Big Ideas Truly great entrepreneurs have the courage to grab a good idea and run with it. Join them.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Consider the fruits of our national ingenuity: We the people invented the airplane, the computer, the bendable straw, the snowboard, the light bulb, the sports bra, the safety pin, the jitterbug, the disposable diaper, and Scarlett O'Hara. Creativity is our national passion. We invent to save lives: Think of the polio vaccine. We invent for fun and frivolity: Think of professional wrestling. In fact, Americans are famously adept at making something out of nothing. Just look at cheese curls or pork rinds. And while we're on the topic of food, let's not forget to hail the genius behind no-fat cheesecake.
Creativity is the lifeblood of our economy. In our annual issue celebrating entrepreneurs and their ideas, we sing the praises of those who had the courage to grab a good concept and run with it. But what of those poor souls who stand on the sidelines and yearn for the creative big bang? Can you teach creativity? No, and yes. We're not big believers in the theory that you can take folks who don't have a knack for coming up with good ideas and turn them into idea factories. But we're convinced that talented entrepreneurs--and their employees--can do a lot better. And in the following pages, we're going to tell you all you need to know about the business of ideas. So settle back, put up your feet without guilt, and prepare to be inspired.
First, here is our experts' best advice on how you can tap a gusher of creative juices at your company: Produce a culture of creativity. Encourage a free flow of ideas in the workplace. Develop a tolerance for eccentricity. This may be a bit of a challenge if you're a starched-shirt kind of boss, but you will need that patience.
Creative types tend to harbor curious concepts of dress, hairstyle, hygiene, or work habits. But as long as they don't drive clients or other workers from the office screaming, you'll be okay. At TellSoft Technologies, a Colorado Springs startup, the company's co-founder dismantled his cubicle and replaced it with patio furniture, complete with lawn chairs and an umbrella. (The marketing department countered with a Caribbean theme.) Consider it a small price to pay for genius, which is as difficult to find and make bloom as a rare orchid. "You can't force someone to be creative," says Anirudh Dhebar, associate professor of marketing at Babson College's F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business. "Let creativity emerge in a comfortable forum."
Embrace diversity. Remember that creativity cuts across all lines of gender, race, age, and class. Calling a meeting? Round up the usual suspects--and then invite a few others to spice up the mix. That's the protocol at tiny Tempra Technologies of Bradenton, Fla. Even the janitor and the secretary attend meetings with the company's four scientists, on the theory that everyone has something to share. "Sometimes we laugh a little, but we take every idea seriously," says CEO Barney Guarino. Tempra recently devised a self-cooling soda can, which is licensed to packaging giant Crown Cork & Seal Co. Using pressurized water, Tempra's can will cool a beverage by 30[degrees]F--in three minutes. The technology could render hulking vending machines obsolete.
Hire some human spark plugs. Seek out people who sizzle with ideas and optimism. Put them where they'll inspire others. You may have to recruit outside usual boundaries to find spark plugs. But fear not. A combustible mix of talent could enliven the whole staff. Hal Mintz, chairman and CEO of venture group GoldenEye International in New York City, makes a point to salt his staff with young actors, dancers, and artists. MBAs still dominate the core of the company, Mintz says, but his artistic employees bring a fresh perspective to potential deals. Mintz's actress assistant recently found the bug in a financial model that had an MBA stumped for days--not that she understood the data, she just saw a numerical change in a pattern.
Have patience with the creative process. "The 'eureka' moment is a myth," says Brewster Kahle, Internet entrepreneur extraordinaire. Kahle sold his second company in 1995 for $15 million to AOL. He recently sold his third, Alexa Internet, for a cool $250 million in stock to Amazon. "Creating something really cool is a lot murkier and more interesting than 'Eureka!' " he says. "Good ideas are hard to find. Building companies out of them is even tougher."
Make the workplace a creative cocoon. We're not talking feng shui here, although we're not opposed to hanging wind chimes if you think they make the place vibrate with positive energy. Establish an environment in which people can toss out new ideas with reckless abandon. If that means putting beanbag chairs in the conference room or holding sales meetings at the local greasy spoon, so be it. Creativity can be like a hermit crab: It rarely emerges under scrutiny. But at unexpected moments, it'll scuttle across the conference table. On that theory, Kahle likes to find unusual digs for his companies. A Victorian mansion was home to his second. For his third, which he is still running, Kahle rents an old Army building in San Francisco's Presidio, a national park with extraordinary views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay. "Sterile suites in generic office parks mean sterile, generic ideas," he says.
Don't underestimate the power of desperation. Set expectations high. Let staffers know that mediocrity won't be tolerated. Apply pressure, and bring to a boil. Then let simmer. "Given opportunity and necessity, people will surprise you," says Kahle. "Look at Winston Churchill." But be forewarned: Creating a pressure cooker is dangerous. Too much steam can drive out the gentle types who thrive in cozy, safe spaces. Even worse, you could run the risk of turning your workplace into a viper pit where good ideas are hoarded or stolen. But it doesn't hurt to foster a sense of urgency. Kahle has the right imagery when he describes how he approaches a challenge: "Smash your face into the problem," he says cheerfully.
Finally, remember that failure is the mother of success. Years ago, Thomas Edison put failure into its proper perspective. "I have not failed," he said. "I have successfully discovered 1,200 ideas that don't work."
Now that's failure with attitude, even a hint of arrogance. Fear of failing is an infectious disease. In an organization, it causes paralysis and, eventually, death. Most successful companies allow their workers to try and fail without stigma or penalty--within boundaries. And those boundaries have never been so generous. "I can't remember a time when the financial markets were more forgiving," Kahle says. So hang up those wind chimes. Go for it. Read on.
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