From the September 2002 issue of Entrepreneur

Charles H. Duell was a bad, bad man. No doubt you've heard his famous quote: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Duell made that statement in 1899, insisting that his office be shut down just before he resigned as the U.S. Commissioner of Patents. You can't help but wonder how our world would be if his words had been true. In what would have been a much less wonderful life, think of what wouldn't have been born: E-mail. Television. Paper towels. The microwave oven. Cat litter. Defibrillators. Viagra. And Joey Reiman would never have created BrightHouse.

BrightHouse is one of those companies where innovation is the rule, not the exception. Because many businesses get bogged down in business, CEOs and management teams hire Reiman and his 12 employees to come up with everything from new products to new mission statements. Because most of the ideas are confidential, exactly what Atlanta-based BrightHouse has done since its founding in 1995 will have to be left to our imaginations, but clients include Coca-Cola, Georgia-Pacific Corp., Home Depot and McDonald's. Reiman, 49, and his team are paid big money--half a million for a 10-week brainstorming session, and $50,000 for a four-hour quickie. BrightHouse is poised to bring in $10 million in revenue this year, simply by doing what all entrepreneurs and their employees should do.

They innovate. They tinker, they think, they improve. They dream. They understand that nothing is ever what it seems. Even a famous quote. Duell never said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." The person who started the rumor was the first person to utter that infamous sentence. In fact, Duell kept his post until 1901 and remained interested in patent law until his death. He was an ally of innovation, and would have admired Joey Reiman, BrightHouse and its battalion of brainstormers.

The Process & Incubating an Idea

On the surface, BrightHouse appears to be made up of a bunch of rich intellects who are really lucky. Because their clients span the globe and have cash to burn, BrightHouse employees get some pleasant perks. The BrightHouse team has held brainstorming sessions on yachts, beaches and mountains and in world-class spas. Small wonder COO Anne Simons admits, "Some people have the idea that we just lounge around all day."

They don't, but part of innovation is thinking, and because thinking looks a lot like loafing, not many companies follow Reiman's lead. Who wants to pay employees who look like they're daydreaming about last week's Six Feet Under episode? Neither Reiman nor Simons fears that. "The people who enjoy being here enjoy being intellectually stimulated," says Simons.

Reiman's process of innovating involves four basic steps. Not that anything about BrightHouse is basic. The steps are complicated, and the process won't translate to all companies because a lot is dependent on having a leader who has the drive and whimsy to be creative. Alf Nucifora, a prominent marketing consultant, facilitates many of BrightHouse's brainstorming sessions, known as "ideations." "A hell of a lot of the success is due to Joey," he says. "He's a shot of adrenaline. He brings an edginess and a risk to the table, which I think is lacking in most corporations. I wish we could distill him and inject him into our veins."


"If you really want something great, something that's going to change the world, we have to move slower, not faster."

But since we can't, here are the four steps: 1) investigation, 2) incubation, 3) illumination and 4) illustration.

Most companies probably already do Steps 1 and 4. Investigation involves analyzing the project, learning everything possible about it. The last step, which often takes BrightHouse nearly three months, is putting the knowledge together into a dynamic package. But businesses often ignore incubation and illumination.

Incubating an Idea
For every BrightHouse project, Reiman builds in three to four weeks of incubation, "where all we do-literally-is think." In fact, he's written a book on the subject, Thinking for a Living (Longstreet Press), and he's working on another one, Business at the Speed of Molasses. "What happens when you ponder?" asks Reiman. "You have more insight, more discovery, more compassion, more wonder. And the results all lead to, of course, more profits."

Before you contend that in a 24/7 world, careful thought is overrated or impossible, consider this: "It takes a bamboo tree four years to take root; in the fifth year, it grows 80 feet. That is the power of the incubator," says Reiman. "So we say to our clients, 'Wait a second, guys. If you really want something great, something that's going to change the world, we have to move slower, not faster.' The power of slow is our secret weapon."

Reiman encourages paid sabbaticals. Employees cut out early on Fridays during the summer, and during the incubation period, "the five bastions of thinking" are highlighted. Says Reiman, "We have this notion that there are five places left in the world to really think: the john, the shower, the car, the gym and church or temple."

No, the BrightHouse staff doesn't shower together, but as Reiman says, "We try to find places where we can relax. One of the things a lot of us will do is go fishing. Fishing is the perfect state to think. When you're fishing, two things are happening in your brain: Your brain is on high alert in case a fish is around, but your brain is completely relaxed. So this climate that we create is one of high relaxation and high attentiveness. That combination, we have found, is the time when you have the 'Aha!' moment."

Achieving Illumination

If innovation sounds nebulous, it is. As author Mark Henry Sebell says, "Innovation has no road map, so you can't set up a lot of systems and procedures. You can have guidelines, but they have to be loose ones."

For instance, few companies abide by the rule that all ideas should be considered. Sebell found it such a problem that he wrote a book, Ban the Humorous Bazooka--and Avoid the Roadblocks and Speed Bumps Along the Innovation Highway (Dearborn Trade). The "humorous bazooka" refers to a derogatory comment that shoots down an idea. "Consensus brainstorming is a killer," Sebell says. "It feeds on the lowest common denominator."

Does this mean you shouldn't brainstorm with your employees? No, but brainstorm with creativity--and compassion for what initially seems like a strange idea. In addition to ideating for clients, Reiman also has ideations to devise internal strategies for his own company. In these ideations, there isn't any humorous bazooka. Reiman always does whatever he can "to encourage the free flow of ideas," says Bradd Borne, an Emory University professor of anthropology and one of Reiman's illuminaries. "Unlike some CEOs, he's completely unthreatened by really smart people."

Reiman invites a diverse crowd into his ideations--say, an astrologist, a physicist and a psychologist to discuss life insurance. "If he's working with an auto manufacturer, he'll bring in an anthropologist or a sociologist--people who think beyond the borders of what you would expect, and you can really get into some fertile territory," says Nucifora.

Think Small
  • Small businesses produce 55% of all innovations.
  • Small businesses create twice as many product innovations as large corporations and get more patents per sales dollar than large firms.

SOURCE: Small Business Survival Committee

Anybody could theoretically run an ideation. Even if you can't pay an anthropologist for his or her time the way BrightHouse does, you could spring for lunch. If the professor isn't interested, maybe a graduate student will be. Anyone, including your sculptor brother-in-law, or your retired engineer neighbor, could be a valuable addition to an ideation. And mix your group with the lowest employees on the company ladder and the highest in your management team.

You don't want too few people in a session, says Nucifora, but more isn't merrier either. Twelve is optimum, though Nucifora has facilitated successful ideations with as few as seven people and as many as 16. The mix is most important. "The room then builds on itself," he says.

While the guidelines are loose, structure is still important. Working in four-hour blocks is key, says Simons, "because in that first hour, everybody's getting to know each other. In the second, people start talking about things that are important, and the fertile ideas come in the third hour. Then there's an incredible burst of ideas if the first three hours have gone the way it should. After that, people are done. You can't squeeze any more out of them."

Inspiration From Within
Your employees are bursting with ideas. Read on to learn how to encourage them to share.

Culture of Creativity

Shira White interviewed more than 100 highly creative thinkers, many of them in the corporate world, for her latest book, New Ideas About New Ideas (Perseus Publishing). She says if there's a common denominator among innovative entrepreneurs, it's this: "They tend to have creative lives, even when they're out of the office."

Reiman does. He is an adjunct business professor at Emory University, where he finds many--but not all--of his illuminaries. He's into yoga. He has horses in the barn near his house. In college, he studied and worked for Italian film director Federico Fellini. A voracious reader, he often hands out business books to his staff. But mostly, he looks at the world through multicolored glasses. Even brainstorming isn't brainstorming. He calls it "heartstorming."

When BrightHouse ideates, Reiman has one guiding principle: Think with your heart as much as your mind. "If you can actually impact the world, make a dent in the universe, do something that resonates with the hearts around the world, the profits will come," promises Reiman. "It sounds high-flying, and it is. It's soaring."

Much of it comes down to caring for the customer, which isn't all that innovative. Or is it? "Considering what's happened with 9/11, Anderson, the Archdiocese, Enron--the world is a lot more cynical," says Reiman. "People are looking for beacons to lead them, and if companies can really identify and articulate their core purposes, people will follow." That's why we remember Henry Ford today, and why people in the 22nd century will be talking about Bill Gates.

But if nothing had been invented after 1899, there would have been no Ford or Gates, and we would have been stuck on the edge of greatness. Our movies would still be grainy black and white, and Henry Ford wouldn't have created a car everybody could afford. Ford understood what Reiman says is a valve at the heart of innovation: "It's not just about coming up with new products. It's about understanding culture, and even something as large as a country."

Indeed, that's why Reiman always asks his clients: If your company were gone tomorrow, what would the world lose? And their answer had better be focused and nothing less than profound. "History only has room for one sentence," Reiman likes to tell his clients. He pauses and then asks: "What's your sentence?"

A Fierce Case of Innovation

Traction Plus Inc. is a $20 million company. Its products, ranging from chemicals and clothing to legal services, are sold throughout North America and Europe. The company has run Johnson Wax out of the floor-safety business and is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

So what's so innovative about it? Owner Russell Kendzior has not a single employee.

Kendzior operates out of his Bedford, Texas, office without so much as a receptionist. He virtually created his own industry--floor safety--and is constantly diversifying, zig-zagging his business into a global force to be reckoned with.

As a floor-covering salesman in the late 1980s, Kendzior listened when his customers complained that their floors became slippery soon after they were purchased. He did some research and commissioned chemists to develop a soap-free floor-cleaning product. After sinking $5,000 into research and quitting his job, Kendzior had his product, but no distributor. Kendzior gave away his floor cleaner to friends who owned some McDonald's locations, and within a year, it was the top-selling floor cleaner at McDonald's restaurants in the Dallas area.

Kendzior started off with a warehouse and two employees, but quickly realized he could license his product and have somebody else do all the work, freeing him to think up other opportunities. Today, licensees manufacture and distribute Traction Plus' wet-floor signs and floor-safety shoes. Kendzior created and runs the nonprofit National Floor Safety Institute, and he gives legal testimony in cases involving slippery floor accidents.

If there's a secret to Kendzior's innovation, it's that he thinks of himself as a virus, "a very resistant virus. Viruses are very small. They can withstand radiation. They need a host to propagate and survive, and the marketplace is the host," says Kendzior.

Kendzior has made himself resistant to antibodies in a number of ways. Not even those who manufacture his soap-free formula know what's in it because it's made in several different places. And because Traction Plus has diversified its product and service line within the floor-safety arena, it's now the point-company for the industry. Even Johnson Wax couldn't destroy Traction Plus when it came out with its own soap-free floor cleaner a few years ago. Johnson Wax, despite its great reputation, couldn't match the range of expertise Kendzior's business had.

"Being a micro-organization is great," says Kendzior. "We're a very resistant, very strong, but very small company. I don't want to be Johnson Wax. I think they want to be me."


Geoff Williams is known around the world for being an icon of innovation, a creative god, and the man Steven Spielberg and Stephen Hawking turn to when they need inspiration. This is the last time we let him write his own biographical notes.

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