographics. Social class, lifestyle and personality influence the tastes and spending habits of your customers. Define your best customer in terms of these characteristics.
  • Behavioristics. How often do your customers purchase? Why do they buy? Are they predisposed to buying your product or service, or do you need to educate them? What benefits are important to them: Quality? Economy? Status? Convenience?
  • Distribution channels. Do you sell your products wholesale or retail? Through catalogs? To corporate buyers? Is there a way you can reach large groups of customers at once?

When Roberta Leffingwell, owner of Skinny Dog Publishing in Torrington, Connecticut, researched the potential market for her personalized children's books, she found that grandparents, aunts and uncles--not parents--would be her best customers. "Parents are usually concerned with buying necessities," she says. "Grandparents, other relatives and friends are more likely to buy special books as gifts."

Leffingwell determined that her best customers would be white-collar workers who valued convenience. And because she must interact with each customer twice--once to make the sale, and again to deliver the finished book--geographic proximity was necessary for cost effectiveness.

After you've defined your best customers, you must figure out how to get your message to them at a reasonable cost. Leffingwell discovered that hospitals and large corporations bring vendors in to offer "on-site shopping" as a convenience to their employees. Through this shopping program, she reaches large groups of potential buyers at each location and delivers the finished books in one stop.

If you sell a variety of products or services, each may require a different marketing approach. Leffingwell recently added wedding books to her product line and plans to reach future brides through joint promotions with wedding photographers and bridal boutiques.

You can't grow your business without marketing. But why waste your time and money marketing to the wrong people? Identify your best customers and send your message directly to them.

Additional Resources

  • Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity for the '90s, by Michael Michalko (Ten Speed Press, $17.95, 800-841-2665). This book is chock-full of puzzles, challenges and ideas aimed at stimulating creative thinking.
  • Innovate or Evaporate: Test and Improve Your Organization's IQ, Its Innovation Quotient, by James Higgins (The New Management Publishing Company, $19.95, 800-266-8283). This book will help you move from problem-solving to innovation. It contains questionnaires that test a company's strengths in product, process, marketing and management innovation.
  • The Creative Problem Solver's Toolbox, by Richard Fobes (Solutions Through Innovations, $19.75, 800-954-8715). Subtitled A Complete Course in the Art of Creating Solutions to Problems of Any Kind, this book promises to help anyone sharpen problem-solving skills. Each concept is explained, illustrated with several examples from various fields and followed by practice exercises.
  • Mindmapping, by Joyce Wycoff (Berkley Publishing Group, $12, 800-788-6262). This book includes all the how-tos related to this vital, creative problem-solving tool.

Software:

  • Inspiration, a mindmapping and visual-thinking program (Mac or Windows, $99, 800-877-4292). Download a test copy at the Inspiration Web site at http://www.inspiration.com .
  • IdeaFisher, a computerized aid to brainstorming and problem-solving (Mac or Windows, $99.95, 800-289-4332). Twelve additional modules are available ($49 each), including New Product/Service Development, Speech and Presentation, Strategic Planning and Naming.

The Power Of Creative Emulation

Creative emulation is the art of studying effective techniques from companies outside your industry and adapting variations to your own business. Joseph Lukacs, founder of International Performance Group, a Bridgewater, New Jersey, service that offers private business coaching to professionals, CEOs, business owners and financial service professionals, suggests that entrepreneurs seeking ways to increase their problem-solving skills use creative emulation as a starting point.

"When you see an innovative concept being used in any industry, ask yourself, `How can I use this concept in my business?' If you go outside your industry for ideas and are the first to implement them within your industry, you'll gain a decided marketplace advantage," he says.

Lukacs worked with a client who owned a car-cleaning service targeted to executives. Ongoing business was hard to come by because clients called for cleaning appointments when and if they remembered. For solutions, Lukacs looked to a successful dog groomer--who always had a waiting list of clients--because he used several simple, yet effective, ways to encourage repeat business:

1. He sold his service by monthly subscription.

2. He automatically charged his clients' credit cards at the beginning of each month.

3. He made a standing monthly appointment for each client.

By emulating the dog groomer's tricks, the executive car-cleaning service locked in sales it could count on.

More Tips For Sparking Creative Solutions

Creative emulation is the art of studying effective techniques from companies outside your industry and adapting variations to your own business. Joseph Lukacs, founder of International Performance Group, a Bridgewater, New Jersey, service that offers private business coaching to professionals, CEOs, business owners and financial service professionals, suggests that entrepreneurs seeking ways to increase their problem-solving skills use creative emulation as a starting point.

"When you see an innovative concept being used in any industry, ask yourself, `How can I use this concept in my business?' If you go outside your industry for ideas and are the first to implement them within your industry, you'll gain a decided marketplace advantage," he says.

Lukacs worked with a client who owned a car-cleaning service targeted to executives. Ongoing business was hard to come by because clients called for cleaning appointments when and if they remembered. For solutions, Lukacs looked to a successful dog groomer--who always had a waiting list of clients--because he used several simple, yet effective, ways to encourage repeat business:

1. He sold his service by monthly subscription.

2. He automatically charged his clients' credit cards at the beginning of each month.

3. He made a standing monthly appointment for each client.

By emulating the dog groomer's tricks, the executive car-cleaning service locked in sales it could count on.

Contact Sources

James M. Higgins & Associates Inc., http://www.jamesmhiggins.com , nmpc@aol.com

International Performance Group, (908) 526-8877, http://www.ipg-coaching.com, ipg@mci2000.com

Jeanne Lewin, 894 St. Andrews Way, Frankfort, IL 60423, (800) 655-3344, tramble@aol.com

Nite Lites, 10636 Chisholm Landing Terr., North Potomac, MD 20878-4263, (301) 762-5444, http://www.nite-lites.com, nitelitescgp@nmaa.org

Quadron Corp., http://www.quadron.com, rwycoff@sprintmail.com

RAB Inc., P.O. Box 5805, Athens, GA 30604, (706) 353-3387, imcre8ng@uga.cc.uga.edu

Mark Sanborn, c/o Sanborn & Associates Inc., 695 Colorado Blvd., #415, Denver, CO 80246, (800) 650-3343, http://www.marksanborn.com

Skinny Dog Publishing, 123 Tamarack Ct., Torrington, CT 06790, (860) 489-5464

University of Connecticut, Connecticut Small Business Development Center, 2 Bourn Pl., Ste. U-94, Storrs, CT 06269-5094, (860) 486-4135