Want a Brilliant Business Idea? Wash the Dishes.
Free Preview: Start Your Own Business
Two years ago, my co-founder Alison Matz and I left big corporate gigs to launch Skura Style, our ecommerce startup, which ships attractive and functional sponges directly to a growing number of happy subscribers in kitchens across the United States. Now, a year post-launch, we've garnered lots of national attention, momentum and solid marketplace traction, and colleagues who themselves have an entrepreneurial itch to scratch frequently approach us for advice.
Before Skura, I spent three decades at a major ad agency, including my final decade there when I was chairman and CEO. Among our clients was IKEA, one of the first brands to “disrupt” the household-goods market by democratizing simple design. This wasn't our only link to the household goods industry: Alison had held leadership roles at companies like Martha Stewart and Meredith.
Maybe that's why many would-be entrepreneurs aiming to be the “IKEA of …” or the “Martha Stewart of…[fill in the blank]” now ask us if startup success today requires a celebrity brand, a killer algorithm or just simply a big war chest.
We don't see those as the best questions to ask. Instead, our best advice? If you want to be brilliant, wash the dishes.
Keep it simple.
In other words, pay attention to the mundane and focus on simple improvements. Solving a minor pain point or making something routine better is what may very well change the world, improve your own life and launch a category redefining business.
Quite literally, being present and mindful while I was cleaning up in my own kitchen inspired my own business. The kitchen is the epicenter of family life, socializing and -- for many entrepreneurs -- their work lives. And while nearly every appliance, gadget and surface in the kitchen has undergone massive innovation since the 1940s, there was one critical thing, I realized, that had been ignored: the sponge.
This unsightly, disgusting and germ-laden cleaning item -- often still in use well beyond its functionality -- had become a subconscious pain point in my life. Why couldn’t I have an awesome, well-designed and new sponge miraculously appear in my home every month? That revelation inspired me to pivot my career from Big Advertising to what I can only describe as Big Sponge.
How to hatch your own "big sponge" idea.
Jonesing to go from corporate exec to entrepreneur? Looking for ways to focus an otherwise complex startup idea? Go for the simple tweak. Here are five approaches you can use to surface ideas about products or services begging for innovation.
Give yourself a life audit.
Wake up on an ordinary Tuesday and think about all the things you do: get out of bed, brush your teeth, move the car, open the fridge ... It’s likely that your day includes little pain points along the way. Maybe you’ve figured out your own hacks or workarounds for those things without even thinking about it.
But think again: Are there little tweaks that could make these daily annoyances go away? Here's how to approach that question:
Let your emotions be your guide.
Hate standing in line? Ever run out of a product when you desperately need it the most? Get outraged reading about scary ingredients in items you’ve been consuming for years? The co-founders of Lola.com were inspired to launch their 100 percent cotton tampon business after dealing with the frustrations, indignities and concerns surrounding this product half the younger adult population uses monthly. (In fact, the average woman pre-menopause applies 10,000 tampons to her most absorbent body part, without considering what they’re made of.)
Follow a passion to get the payoff.
Startup success requires real passion and must transcend the transactional to be transformational. In my case, a better sponge was not enough; it had to add joy to a person’s day.
Sweating the small stuff like the frustration inherent in changing a duvet cover is what drove bedding company Crane and Canopy to disrupt daily bed-making drudgery. Knowing women feel more confident on a good hair day, Amy Erret founded Madison Reed, a direct-to-consumer hair color business bundling better, more affordable products with expert support.
Making "good hair days” accessible to more women has helped Madison Reed to land $70 million in funding and to fuel Erret's idea's expansion beyond ecommerce, to brick-and-mortar salons.
Listen to consumers.
A category is ripe for disruption when only one or two brands comprise 70 to 75 percent of market share. For decades, Gillette and Schick dominated the razor game. Though they continuously added innovations to keep their brands relevant, they ignored some big consumer issues: Why were shaving accoutrements under lock and key at the drugstore? Why were razors increasingly expensive?
Enter two disruptors who did listen. Their inexpensive, home-delivered shaving products propelled the consumer products industrial complex to act: Unilever eventually bought Dollar Shave Club; and Harry’s is now being featured in Target.
Give it the toothbrush test.
Our business plan includes reference to Google founder Larry Page’s “toothbrush” test: Will consumers use what you’re offering every day and will it improve their lives? The toothbrush test arguably helped inform the creation and funding of oral health care service Quip. One of the founders listened to his dentist’s rant about patients’ bad habits: brushing too hard, not brushing thoroughly enough and not replacing the brush frequently enough. That's how the subscription-based dental care company took off, attracted $22 million in funding and is now selling starter kits in Target.
The next time an everyday occurrence you’ve come to accept as "normal" annoys, infuriates or excites you, think about it. If you can fix it, change it, simplify or improve it, you could be on the cusp of a world-changing, category-busting, life-altering business. Sometimes brilliance can be unlocked in the act of doing something truly mundane.