Looks Like Rain

If you've thought and thought and still haven't come up with any great ideas, don't sweat. We've got the tips to turn your bone-dry brainstorming sessions into hurricane-force innovation.
Magazine Contributor
13 min read

This story appears in the September 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It's a familiar story. A little wining and dining, and you find you have so much in common. The moment you laid eyes on each other, there was an instant chemistry, a feeling that this was the one, the one you could grow old with. But then you slept on it, and the next morning you woke up alone in your bed with those familiar pit-in-the-stomach words running through your mind: "What was I thinking?"

So we all agree? Finding the right business idea is difficult. Even if your parents believe you should have settled down with an idea already, or taken the easy route and let them fix you up with some cushy corporate career instead of pursuing this--this start-up--you know the right business idea is out there. But where? Where?

If you're in despair, you're not alone--and if we can help it, you won't be alone for long. We've consulted experts who may be able to help you finally find the right business idea you've been waiting for.

First, Some Inspiration
She was a wide-eyed teenager when she met the right business idea, although she didn't know it yet. It was the mid-1980s, and Amy Nye Wolf was capping off a six-week backpacking tour across Europe with a friend when she saw a store selling music at London's Heathrow Airport. "I was so sick of the music I had, and I was just happy to see it," Wolf recalls. She doesn't remember what she bought--"probably some '80s band"--but she flew home, excited and impressed. Back then, retailing in American airports was mostly limited to restaurants and newsstands.

Five or six years later, after college and some time spent as an investment banker, Wolf decided to do something she had been thinking about for a long time: start a business. "I had no major responsibilities in my life," she says. "It was the right time."

Wolf founded and is now the chair of AltiTunes Partners LP, a chain of music stores with 28 locations--one in a train station, the rest in airports; in fact, there are a few airports that have more than one store. By year-end, she projects AltiTunes will bring in $15 million.

Finding the Elusive Idea

But like all businesses, this one began with an idea that Wolf, 34, freely admits she borrowed. "I stole the idea, and then did some serious adapting," Wolf says. Stealing an idea for a business isn't as shifty as it sounds; if entrepreneurs didn't take inspiration from fellow business owners, there would be no Burger King or Wendy's, just McDonald's--and perhaps not even that, because White Castle and other burger joints had already been on the scene. Starbucks wasn't the first coffeehouse, and Barnes & Noble wasn't the first bookstore. Wolf simply remembered how an entrepreneur fulfilled her musical needs in London and realized she could fill those needs in her own country as well.

But back when she decided to start a business, she had no idea what her great business idea would be. Wolf had completely forgotten about her experience of buying music in an airport. The right idea was in the recesses of her brain, but she had to find it first.

Wolf quit her investment banking job in the fall of 1992. With $100,000 saved to put into her start-up, she could afford to spend time brainstorming business ideas. That was a good thing, because it took a while--at least several months between starting the brainstorming process and channeling a lightning bolt. But how she found that business idea could be a blueprint to any entrepreneur's success, and that blueprint had three important components:

  1. She kept an open mind about possible businesses.
  2. She constantly looked at the financial bottom line to see if the business would be viable.
  3. Even when the business seemed potentially profitable, Wolf took a reality check and asked herself if it could live up to the expectations she had for herself and her future company.

The first idea that really appealed to Wolf was to open a store that sold educational and entertainment software for children. She also considered offering classes in a room behind the retail department, where parents and children could learn to use the software. "But the margins didn't work," says Wolf, who did plenty of planning, trying to figure out whether she could make money.

Wolf assessed her idea because she didn't want to wake up one morning, poor and discouraged, wondering "What was I thinking?" After crunching the numbers, she realized that she would only be really busy after school and on weekends, and that much of the workday might look like a ghost town in her store.

To make extra money to live on, Wolf started doing some freelance computer training. And even though that sounds like a bit of a strategic retreat from boldly starting her own business, she was inadvertently following the advice that business consultant Jeff Blackman recommends.

Blackman, whose most recent book is Carpe A.M. Carpe P.M.: Seize Your Destiny! (The Result Collection) and who speaks nationwide about business issues, suggests if you're going to find that elusive perfect idea, you need to get out there, live your life and be open to new prospects.

Wolf enjoyed computer training and considered that as a career, but her hands-on experience opened her eyes. "I was always going to be limited by the hours in the day," she says. "I couldn't work enough as one person to have the type of company I wanted, and the only way I could would be to train others. It just wouldn't have been the right business for me."

"Watch TV, go see a movie, read a magazine, take a walk," suggests Blackman. "You know how when you're looking to buy a house, and suddenly you notice all of these For Sale signs in yards? If you're looking for an idea, you can program your brain to notice these things."

Which is why one day, Wolf suddenly recalled her experience at an airport in London.

Programming the Brain

Deborah G. Estes is a speaker and consultant for companies and organizations wanting to understand how the brain works when brainstorming. "You have to stimulate the brain to make it go into a brainstorming mode," says Estes, a former teacher and principal. She thinks and talks a lot about dendrites, which wire our brains to our nerves. "The more dendrites you have, the more ways you have to solve problems, the more connections your brain is making, and the more creative you can be," says Estes. So if you're looking for a business idea but you don't want to depend on dumb luck, you need to stimulate those dendrites.

Estes recommends brainstorming in a group. If you already have a potential business partner or friends who are willing to help you, gather them together, start talking and taking notes--with a cavalier, "anything goes" attitude--and see what you come up with.

And don't worry if your creative sessions aren't logical. "They're not supposed to be logical," says Estes, who adds that, above all, your brainstorming sessions should be adventuresome. "Keep it creative and playful," she says.

If you can't always bring somebody else into your brainstorming sessions, you're going to have to operate solo and dance with the dendrites. "Go someplace you've never been before and take notes," advises Estes. "Talk to people you wouldn't normally talk to. Drive a different way to work, go to a museum or start journaling."

But here's the biggest mistake most people make when brainstorming: "They simply don't cover enough ground," says Tom Monahan, who runs Before & After Inc., a creative coaching business in Tiverton, Rhode Island. "They don't work out enough ideas, and they tend to go with their first idea or their first good idea. In a competitive business world, your first good idea is likely to be an idea that somebody else [has thought about already]."

He should know. Monahan wrote The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy (John Wiley & Sons), a book that teaches people how to think creatively. He has also helped large corporations such as AT&T, Frito-Lay, GTE and United Way with the brainstorming process.

In his book, he outlines several methods to brainstorming, like the 180-degree method, in which you think of the worst possible outcomes for a business. Let's say you love coffee, and you're thinking of opening a coffeehouse. The worst thing you could do to your customers is throw hot coffee on them, right? So you might come up with a business that manufactures special coffee gloves.

Admittedly, it's probably the stupidest idea in the world, but in the world of brainstorming, there are no stupid ideas. Or you might start thinking about a company that sells soothing hand lotions for minor burns, and suddenly you're light years away from your coffeehouse idea.

Whatever technique you use to concoct a new business idea, Monahan suggests you think of it this way: "I like to look at what problems consumers have in any given area. I think problems are the biggest springboards for ideas."

Brainstorming can be a lonely business, so don't allow yourself to get discouraged, warns Estes. "The brain believes what you tell it. It has no reason not to trust you. And when you make the statement 'I can't do this,' your brain will believe it."

Monahan offers more encouragement. "There is no such thing as absolute creativity," he says. "Every new idea is merely a spin on an old idea. [Knowing that] takes the pressure off from thinking [you] have to be totally creative. You don't. Sometimes it's one slight twist to an old idea that makes all the difference."

Think Tank

  • JPB Creative, a company that specializes in innovative thinking, offers a Web site devoted to creativity, featuring a 10-step brainstorming program.
  • Tom Monahan suggests visiting www.do-it-yourselflobotomy.com. Mostly a Web site for his business and book, it also provides ideas you could adapt on your own.
  • Log on to www.mindtools.com. This online retail store sells products that inspire you to think and offers plenty of suggestions for books and software to help you brainstorm better.

More Than an Idea

Whether you spend $2 million or two bucks on an idea, that doesn't mean you can make it work, or that you will want to spend the rest of your life with it. Just as you probably wouldn't get married after the first date, you're going to have to court your idea for a good period of time and start asking the crucial getting-to-know-you questions.

For Wolf, she began asking herself, "What's the worst that can happen?" She went through various worst-case scenarios to see how long her business would last if people simply weren't buying. She finally deduced she would need to sell 30 CDs per day to stay afloat, "which was probably wrong," says Wolf, "but that's what I thought, so I started the business. I was the one who was going to be working behind the counter, and I thought I could sell 30 CDs in a day." Today, Wolf's business sells 3,000 to 4,000 per day, among other things, like portable stereos and computer games.

Thinking about your business--planning, plotting, daydreaming--can help you avoid problems with it later. "The hardest thing about inventing is selling and marketing," says Sol Aisenberg, a physicist and member of Invent Resources, a Lexington, Massachusetts, group of scientists that develops prototypes of inventions based on their clients' ideas.

There are several questions you should ask yourself, Aisenberg says, after you've come up with an incredible, surefire idea for a business, product or service:

1. Will it work?
2. Do you own the idea?
3. Is it practical?
4. Is there a need for it?

Once you answer those questions, you're one step closer to starting your dream business.

Just don't neglect that step where you assess the idea. "The dumbest reason to start a business is because you like the idea," warns Seth Godin. That sounds like strange talk coming from somebody who wrote Unleashing the Ideavirus (Hyperion), but what he means is that it's more important to have entrepreneurial skills than to simply have a clever notion for a business. "Plenty of entrepreneurs with boring ideas do very well," says Godin.

He's right. An idea is just an idea until you do something with it. But you have to find that idea first. And it's out there, perhaps lurking in a dendrite in the back of your mind. Maybe it will make itself known when you're sitting on the bus, looking up at the advertising or at the scowling passenger next to you, and a connection in your brain ignites.

The right idea for you exists, and looking for it is as applicable as Wolf's dating advice. Says Wolf, who met her husband at age 24 and married him five years later, "You have to try finding some common interests, and if the relationship works without it feeling like a lot of work, then it's a signal for success."

When Good Ideas Go Bad
The Bermuda Triangle. Roswell. Michael Jackson. Good business ideas gone bad. There are many mysteries out there, but some think they know the reason for that last one. Richard Pavelle and his team of scientists invent the ideas brought to them by companies around the country. Not surprisingly, seemingly good ideas go bad because they weren't well-thought-out to begin with, says Pavelle, president of Invent Resources. "More than 90 percent of the ideas and inventions listed at the patent office are worthless," he adds.

Invent Resources physicist Sol Aisenberg says ideas often cost more than an entrepreneur is willing to invest. And George Freedman, an MIT-trained engineer, blames it on the lack of a customer base--it may be an interesting idea, but nobody will buy it.

Then there's the possibility that the idea was good, suggests business author Rick Maurer, who wrote Why Don't You Want What I Want? How to Win Support for Your Ideas Without Hard Sell, Manipulation or Power Plays (Bard Press). If investors and business partners don't support your idea, especially if their reasons are vague, "they [may not] like it at an emotional level--deeper than they'll tell you," says Maurer. That means you shouldn't push the idea, but "go into the eye of the hurricane" and work on fixing the real problems behind the resistance.

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