Think Big

Hate seeing some stupid gadget on QVC making somebody millions? Don't get mad, get creative. These 9 simple steps can turn your big ideas into big profits.
9 min read

This story appears in the January 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

Wow! I jus saw a fantastic new product. How did those guys come up with it?

Here's an ad that pulls customers in like a magnet. How did a little start-up get such a great idea?

How did three sisters dream up that terrific business of the Web?

We've all seen incredible business ideas--the ones that seem to grab everyone's attention, the ones that make products fly off the shelves. But where do these terrific ideas come from?

Creativity. That's what experts in business, problem-solving and cognitive intelligence all say. And that's what thousands of successful entrepreneurs (who probably never studied any of those subjects) are proving every day. Simply put, that 3-pound gray blob called the human brain appears to have a program titled "Identifying Great Business Concepts" built right in. Some people have found the secret to switching on that mental software and using it to crank out clever, successful, multimillion-dollar business concepts. But now their secret is out.

The good news is that "being an entrepreneur" and "being creative" are really two versions of the same thing. Creativity is often defined as:

  • "Seeing things in a different way"
  • "Doing something new"
  • "Finding better solutions to life's problems"

Isn't that what starting a business is all about? The desire to "do something new" is why you're reading Business Start-Ups instead of Spin. So every entrepreneur is creative. Welcome to the club.

Now, maybe your first-grade teacher told you to color inside the lines. But your little hand yearned to Crayola "outside the box." Nonconformist, allergic to fixed thought, a taker of calculated risks, you're running from "business as usual" as fast as your new business idea will carry you.

But business is competitive. Without deep pockets, a sterling track record or wealthy connections, you need a trump card. Creativity. Inspiration. More with less. Call it whatever. Just start using it.

So create your goal. Then unleash this arsenal of nine creative methods on your business dreams.

1. Take them by storm. Back when father knew best and Ozzie and Harriet ruled TV, advertising exec Alex Osborn shook up the buttoned-down world of 1950s corporate America by introducing the first modern creativity technique: brainstorming. His rules were stunningly simple:

  • Select any problem or challenge.
  • Write, draw or shout out every solution you can dream up.
  • Silly, crazy, naughty ideas are welcome.
  • Don't call any idea good or bad.
  • Keep it loose and spontaneous.
  • Organize your results later.

That first taste of creative rebellion launched a thousand ideas. To strike your own entrepreneurial gold, pick a problem (i.e., "College textbooks cost too much.") Then swap solutions with your friends over a noisy lunch. (Surprise: That's how Internet bookstores got started.) Write it all down. Then stand back, because there's no telling how big your business brainstorm might grow.

2. Opposites attract. That's the secret behind synectics. Call this one the Odd Couple of the idea world, because synectics is about bumping unlikely, make-no-sense ideas against each other to achieve great results. It sounds crazy, but watch what happens:

  • "Imagine a restaurant with no waiters, no tables and no silverware." (You just described the first McDonald's.)
  • "Imagine a bookstore with no books--and no store." (You just created
  • "Imagine a glue that hardly sticks at all." (You just invented Post-its.)

Synectics is all about making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. So let's get strange:

  • "Waiters who drop everything." (How about an "Inspector Clouseau" comedy restaurant?)
  • "Moving trucks with no movers." (Whoops, that's U-Haul. Someone's already making a fortune on that idea.)

Want a terrific business idea? Start with something strange.

3. THINKubate. Gerald Haman's toothpaste is in your bathroom. In fact, his stuff is probably all over your house, because he's developed successful product lines for Procter & Gamble, Arthur Andersen and other giants. In the process, he's discovered most people get their best ideas away from their office.

As co-founder of SolutionPeople, a Chicago consulting firm that specializes in creativity training, Haman created the "THINKubator." It's a business playground where entrepreneurs and corporate CEOs sit on crazy-shaped couches, watch kaleidoscopic light shows--then create out-of-the-box business concepts. Haman's point? A stimulating environment can help you spot great ideas. (I guess those frat-entrepreneurs playing Frisbee in the dormitory were right, after all.)

Try making a "creative space" where you do business. Cover white walls with posters and pictures that stimulate your thinking. Strew your desk with Slinkys and other toys. But be careful: The power of play can turn creativity (good ideas) into innovations (good ideas that make a lot of money).

4. Trigger great ideas. You might suffer a concussion from a whack on the side of the head. But that's exactly what idea guru Roger Von Oech prescribes in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative (Warner Books, 15.99, Using idea "triggers" ("Try reversing it," "Can you leave that out?") can help you rearrange your thinking.

Haman takes it a step further. His "KnowBrainer" tool is a palm-sized set of symbols and icons that channel your thinking into great solutions.

Create your own triggers right now. Assuming that this is your magazine, cut out your favorite quotes, tips and advice in each article. Magnet one to your fridge. Tape another to your PC. Try one every day. Idea triggers can trigger success.

5. Connect. Synchronicity says there's no luck--only fortunate coincidences. Jordan Ayan should know. As a creativity consultant and keynote speaker, Ayan, founder of Create-It! Inc. in Naperville, Illinois, has jump-started innovation at companies ranging from PricewaterhouseCoopers to NASA. His advice to start-up entrepreneurs? "Every person you meet or place you visit might be an opportunity waiting to happen," he says. "Each event in your life can spark a new result or move you in a new direction."

Now the question: Will you spot that great opportunity? Are you prepared to capitalize on it? For Ayan, it's all about building your C.O.R.E. (curiosity, openness, risk and energy). Develop those traits, and you can turn coincidence into success.

Start attending those business expos and chamber of commerce meetings. Talk with everyone you meet. Ask customers and suppliers what's selling, what's hot, what they see on the horizon. Break your usual habits: Browse a new store, visit a different city. Ideas will happen. Because what's in your head isn't all that counts. In business, your "outer" creativity (conversation, networking) is as important as your inner creativity.

6. Always celebrate failure. Learn from your errors to create success. Redesign that tepid ad into a tiger. Use your worst-selling product to understand your customers better. (Edison once broke one of his office machines--and wound up inventing the phonograph.)

7. Make 'em laugh. If a funny thing happened on the way to your business, it might be a more successful company. Like creativity, comedy is about seeing things in a different way. Innovation expert Ayan calls that the "play ethic." Think "work ethic," but in reverse.

Invent your new product with Wile E. Coyote. Let the Marx Brothers show you how to break the rules. To write uproarious advertising, imagine Lucy and Ethel doing your infomercial. You might see everything in a whole new way.

8. Sweat it. That perspiration in "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration" is about moving your tail and getting some exercise. You need to keep your mind thinking and working. Movement helps release the endorphins that stimulate creative thought. The "E" in Jordan Ayan's C.O.R.E. formula stands for energy. So just do it.

Instead of slumping on the couch in front of the TV, try reading Business Start-Ups while you climb the StairMaster. Make your next meeting a power walk at the mall. (Then it's market research, to boot.) Spend an hour on financials and 20 minutes kick-boxing. Call it fiscal fitness.

9. Remember your wildest dreams. Elias Howe invented the sewing machine after a frightening nightmare in which cannibals were piercing his flesh with spears. Research chemist Frederick Kekule found the solution to an "unsolvable" problem during a dream.

Pay attention to flights of fancy, daydreams and messages in slumber. Your entrepreneurial brain might just be working the night shift. So don't get caught napping when ideas happen.

Nick D'Alto  is director of the Institute For Economic Growth, a nonprofit organization that helps people create new businesses and careers.

Now Create Your Future

Those are nine ways to innovate your business dreams. There are lots more. But there's one big message. Don't let "fixed" thinking stop you from finding the business you've been looking for. That boring, rigid world out there is just itching to have one more "ordinary" person, living by the rules in a humdrum life.

Your only escape? Be creative. Start innovating, and you'll kiss the evil forces of conformity goodbye. So if you're ready to make a break for it, start creating your own future--right now.

Brain Boosters

Try these tools to boost your creativity:

  • Read Jordan Ayan's book Aha! 10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas (Crown Trade Paperbacks, $15, www,
  • Brainstorm your perfect business using Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck by Michael Michalko (Ten Speed Press, $16.95, 800-841-2665).
  • "Mind-mapping" is like wearing X-ray glasses to look inside your own head. To mind-map your entrepreneurial future, read The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain's Untapped Potential by Tony Buzan (Plume, $22.95,
  • Turn your computer into a creative muse with IdeaFisher 6.0 ($109.95 street), interactive software from IdeaFisher Systems Inc. that helps you create great ideas. Test drive it at
  • Want to learn how to create like a genius? Read Michael J. Gelb's masterpiece, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day (Delacorte Press, $24.95,
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