Ideas for Entrepreneurs

I am often asked for advice on everything from how to brainstorm good ideas for businesses to how to take a good idea and turn it into a viable business. I always remember the challenges I  faced as a young entrepreneur and would like to help others learn from my experience.

Here are my  best tips for entrepreneurs.

Write down your ideas, no matter when or where they happen

Many entrepreneurs describe their great ideas as a lightning bolt of inspiration, but I am  prone to a  frequent thunderstorms, with lightning bolt all over the place.  All of a sudden I can’t sleep, and I have all these ideas that are unrelated to each other. I just spew them on the page, and it feels like I’m channeling from somewhere else.

Five to ten ideas typically come at once, and anything not immediately scrawled down is lost forever. The episodes don’t happen more than once every couple of months, and dry spells have lasted as long as a year and a half. For some , creative moments often happen on airplanes. A lot of the ideas in my file cabinet were written on the backs of barf bags. My staff has also filed away restaurant napkins covered in ink. If I have that feeling, I’ve got to pay attention to it, because I can’t control when it happens.

Never discount any ideas because of how impossible they seem

Not all my idea generation is so mystical. I regularly hold, green light brainstorming sessions with two to six members of my staff in the whiteboard room of my private office. The lone rule is that there can be no negative comments. Nothing can be shot down. To protect my ideas, I record the sessions, photograph,all the whiteboards before erasing them, and often have a patent attorney standing by to write up the next good idea.

The more impossible something seems, the more I like it. What if there were a portal into the brain that could allow someone to see your thoughts? What if airplane passengers were loaded into pods within the airport and those pods could then be put on a plane?

I love to tackle new industries about which,  I know little. When I tell doctors of I plan to sequence a human’s DNA in 60 seconds (it now takes two months), they always think I’m loony.  That’s great,I don’t want to come at it the way they do. They’re stuck. They’re boxed in. I’m coming in from an orthogonal angle and asking, why can’t it be done another way.

Look for inspiration in unusual places

On the third floor of my home,’a spiral staircase leads to, what until recently was my attic office suite, where I typically worked until two or three in the morning. I  had a room with whiteboards floor to ceiling – and even on the ceiling – where I worked out the details of my brainstorms. The suite also included a room piled high with such gear as a signal generator, an oscilloscope, and a solar oven. This room and its odd furnishings,served as a laboratory in which I  could tinker with new inventions. When RadioShack had a sale, I bought them out.

To get my creative juices flowing, I often engaged in unusual behavior: eating without utensils, watching television, a foot away from the screen. ‘Anything I normally did, I’d do it differently just to see what would happen. One time I sat so close to a screen that I could see the different colors in each pixel. It caused me to think about how you would make a flat-panel display that’s part of your cellphone. My chief of staff once caught me standing back from the dinner table and using a fork with a three-foot-long telescoping handle. ‘Laughing, she said, ” It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Never give up

When I,  promised Bell Atlantic that my  Boston Technology co-founder could I give them a voicemail system that promised to handle 20 times the call volume of their existing systems, guaranteed 99.998% reliability and that  would be delivered in three months at roughly the same cost, there was just one problem: That, product didn’t exist.

Facing a task that was seemingly impossible, I put my head down and went to work. I  barely left the office for three months, sleeping under my  desk — when I slept at all.

But it paid off I made enough from Boston Technology to retire by age 31. (Obviously, retirement didn’t agree with me.)


Think of new uses for old technology

“In 2005 I sponsored a team to compete in the second DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition to create and race an unmanned vehicle for a $2 million prize and the prospect of lucrative military contracts. Because of a small technical glitch, the $400,000 robot peeled out at the starting line, veered right, and crashed into a wall. Jones, however, encourages his employees to take ideas and turn them inside out until they make sense as a business.

I ended up building a company out of my robot technology, but not quite the one I imagined. The late management sage Peter Drucker said that “innovation often occurs when an entrepreneur takes an idea in an entirely new direction.” And that’s what I did with Precise Path, which is includes robotic lawn mowers that will neatly mow golf course greens.

In the garage of a small Colonial house on my  estate, Doug Traster, formerly the leader of  Indy Robot Racing Team and now president of Precise Path, points to several color 3-D schematics taped to the wall, which show the evolution of the idea. After deciding an unmanned Jeep posed too many liability issues, the team considered robotic chemical sprayers that would protect workers from inhaling chemicals. ‘The demand wasn’t there,’ says Traster.

They considered a lawn mower, dubbed ‘the purple lozenge’ for its size and shape. But the technology was too expensive for the consumer market. The team then pitched fairway mowers to golf course managers, but they all said what they really needed was a better mower for putting greens. Traditional mowers create small imperfections that disrupt the speed and uniformity of the green. That’s when Traster decided to manufacture robotic mowers that promise much smoother greens. Production is planned for 2009, and Jones says the company already has a $200,000 order from a distributor for ten of the machines.”



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