Ideas in a vacuum

By Laura Haight

What turns an idea from the spark of fleeting inspiration to a tangible service or product?

Are you the kind of person who churns out a lot of ideas and then bounces them off others? What if an idea just lives in your head?

For many new entrepreneurs, work is done on the phone, on the road, in a home office. Single-person consultancies or one- and two-person businesses lack the whiteboards, projectors, conference tables, mind mapping and brainstorming infrastructure of the corporate world.

An idea is defined as "any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity." So what takes an idea from existing in the mind to an actionable plan, product or business?

In my experience, it's the process of having it kicked around by others. Throw it on the table and get feedback good and bad from others with experience, or even those who can bring a fresh perspective. In the newspaper business, often the best feedback came from those who looked at ideas from a reader's perspective, not a journalist's.

Ideas are like children. To thrive, they need nurturing and caring. But they also need discipline and critical appraisals. They need challenges to overcome and goals to attain.

For a small or one-person business, the ability to kick ideas around, to help shape them with others' ideas and experiences, to benefit from what-if scenarios proposed by people who have "been there, done that", leaves a big innovation void.

Don't let your ideas die for lack of water and sunlight. Here are some options:
  • Create an advisory board for your business. This might be comprised of friends or associates, but it should be a group that will fairly and honestly evaluate your ideas and proposals and offer impartial and honest insights. You don't want a bunch of "yes-sers".
  • Set up an informal focus group for an idea that has a specific target audience. Large businesses and marketing companies do this all the time - and often at considerable expense. But it doesn't have to be costly. If your idea is for a product that would appeal to families or parents, for example, you can post questions on parenting websites and ask for feedback. Or post an invite at your church or school PTA and invite four or five people to sit down and give you informal responses to your idea. People like to be asked their opinions. Your challenge is to weigh individual opinions against individual biases. Try to find people who don't know you - that way their opinions won't be influenced by their personal feelings. Remember, just because one person says an idea doesn't work, doesn't make it a bad idea. Look for the useful information and inform your decisions with it.
  • Find a networking group of like-minded entrepreneurs and experts and use it as a sounding board/brainstorming group. Chances are there are many others in the same position you are.
Some things to beware of:
  • In a corporate environment, you are all on the same team. In an entrepreneurial environment - to some extent it is everyone for themselves. Be wary of disclosing too much about your idea.
  • If you set up a board of advisors, you may want to ask each board member to sign a non-disclosure agreement. There are many available online (here's one), but you should always make sure to have any legal documents vetted by your attorney. The version I've posted here is a sample of what's available, but has not been vetted.
  • Our opinions are informed by our experiences and biases. So you must take them with a grain of salt. Remember, ultimately it's your business and it's your decision.
Ideas rattling around in the heads of people just like you were the start of every great movement, product, service or initiative that has every occurred. What made them great was that they were acted upon.

What's your great idea?
Like the concept of an ideas group? I'd like to know if there's potential to start something locally in the Upstate of SC or potentially virtually to bring in people from around the region. Please comment and give me your ideas!