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This Is Where Big Ideas Come From Big ideas for successful businesses don't come often, but when they do, you always know it and never expect it.

By Steve Tobak Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


If you really want to beat the odds and become a successful entrepreneur, the last thing you want to do is sit at your computer and try to come up with a startup or small business idea out of the blue. That's just not the way it works.

So what's wrong with that picture? You're asking the wrong question of the wrong person in the wrong situation.

Ask the right question.

The right question to ask is what problem or need do you feel so passionately about that you're willing to take on great risk and make a long-term commitment to solve it?

Look, it's fine to have personal motives or self-centered reasons for starting a business. Maybe you want to be your own boss and rule your own destiny. Perhaps you're fed up with the corporate world and the corporate world is fed up with you. Or maybe it's just that time.

But if you want your business to be successful, you've also got to come up with a product or service that solves a big customer problem way better than anything else out there. And if you don't feel strongly about meeting that particular need, you won't have what it takes to stick with it over the long haul.

The truth is, building a successful business from the ground up takes great personal sacrifice to work long hours for months or years on end to see it through. Not only that, but there inevitably will be all sorts of hurdles that threaten to derail the venture. If you're not deeply and emotionally committed, you won't make it.

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Ask the right person in the right situation.

The right person to ask is usually someone else, but even if it's not, the right situation is almost anywhere but staring at a blank computer screen.

You see, if you sit down to work on a task, that usually requires research, thinking, and documenting. That you can do on a computer. But that's not usually where big ideas come from. Big ideas are inspirational; they come from deep inside you. Likewise, identifying and solving tough problems requires deep thought.

If you're like most people, you'll find it much easier to access the emotional, inspirational, creative, or deep thinking parts of your brain when you're relaxed, tired, engaged in some mindless task, or bouncing ideas off others in an impromptu setting than when you're sitting at your desk trying to come up with something alone.

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This is how inspiration works.

For example, an artist attempting to accurately render a specific scene or object can probably walk right up to a canvas and start painting, if she's good at her craft. But an abstract artist works very differently. A feeling may hit her wherever and whenever. Then she may sketch it out or just mull it over in her mind for hours, days or even months before putting brush to canvas. At least that's what they tell me.

Writing works more or less the same way. I can sit down to write a column on a particular subject that may require research and analysis, and of course. But breakthrough concepts or emotional content comes from a completely different part of my brain and state of mind. Try as I might, I can't simply sit down and make it happen. It just doesn't work that way.

Sometimes we come up with ideas when taking a shower. Sometimes things come to us when we're half asleep. Other times you're just talking to a coworker in the hallway or on a plane and, just like that, the answer to a problem that's been bugging you forever or a wild revelation just pops into your head. It happens. And it happened to me.

I'd been head of marketing and sales at a late-stage startup for some months when the CEO, CFO and I were eating lunch in a conference room after a particularly challenging board meeting. Irritated that I had yet to deliver on my top priority, the CEO asked, "So when the hell are you going to come up with our strategy?"

To this day, I don't know where it came from, but I remember standing up, saying, "You want to know what our strategy is? Here you go," and then walking over to the white board, and writing down our two-pronged strategy. All three of us just stared at the answer to a dilemma that had eluded us for so long. And that was the strategy that got the company to a successful IPO four years later.

I'm sure I'd been pondering and processing the question for months but I was not consciously aware that I'd arrived at any kind of conclusion until that moment. That, my friends, is called inspiration. That is where big ideas for successful businesses come from. They don't come often, but when they do, you always know it and never expect it.

Related: Quit Reading and Writing and Start Doing

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at, where you can contact him and learn more.

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