The lightbulb. Bubble wrap. The Post-It. The iPod. The Snuggie. Facebook. Twitter.
These inventions, products, and businesses all started with an idea. Coming up with today's equivalent of the lightbulb is a tall order, but great ideas can be as small as an updated logo for your business or as big as a new product line.
Peter van Stolk, founder of Jones Soda Co., is a good example of a business owner who wasn't afraid to take a great idea and run with it.
Mr. Van Stolk boosted his $20-million (U.S.) business to $42 million in four years by coming up with an idea that generated $25 million in free publicity. Jones Soda was a small Seattle-based beverage company competing against Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. Combined, those two monoliths spend a billion dollars a year on advertising.
One day in 2003, Mr. Van Stolk came up with an idea in his car to create a Turkey & Gravy-flavoured soda for release around Thanksgiving. His brand got a lot of attention by U.S. media, and the product began to sell out.
Generating useful ideas is a skill, and like any other skill it can be learned. The more you practice, the easier it will be to come up with ideas whenever you need them.
Here are 20 suggestions on how to generate killer ideas to jump-start your venture:
Carry a notebook.
The only thing worse than not being able to come up with an idea is thinking of an amazing idea, not writing it down, and then forgetting it. You may think you will remember, but you won't. Having a small notepad or digital recorder with you at all times guarantees that those ideas will not escape. Keep one in your glove compartment, on your nightstand, and in your desk drawer. Keeping a few spare sheets of loose paper in your wallet or purse is a good idea, too.
Listen to people talking on the bus, at the coffee shop, or in the elevator at work. You'll get a good feel for what people care about: their concerns, wishes, and interests. And you may also hear a great idea or two in the mix. Build on the snippets of conversation you overhear to create a story, and let that story lead you to a brilliant idea.
Do something new.
Sign up for a class, take up a new hobby, listen to a different kind of music. Not only will it get new parts of your brain humming, you'll meet and connect with new people, which is a great way to find great new ideas.
Hold a grudge.
What annoys you? When you think about the list of things you wish were different, chances are those things also annoy other people. Keep a running list of all things that bug you and find solutions that will make them better.
Find the peanut butter to your jelly.
Take two ideas and put them together to make one new idea. After all, what is a Snuggie but the mutation of a blanket and a robe? Think beyond the obvious connections to come up with something truly innovative.
Movement increases the flow of endorphins, as well as sending more blood to your brain. I keep a mini-trampoline in my office and jump up and down for a few minutes to get my blood moving. Run, skip, jump, climb stairs, get your pulse rate up to get your brain moving.
Get an outsider's opinion.
There are times when you are so close to a project it creates a mental block for idea generation. Bringing in a fresh perspective can make all the difference. Get someone who is not familiar with your situation to ask you questions about it. It may be over dinner with friends, with a colleague at the water cooler, or in line at the grocery store with a stranger. They may ask things that lead you to an idea that you overlooked because it was too obvious. No one around? Imagine that someone is coming to you with the problem you are trying to solve. What would you tell them? Your answer may be the solution you are looking for.
It may sound obvious, but really listen when customers talk to you. When you do, you will hear ideas for new products and services, ways to improve customer service, and uses you never considered for your products that can open up new markets for you. Your customers may not recognize when they are giving you ideas, but you need to be able to spot them. Are several customers making the same comments or asking the same questions? Act on it.
Change your routine.
New surroundings and new experiences can help your brain shift gears and get you to think differently. Drive a new route to the office, try a new restaurant for lunch, start work a little earlier (or a little later), work in a different place, or anything that busts you out of your rut.
Listen to music.
You may find that a little Mozart awakens your creativity, or you may respond better to a little Metallica. Whatever works for you, fire up your iPod, get into the groove, and let your mind work.
Take a shower, walk the dog, do the laundry.
How many great ideas do you get in the shower? It's not a coincidence that great thinking happens in the shower. Showering is a mindless activity (the only thing you really have to think about is 'have I already repeated, or just lathered and rinsed?'). "And the warm water is relaxing. Other mindless activities are great for brainstorming too. Wash the dishes, walk the dog, or fold the laundry. If you give your mind the chance to wander, you'll free yourself to come up with a brilliant idea.
Make a list (and check it twice).
This is a tried-and-true method proven to work wonders. Get out a notepad, or fire up your computer, and write down everything you can think of related to your issue. For example, if you need a new slogan for a product, write down every feature and benefit you can think of, the types of people who need the product, the problems it solves, and so on. Pull out a thesaurus and start looking up synonyms. When you are done, you will not only have your slogan, you will have a library of words and phrases you can use in your marketing and publicity campaigns.
Wear a silly hat.
Use a prop when it is time to be creative. It could be anything that signals to your brain that it's time to go into idea-generating mode. Have a routine that you follow when you want to be creative. It might be to put on your hat, grab a ball to toss up in the air, and lean back in your chair with your feet on the desk. Once you are in your creative-at-work position, start coming up with ideas. Do this a few times, and you will be conditioned to start generating ideas as soon as you see the hat. Your brain will have been trained.
Be a bookworm.
Read everything you can get your hands on: business books, novels, newspapers, magazines, blogs. The more raw materials you take in, the more you learn, and the more you know, the better you will become at putting together seemingly unrelated concepts to create something new.
Sleep on it.
Just before going to bed, think about the ideas you want to generate. Be specific: 'I will come up with great ways to promote our new widget.' Tell yourself you will come up with a solution while you sleep. Keep a pad and pen or a recorder next to your bed so you can capture the ideas as soon as you wake up.
Ask the almighty Google.
When you are stuck on an idea, try entering a few words related to what you are looking for. Google will try to automatically complete your query, and may come up with just what you need. Then look at some of the search results to see what inspires you.
Make random doodles on a white board or a piece of paper. Draw, jot words, make circles, or whatever you do when you doodle. As you loosen up, ideas may start to form on the page.
Forget everything you know.
Too often, we let our biases creep in and influence our thinking. Start fresh, without preconceived notions of what you must do or what is impossible. Be open to anything and everything.
Borrow an idea.
Everyone thinks their business is unlike anyone else's. The truth is that all of our businesses are more alike than they are different. Look at what others are doing in other industries and see how you can apply their ideas to your own business. If a solution is working for someone else, there's no reason it won't work for you, too. By the time you adapt their idea and tailor it to precisely fit your business, it will be unique."
Hire a professional.
If you're really, truly stuck on something, or if a deadline is rapidly approaching, there's no shame in hiring a little outside help. Hiring a consultant can be a great investment. Often times, they don't even have to come up with the ideas for you. They simply ask the right questions that will lead you to the great idea that's buried in your brain.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Jim Kukral is the author of Attention! This Book Will Make You Money: How to Use Attention-Getting Online Marketing to Increase Your Revenue (Wiley, 2010). Mr. Kukral has helped small businesses and big companies such as FedEx, Sherwin-Williams, Ernst & Young, and Progressive Auto Insurance understand how to find success on the web. He is also a professional speaker, blogger, and web business consultant, and he teaches thousands of students worldwide as an adjunct professor for the University of San Francisco's Internet Marketing Program. You can follow Mr. Kukral on Twitter @JimKukral.