20 Ways to Generate Ideas That Will Boost Your Business

The lightbulb. Bubble wrap. The Post-It. The iPod. The Snuggie. Facebook. Twitter. These inventions, products, and businesses all started with an idea. An idea that to anyone other than its creator(s) may have seemed like an insane thing to invest much time, money, or effort in bringing to fruition. But for the masterminds behind these great ideas, the risk paid off, and so, too, can your next great idea.

Now, you might be thinking, I am not going to come up with today's equivalent of the lightbulb. That's fine, says Jim Kukral, author of "Attention! This Book Will Make You Money: How to Use Attention-Getting Online Marketing to Increase Your Revenue" (Wiley, 2010, www.attentionthebook.com). You don't have to. Great ideas come in many shapes and sizes-—whether it's something as small as a new logo for your business or something as big as rolling out a brand new product. What's important is that you give your best ideas a shot at life.

"Great ideas are like gold," says Kukral. "Everybody hopes to find them buried under the floorboards in their house. But just like finding gold, you often need a treasure map. In fiscally constrained times such as these, ideas are what matter most. Businesses live and die from the ideas they come up with. Great ideas get attention and bring people through the doors. The tricky part is figuring out how to find them."

So what does a great idea look like in practice? Kukral highlights Peter van Stolk, founder of Jones Soda Co., as a business owner who wasn't afraid to take his great idea and run with it.

Van Stolk took his $20 million 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.

So how did van Stolk and Jones Soda compete? In 2003, van Stolk had the idea to create a "Turkey & Gravy"-flavored soda to be released around Thanksgiving. Soon his brand began to get mentioned in the national media, and his product began to sell out.

"Peter had the idea in his car one day, and he acted on it," says Kukral. "Ever notice how you get your best ideas when your mind is not trying to come up with them? Think about it. How many ideas have you thrown away on the treadmill or in the shower that you should have tried that could have earned you millions?

"Everyone has great ideas," he adds. "The problem for most people is realizing that even the most silly or outrageous idea they come up with could in fact work. Generating ideas—-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."

In "Attention!" Kukral teaches readers how to unlock their brains and start generating amazing ideas that will skyrocket sales, load businesses with leads, and create a powder keg of publicity. Here are a few of Kukral's suggestions on how to generate killer ideas to jump-start your venture:

  1. 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," says Kukral. "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."
  2. Eavesdrop. 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," explains Kukral. "And you also may 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."
  3. Do something new. Sign up for a class, take up a new hobby, listen to a different kind of music, or do anything that is new to you. 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.
  4. Hold a grudge. What annoys you? When you think about the list of things you wish were different, the 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.
  5. 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?" asks Kukral. "Think beyond the obvious connections to come up with something truly innovative."
  6. Get physical. Movement increases the flow of endorphins, as well as sending more blood to your brain. "I'm not a doctor and I don't play one on TV, so maybe I don't have all the physical stuff exactly right," says Kukral. "However, I do know that getting active helps me think. 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, or otherwise get your pulse rate up to get your brain moving, too."
  7. Get an outsider's opinion. There are times when you are so close to a project that 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," advises Kukral. "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 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."
  8. Just listen. 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," says Kukral. "Are several customers making the same comments or asking the same questions? Act on it!"
  9. Change your routine. New surroundings and new experiences can help your brain to 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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?)," says Kukral. "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."
  12. 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," suggests Kukral. "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."
  13. Wear a silly hat. Use a prop when it is time to be creative. It could be anything (such as wearing a silly hat) that signals to your brain that it is time to go into idea-generating mode. "Have a routine you follow when you want to be creative," says Kukral. "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."
  14. Be a bookworm. Read everything you can get your hands on: business books, novels, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and everything else. 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.
  15. 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," advises Kukral. "Keep a pad and pen or a recorder next to your bed so you can capture the ideas as soon as you wake up."
  16. 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," says Kukral. "Then look at some of the search results to see what inspires you."
  17. Doodle. Make random doodles on a white board or piece of paper. Draw, jot words, make circles, or what you do when you doodle. As you loosen up, ideas may start to form on the page.
  18. 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.
  19. Borrow an idea. Everyone thinks their business is not like 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," says Kukral. "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."
  20. Hire a professional. If you're really and 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," says Kukral. "Often, 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."

"I keep up with my great ideas on a Word document that I've uploaded to Google Docs," says Kukral. "This document holds some of the most creative thoughts I've ever had. I've never shown it to anyone, nor will I, as it contains ideas that might seem silly to other people, but I value it greatly as a place where I can think freely and creatively without criticism.

"That's truly the key to coming up with great ideas," he adds. "You need to free yourself from worry about what other people might say. If you have a place where you can brainstorm and record some of your most outrageous thoughts for getting attention without having to worry about someone else laughing at you, then you'll find that it's much easier to be creative, and, well, outrageous. And before you know it, your great ideas will be boosting your business."

Jim Kukral is the author of "Attention! This Book Will Make You Money: How to Use Attention-Getting Online Marketing to Increase Your Revenue" (www.attentionthebook.com). For more than 15 years, Kukral has helped small businesses and large companies such as FedEx, Sherwin-Williams, Ernst & Young, and Progressive Auto Insurance understand how to find success on the Web. A professional speaker, blogger, and Web business consultant, Kukral also is an adjunct professor for The University of San Francisco's Internet Marketing Program.