Robin Chase is no slouch when it comes to launching successful startups. The 50-year-old CEO founded her first successful business, car-sharing service Zipcar, 10 years ago. In 2007, she shifted up a gear and started GoLoco, a company that helps carpoolers connect with one another online.
Her two big tips for aspiring innovators? Goof off and read.
"Time wasting is an excellent source of innovation," says Chase. "Make time to read widely, and cultivate a variety of friends and online groups who send you wacky articles."
In 1999, Chase heard from a friend about a European car-sharing service, which inspired her to start Zipcar. She'd also been reading up on Internet and wireless technology, so she quickly built a service that allowed users to book cars online and to unlock their rented vehicle via cell phone.
GoLoco, she says, came from thinking about Craigslist, Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) text alerts, online transit-message boards and comments from Zipcar users. GoLoco participants use the site to arrange trips and split the cost, while GoLoco collects a transaction fee on those deals. In two years, the service has attracted 20,000 users. And it isn't just owners who are creatively goofing off.
At the Chicago firm Total Attorneys, which provides accounting, marketing and back-office services to lawyers, founder and CEO Ed Scanlan lets employees take paid sabbaticals, with the understanding that the time will be spent on creative pursuits such as acting in a play or touring with a band.
Scanlan, 32, argues that personal freedom promotes creativity and risk taking.
"If you move more quickly in your own life, innovation moves more quickly," he says. The impetus for two new services -- virtual reception and virtual personal assistance -- came from employee suggestions. Scanlan expects double-digit growth at his $24 million business this year.
Nature -- the Australian outback in particular -- proved to be the perfect muse for Ben Duncan, founder and CEO of e-mail provider AtMail, based in Sydney and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Duncan dreamed up the company during a camping trip in the Australian Outback eight years ago.
This past summer he spent several months traversing the Outback in a Land Rover decked out with a server and satellite broadband access. He used the time to bang out an improved version of AtMail's software.
"I get way more done out of the office," says Duncan, 28. A key AtMail perk: Any of the company's 13 employees can now use Duncan's Land Rover for their own two-week inspirational jaunts.
Other entrepreneurs recommend jumping out of your rut by hitting a trade show or attending a seminar about an unrelated industry. Or try spending a day in the life of a client, suggests Julie Lenzer Kirk, CEO of Path Forward International, an entrepreneurship consulting firm in Rockville, Md.
In the late 1990s, Kirk ran Applied Creative Technologies, a software firm that sold inventory-management applications. Her problem was that her programmers tended to create new features that customers hated. "They didn't understand how our customers managed inventory," says Kirk, "so they actually made the software worse."
Kirk's solution: She ordered her staff (and all new hires) to spend a day working at a food processing plant that used their software.
The fieldwork paid off immediately. One programmer watched a manufacturing manager go through multiple steps while searching for old products in an inventory database. The programmer dashed back to his office and tweaked the software so that data could be found in a single step. At the same time Kirk started sending out annual customer satisfaction surveys. The scores have consistently averaged 4.9 out of 5.
"It cemented customer loyalty," says Kirk. "It's really powerful when they see you're listening."
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