If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants. -- Sir Isaac Newton
Entrepreneurs constantly strive to come up with new ideas, concepts and business practices. One of the best ways to generate profitable new ideas is to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Indeed, we can learn much from those who have come before.
In his excellent book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon points out, “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.” I agree.
For example, I write thousands of words every week. If I relied solely on my own original ideas for writing prompts, I would have run out of material years ago. Yet, I am constantly inspired toward new thinking because I continually read material from great writers.
In fact, your very business concept is likely “borrowed” from other businesses you observed. Sure, you made your organization unique with your own spin and maybe (hopefully!) you do what you do even better than anyone else. Your originality stems from how you implement and integrate unoriginal concepts. Solomon said it almost 3,000 years ago, and he was right: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Consider some of the hottest concepts in the world today: smartwatches, ride sharing, cronuts, backyard wineries. In all of these cases, a competitor came along, stood on the shoulders of giants, and re-crafted what came before into what they believe is a better product or service. I have no problem with that, as long as there is no direct rip-off of proprietary practices. Fortunately, it is not difficult to find a great idea, re-shape it, and integrate it into your business.
Doing this in an acceptable and profitable manner requires two things:
Intentionality begins with becoming intensely aware of powerful ideas. Such ideas are easy to locate if you know where to look. You might even start at a mall.
At the check-out counter in a Nordstrom men’s suit department, you will discover an interesting point-of-purchase impulse item: a style guide for men. Nordstrom salespeople do not sell this guide to their customers. It just sits there, waiting for an impulsive buyer. This all makes perfect sense.
Related: Underdogs Can't Win Being Copycats
Nordstrom operates an upscale store catering to men who pay well to dress well. A style guide adds value for their customers and serves as an incremental revenue generator (and loyalty builder) for the store. This is an idea worthy of building upon in other business applications!
Consider the “please touch the merchandise” approach in every Apple store you visit. Apple wants you immersed in its products, knowing that the more time you spend holding an item, the greater the chance you will purchase it. Forget the “you break it, you buy it” mentality -- Apple designs all of its stores as high-tech, serve-yourself buffets, complete with kiddie tables. At Apple it’s more like, “You break it, no problem! We will hook you up with another.” This customer-friendly approach is definitely worth learning from and expanding upon.
Creative adaptation is not about the origin of an idea -- it is about implementation. When you generate new ideas, two creative processes come in to play: what to do and how to do it.
If I owned a men’s clothing store and I simply copied the words from the Nordstrom style guide into my own book, that would be a legal and ethical offense. But what if I found a way to adapt and even improve the style-guide idea?
For example, what if I offered complimentary lifestyle or fashion workshops in a corner of the store throughout the week? It's the same theme, but an entirely different (and ethical) approach. The idea comes from others you’ve learned from -- you execute with originality.
If I built a hands-on store that looked exactly like an Apple store, down to the crisp, clean lines and glass windows, I would be guilty of stealing. But if I find ways to get my customers to experience my product vs. just looking, I am not stealing -- I am seeing further because I have stood on the shoulders of a giant. I might even develop some sort of loaner program (at no cost) that allows my customers to take my products out the door and "test drive" them for a spell.
My advice: go shopping for ideas. Spend some time online, at a mall or at a competitor’s store. Look for giant shoulders to stand upon and you can change the world!