I once had the brilliant idea to make square tires – put ‘em on your car and you’ll no longer have to use the hand brake when parked on a hill! Because the concept is totally unique, these would be the only ones on the market, and without competition, I’d rake in huge sales. Brilliant! How could this go wrong?
Ideas are like fish swimming by in a river. Some are keepers, some are not. I’m a huge believer in having a note pad next to my bed so that if I get an idea in the middle of the night, I can jot it down and go back to sleep.
But with so many ideas to chose from, how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? In a word: necessity. Necessity is and always will be the mother of invention. Put your ear to the ground and listen. I mean really listen… observe. The phrase “keeping one’s ear to the ground” means to be on the alert regarding rumors or trends of public opinion. Then ask why is “that” being done “this” way? Is there a more simple, more efficient workaround already out there? If there isn’t… is this an opportunity?
Many of the products I developed over the years came from talking to clients and asking questions. I recall visiting Wigwam, a major sound rental company in England, and while meandering around the place, I couldn’t help but notice a series of tall equipment racks lined up in a tidy row. I asked what they were, and it turned out they were part of pop singer George Michael’s rig for an upcoming tour.
Michael was known as a “practical perfectionist.” When on tour, instead of traveling with his own orchestra, he would hire local symphonies to join his band. Given that some orchestras are great and others not so much, all the parts were pre-recorded with a top-notch symphony prior to the tour. If the orchestra in a given city wasn’t up to snuff, the sound team would activate the playback system, while the actual musicians went through the motions of “lip-syncing” their way through the songs.
This multi-channel playback system cost roughly $75,000 to put together, and I thought to myself, could we not produce a more affordable solution? This was the spark that launched the Radial SW-8 backing-track auto-switcher, which went on to be a staple for touring bands around the world.
There’s a book entitled “Blue Ocean Strategies,” which suggests that something new can be created by combining two concepts into one. For instance, fusion restaurants are all the rage. On a bigger scale, Cirque du Soleil combined theatrical performances with a circus to create a billion-dollar company. How about combining waterskiing with parachuting – I believe it’s called windsurfing?
Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, once said that for a venture to be successful, it has to be number one, two or three in its market. This is very sage advice. If there are five pizza parlours in town, will opening up a sixth guarantee success? It can, but only if it brings something radically new and exciting to the market.
An even simpler adage: You either have to be better for the same price or offer the same value for less. I’m not a big fan of discounting as it only ends up with a race to the bottom. I prefer to create value by making a better product and creating demand from the top down.
Getting It Moving
The biggest obstacle between taking an idea and turning it into reality is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear that we will not be successful, fear that we have to risk it all.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When most of us were in high school, a passing grade was 60 percent. Even the best baseball players rarely hit over .300 (30 percent). To succeed, we just have to be as good or better than average.
I’ve seen many successful enterprises begin “part time” and grow from there. I view it as a gradual shift. For instance, my company started out as a distributor and transitioned over time to become a manufacturer.
As they say, ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is the tough one. We get busy and life gets in the way. So how does one make the jump from idea to reality?
I usually start with an idea on paper. I draw it out, then by creating a flow chart, I try to figure out if it makes sense by asking a ton of questions: What will make it better or unique than what is already on the market? Is there a need or can I create demand? Who is the customer? Can I break into the market through distribution channels or do it on my own? Can I get a patent for it? Is it buildable? Is it easily copied? Can it be made for less? Can an established competitor come in and put me out of business?
The answers to these types of questions and many more will identify holes in a plan and help reveal a pathway to a successful outcome.
Next, there needs to be sufficient resources to put the idea in motion. Resources include time, people and money. With the internet, finding a company or individual that can help in this regard has never been easier. If you want to create an app for an iPhone, India is filled with software developers. When it comes to producing electronic hardware, China is an obvious choice. There are also tons of independent engineers that can help bring your vision to reality.
Make sure to do due diligence – anyone can make a promise; however, using an entity with a proven track record, although likely more expensive, is usually the better way to go.
Being honest with yourself isn’t always easy as you can get caught up in your own folly. Running a concept past respected friends and associates can often help stratify it. You may conclude that the idea isn’t worth the effort, and maybe it’s time to move onto the next one.
But be careful! The world is filled with nay-sayers. These are the folks whose motto is “I should have, could have, would have.” It takes determination and grit to make stuff happen. If you try something and it fails, think of when you were a child and fell off your bike. What did you do? You got back up and started pedaling!
A while back, a friend of mine was offered what appeared to be a golden opportunity. He could take over a Mexican restaurant without paying a penny – all he had to do was take over the lease for the building, renovate it, and promise to use the owner’s original recipes for the menu. He and his wife got to work and after about two months of hard work, they made the place look amazing.
On opening night I ordered a traditional Mexican dish and was horrified – the meal was absolutely awful! I’m someone who has vacationed in Mexico more than 30 times and have also enjoyed Mexican food at restaurants throughout the U.S., so I know a good fajita when I meet one.
The next day, I called him and advised that he had to change the menu – the food was not Mexican. He said he couldn’t do that because as part of the deal, the owner insisted that his recipes be used, as he planned to eventually license them to others.
I asked him where the owner was from. His reply? Czechoslovakia. My friend and his wife abandoned ship. Another square tire.