Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
Q: Where do you go to find inspiration? -- Tomas Jonsson
Most entrepreneurs dream of having an idea that changes the world -- of inspiration that comes in a flash, like Sir Isaac Newton and his apple, and results in a business that transforms an industry. And a few ideas have come to me out of nowhere, as if someone had flicked on a light switch, but I've learned over time that most good ideas take a lot longer to formulate and are the result of steady observation.
My best sources of inspiration come from the everyday frustrations I encounter at work and in my personal life. Simply taking note of them can lead to great ideas, because if you follow up and find that you can offer consumers a better solution than the ones currently on the market, you may soon be running a successful business.
When a group of friends and I were running Student magazine in the '60s, we all loved music and didn't have much money, and since we knew that many of our readers were in a similar position, we rather casually started offering a mail-order record service in the back pages. The service was not a test case for a larger business - we were too inexperienced at that point to have such an idea - but over many months it became clear that there was a great demand among our readers for a record distribution service. We were offering cash-stricken students a better deal than they could get in the shops, and they didn't mind the wait to receive their records by mail.
The new business we created, Virgin Mail Order Records, quickly took off. Although the business was almost paralyzed by a postal strike in 1971, our knowledge about the strength of the market gave us the courage to push ahead. That first idea led to the discovery of more problems, along with the confidence to follow through on our solutions.
Soon we opened our first Virgin Records store in London, which provided people with a place to hang out and talk about music. Our contacts in the music industry increased, and when we heard that musicians needed a place to stay when they were recording an album and no one seemed to be providing one, we created Britain's first residential recording studio, the Manor in the Oxfordshire countryside. After we made that investment, we were approached by a young, unknown artist named Mike Oldfield, whose hit album, "Tubular Bells," would launch our label. The rest is history.
That's not to say that you will never be struck by sudden inspiration, but you can't predict when it will happen. Richard Reed, the co-founder of Innocent Drinks, walks through Shepherd's Bush in London each morning on his way to work. One day he noticed that a billboard had been covered with a beautiful picture, without any logo or branding. The picture stayed up for a month before it was replaced, during which time Reed noticed how great he felt after seeing it each morning. He soon realized that this was something a lot of people would love to see and the idea for Art Everywhere was born.
On Aug. 10 the Art Everywhere project will flood the nation with huge reproductions of classic British masterpieces displayed on billboards, effectively turning the country into one big art gallery. Corporate sponsors quickly signed on because the project will increase foot traffic and highlight and beautify spaces that wouldn't otherwise get attention. Reed's experience just goes to show that even a routine commute to work can result in a great idea.
I have mentioned before in this column that I always keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas for improving our businesses; the same applies for starting them. Whatever you use to record your questions and observations, the important thing is to make a practice of it, preferably every day. Curiosity is a great quality in an entrepreneur: Since there are countless problems to solve, we are all exposed to many different opportunities throughout the day -- all you have to do is follow up.
If you are looking for an idea for a business, consider: Is there something at work or at home that frustrates you? How much time do you spend on solving it? Is there an even better way of doing things? Why hasn't it been done before? If the answer is "Because that's the way it has always been done," pay close attention. Take notes.