Flip the Switch

If starting a business is on your mind, but you're still waiting for that light-bulb moment, read on to find out how others got their million-dollar ideas--and how you can come up with one, too.

It's the great "aha" moment every entrepreneur seeks: You've come up with an idea that no one else has thought of- one that ultimately gets off the ground and really flies. Everybody has ideas, but how do you come up with those million-dollar ideas that translate into big business?

Open Your Eyes
First, take a good look at yourself. What do you do best? Consider what's most important to you and what gets your blood racing, says Robert G. Allen, co-author of Cracking the Millionaire Code: Your Key to Enlightened Wealth. If your interest is dogs, for instance, then start a business that has to do with dogs. If your passion is chocolate, do something that dips your life in chocolate. Thinking about your interests will help you focus your brainstorming and give you the staying power to persevere through the tedious parts of starting a business.

To spark more creativity, put yourself in unusual situations, avoiding the humdrum of everyday life. Meet different people, travel, and read. "Put yourself in areas that stimulate your mind," says Fred Kiesner, chair of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Gathering with small groups of friends to brainstorm and imposing a deadline may also boost your imagination.

Another way to hit on a great idea: Take note of the obvious problems you encounter in everyday life. Not enough people allow an idea to permeate their psyche, even if it's staring them in the face. Keep a pad of paper and a pen in your shirt pocket, your purse or on your bedside table. Or start a pile of index cards with ideas written on them. Periodically throw away the ones that don't cut it, and hang on to those that might be before their time, says Rita McGrath, author of MarketBusters: 40 Strategic Moves That Drive Exceptional Business Growth.

Every edition of your daily newspaper contains at least five million-dollar ideas if you know what to look for, says Allen. In fact, he points out, just about every object around you made someone a fortune--whether it's a lamp, your computer or the paint on your walls. Dream up ways to improve or rework those same products to create another big idea.

"Listen to and observe what's going on around you," says Sean Glass, 26, who found the inspiration for his company while standing in a long line at a university bookstore. A sophomore at Yale University in 1999, Glass noticed that most students preferred to make purchases using their student ID cards, which electronically charged purchases to tuition bills. The student-ID checkout line was so long, in fact, that Glass wondered, "What would happen if those same students could use their ID cards to make purchases at businesses--a pizza joint or coffee shop-outside Yale's campus?"

That question helped lead to the creation of Higher One Inc., a New Haven, Connecticut, business that offers student checking accounts tied to university ID cards. Using ID cards as payment was one of several business ideas that emerged from a 3 a.m. dorm-room brainstorming session with Glass' friends Miles Lasater, 28, and Mark Volchek, 27.

Glass and his friends immediately shared their plan with Yale's then-CFO, Joseph Mullinix, who liked it. But Mullinix helped them expand their business idea by pointing out a bigger problem: There was currently no system for universities to electronically issue refunds or financial aid to students. The trio wanted to fill this void as well, so they presented their idea to the university's advisory board, which is made up of executives from some of the nation's largest companies. Glass listened to the board members' advice and ultimately laid the groundwork for Higher One, which now gives universities across the country the option of electronically issuing refunds and financial aid in addition to providing card-based banking to students. The company has grown to 52 employees, 33 university customers and 127,000 student bank accounts. Glass projects 2006 sales of more than $18 million, and he hopes to grow Higher One into a $100 million company by 2008.

Many entrepreneurs, once they find an idea, isolate themselves because they're afraid someone will steal it. Be cautious, but take a risk by telling people what you want to do, and be open to criticism, says Allen. Talk to potential customers. Ask them what they think. And ask other people in the know, such as potential angel investors or bankers, who will undoubtedly find holes in the plan. Listen to them. Sometimes entrepreneurs get so excited about their ideas, they don't pay any attention when someone waves a red flag. Says Allen, "You can't see [what's in your] blind spots without other people looking at [them]"

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This article was originally published in the February 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Flip the Switch.

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