In my opinion, good ideas do not just magically appear in your head. Good ideas are cultivated from the depths of our minds, the universe, or wherever the hell it is that ideas come from.
10 years ago, I was working as a Project Manager for the London 2012 Olympics. Working for the Program Controls Department, my job was to find cost savings for the Olympic Stadium and keep the budget at around 500 million dollars. Consider me a failure because the final cost was over 1 billion dollars (as usual there’s a logical culprit for the over-run and it begins with “poli” and ends with “ticians”).
It was pretty cool to go to work every day and see progress as the stadium began to rise out of the ground. I’d often catch myself daydreaming about what it would be like to walk around the Olympic Village when it was complete, rubbing shoulders with the US Gymnastics Team, or cracking jokes with Usain Bolt. When I worked there, the Olympic Village wasn’t much more than big piles of dirt, temporary offices, and trucks moving steel and other materials around. After a couple of months, the boost to my ego and excitement of being a part of the most visible project in the world at that time gradually wore off and building the Olympic Stadium became just another job.
Once the Olympics lost their luster, I became convinced that a 9 to 5 job was no longer for me. With nearly a decade of experience under my belt, I was ready to lead the show and run my own company. What a relief it was to come to that realization! My life now had direction and purpose – I was going to be an Entrepreneur, Captain of Industry, CEO Extraordinaire! Get me on the cover of Inc. and Fast Company Magazine today! Hold the press Dan, you ain’t got a company to run. Right, I needed a company.
Looking back on how I came to quit my job at London 2012, fly back home to Maryland, and start what would become an 8 year adventure as a CEO, I have to say that I couldn’t have done a better job at the “idea cultivation stage.” However, if you had asked me if I knew what I was doing while working on those ideas 10 years ago, I would have told you all my ideas sucked and I was never going to have a company to run, other than the one in my dreams.
Ideas are like muscles. You don’t get more of them unless you work at it. Every day, I would write in my journal whatever business idea would come into my head. I would read the newspaper or walk the London streets for inspiration – no business or industry was off limits. No matter how stupid, outlandish, improbable, or audacious, if an idea popped into my head, I’d write it down. The more I wrote, the more the ideas would flow. I soon realized there were ideas everywhere and I found myself becoming an idea cultivator.
This is a small sampling of ideas and notes from my journal (October 2007):
- Scrapbook site to create high end picture books – weddings, ceremonies, etc. User could pick and choose what design, page layout, and pictures from individual folders.
- Ebay for investors – business plans are bid on. Sale of intellectual capital. Ratings for successful users. The marriage of doers and thinkers.
- Zippyreceipt.com – the elimination of receipts for food, taxi, and other travel expenses. Users would have an account where their receipts are stored. Businesses would upload receipts to the site when credit card charges are uploaded. Businesses wouldn’t have to print receipts. Website would have advertising. Users wouldn’t lose receipts. Companies would have better tracking of expenses.
- Financial Advisor site for young people with more edge. Glamorize the stock transfer. A William Hill for stock/investments
- Yourworld.com – a site where you can choose a location via google maps to select an area and read the blogs that are on the neighborhood you are interested in visiting/buying a home in/etc. This neighborhood selection would also provide school information, taxes, local newspaper links, items for sale, doctors in the area, restaurants, etc. (an advanced Craigslist).
- Ethnicorganic.com – a site devoted to the sale of organic ethnic foods, drinks, snacks, etc
- Outsource HR firm – HR is a joke everywhere. It can be done much better.
- Outsource proposal creation – online interface for collecting and distributing proposals for small business
- Loyalty cards sent directly to your phone – not sure how this will work, but you could get discounts sent to your phone.
- Empanada chain of restaurants in the United Kingdom
Are all of these ideas good? Heck no! Most of them kinda suck (I do love empanadas, but that business didn’t have a prayer in the UK [at least with me at the helm]). With that said, you can also use your imagination a bit and see that some of these ideas were pretty decent. For all we know, Zippyreceipt.com could have turned into Square and that Scrapbook Site could have turned into Instagram! But they didn’t. What these ideas did turn into was a gateway to get my eyes open for other business ideas so when the “best idea for me” would show itself, I would be ready.
After cultivating some ideas, I didn’t just sit on them and be fearful to share them with the world. In fact, just the opposite occurred. The ideas above were shared with a small group of like-minded friends I had at the time and we discussed the viability of each (most of the time my ideas were brutally destroyed). There was real power in getting the idea out of my head and sharing with others. This process also provided me with a forum to develop pros and cons quickly and realize if I didn’t want to defend the idea with my friends, then it was something that needed to be dismissed quickly. Once my small group of friends considered the ideas, I sent them around to more people and solicited additional feedback. In my experience, an idea isn’t actually worth much – the feedback gained from friends and colleagues however is invaluable.
This process went on for about 6 months, with me thinking up ideas and then bouncing them off of friends, family, and whoever else would listen. As someone who has never been artistically inclined, I found the process to provide a rewarding creative outlet. However, similar to Van Gogh or Rothko’s drawings as toddlers, the ideas only got better after frequent practice.
In the spring of 2008, just a couple of months after writing the above journal entry, I received an email while working at London 2012. The email came from a work colleague and he was inviting me to take part in an activity that weekend. The activity was something I had never heard of before and I thought it sounded incredibly exciting. More than exciting, I thought it sounded like a business that needed to be brought to the United States. Less than a year later, I was on a plane for home, with an idea in my head and a company to run.
If you believe in luck (like I do), you could say that I was extremely lucky to come across the idea and be in a fortunate situation to be able to take that idea and turn it into a business. I believe that luck was definitely a part of the equation. Additionally, you wouldn’t be wrong by pointing out, the idea wasn’t even mine to begin with! However, if I wasn’t actively looking, would I have had the wherewithal to see the promise that a work colleague’s email presented?
For those of you who receive Fired & Free posts through email and who may be looking for the next great idea to start a business around, I hope this post triggered something for you. If you happen to create the next Instagram as a result of reading this, please disregard my views that ideas aren’t worth much. As a token of appreciation, you can send monthly distributions to me by way of Zippyreceipt.com.