CHARLES MAISEL reflects on his experiences in coming up with innovative ideas. His advice? Look at ordinary things differently.
Often the solution to a problem is staring us in the face without being noticed. It just needs to be seen! The innovative idea is already there; you must just notice it.
Take the local wine farmer who once asked me for advice.
He did not want to lay off his workers in the non-picking season, but he couldn’t afford to keep a full workforce on salary unless he could find something constructive and profitable for them to do.
We sat on his balcony, drinking his award-winning wine, and I looked out over his vineyards.
The longer we sat and chatted, the more I looked. And then I saw. It’s hard to explain the feeling when this sort of “seeing” happens. It’s a sudden excitement as the meaning of what I am seeing flashes into place and I realise I have hit on a great idea, a different way of seeing that turns a problem into an exciting and achievable proposition.
“Look!” I said. “Your vineyards!”
The farmer looked baffled. I forced myself to slow down. I took a deep breath. “What do you do with your vine leaves,” I asked the farmer. “Nothing,” he replied. “Why?”
So I told him about dolmades – mouthwatering parcels of vine leaves stuffed with a variety of fillings. The farmer’s eyes widened as I told him how dolmades can be served, what a great snack they make, how the leaves can be used fresh, pickled or vacuum-sealed.
The result? One very happy farmer!
The idea that creative people are born is simply not true. Soccer players may be gifted, but the coaching they receive makes them great players. This is the same for artists and musicians.
The people who practice the hardest and longest are the people who make it!
You can also learn to look differently. You can train yourself to come up with great ideas.
With practice, you will find new ideas all the time.
With practice, you will learn to identify what is truly innovative and truly possible. See the extraordinary behind the ordinary. See the brilliant idea that can be translated into reality.
You can also master the techniques and develop your own way of seeing differently.
Get out there, into the world, on a daily basis.
Expose yourself to what is going on around you. And be aware that you are looking.
Look at a situation from every angle. Listen to the feeling that tells you there is something more.
Keep looking, flipping things around. See the leaves. See things differently…
Innovation is about developing your perception so that you see what is already clearly there.
Perhaps you are ready to look at things differently. Your mind is open and you want to begin practicing innovation.
Here is the best advice of all… Read the newspaper! You don’t need to do anything more. Newspapers are a golden chalice for new ideas. Signs and signals are around us all the time and you often find them in your daily newspaper.
My next best advice is to be focused on just the next step. You’ve had a great idea and now you’re thinking about new angles. But, if you’ve started thinking about a 100-page business plan, stop!
Don’t spend hours of time planning only to see your dreams crumble into dust.
Get out there into the streets and try a simple pilot. Prove, faster and more efficiently than any business plan will ever do, that this is an idea that will fly.
Don’t limit yourself. If you’ve been practicing your seeing, you could be piloting three great ideas, with plans for piloting three more taking shape.
When I had the idea about lavender for Lavender Hill, I didn’t spend hours calculating the costs of lavender oils and what it would cost to start a plant to process the product. What happened there was that I heard the word “lavender”, connected it to the idea of the plant and then thought about how beautiful it would look to see a housing project surrounded by the beauty and smell of lavender, a hardy bush that thrives in hot, sandy conditions.
And then I took one step and one step only. I sent out an email to all the people on my email contact list and waited. It didn’t take long. Within a couple of hours, my inbox was flooded with enthusiastic replies and so I could see that this was an idea that would fly.
If bigger and better things happen as a result of my initial idea, great. If someone else takes an aspect of the scheme and makes something of it, so much the better. My job – for want of a better word – is to think creatively, to see the leaves. And in this instance, the only question I asked, after years of training myself to think and see creatively was: “How much lavender is there in Lavender Hill?”
Another idea worth mentioning is the stickfighting business. We tested the market immediately. We organised one small tournament and waited to see what would happen.
People couldn’t stop talking about it and were soon clamouring for more. Urban Stick Fighting took off like a rocket and within two months had made international news.
Two ideas; two quick, effective and inexpensive pilots.
No major investments – not emotionally, financially or in terms of time.
If the idea flies, it flies.
If it crashes and burns, the fallout is minor and we haven’t been sucked in, bogged down and shackled by planning for something that may never actually happen.
We’ve tried our great idea out and the response we’ve received has shown us that it will either nosedive or fly for miles.
Remember the farmer. The leaves on the vine were hanging there, waiting to be seen. He just had to see them!
The same with the stickfighting example in the picture… stickfighting was there, but just had to be seen as an innovative business opportunity.
An angry crowd chanting, toyi-toying, waving sticks and placards. What caption would you write?
Perhaps this, in a report in a leading newspaper: “Protesters from Madelakufa informal settlement in Thembisa congregate outside the Ekurhuleni Metro-politan Municipality demanding housing which was allegedly promised by President Zuma.”
Vuyisile Dyolotana, a young black entrepreneur, saw something in the same picture, but he was looking at something else.
He saw the sticks, and an idea began to grow.
Why not start stickfighting tournaments? That’s all it took – looking at a picture in a newspaper and seeing it differently. From this came the idea for The Stick Fighting Company.
• Charles Maisel reads up to ten newspapers a day to find new business ideas. At Innovation Shack, he develops innovative and social businesses into commercial ventures. He has personally started more than 24 businesses.
Tips to turn your ideas into reality
If you have an idea, I can offer you my advice summarised in a few short points:
• There are no rules to what type of business you could start – look for the idea you see which others are missing.
• There are less rules and more freedom to experiment in the townships so start there .
• Don’t register a business unless you have to. First see if you can sell before you choose to register. Compliance should come after you proved your idea as viable.
• Don’t employ people with contracts when you start. Rather get people who want to be involved with you. You can employ people later when the business is proven to be viable.
• Get paid upfront for goods or on the first of the month rather than the end of the month.
• Don’t borrow from banks or try to from other financial institutions. Rather try and borrow from family and friends.
• You are likely to break as many rules as possible but they need to be legal.
9 reasons to read papers
• Newspapers write about what is happening today. The stories in newspapers record details of the lives we lead right now.
• Newspapers tell stories, many of which highlight something that is lacking or not working. These are opportunities. Train yourself to see them.
• Journalists write about what is. They don’t suggest what might be. It is up to the entrepreneurs and innovators to see behind the story, to find creative solutions, or see the possibilities and opportunities.
• A variety of headlines, stories, pictures and adverts offer opportunities for ideas about social change, commercial enterprises and intellectual exploration.
• Newspapers are printed daily. You are not limited to print and can acess online editions too.
• You can read a newspaper anywhere, anytime.
• Newspapers are timeless. You can go back into the archives of any newspaper and see what people were doing, saying and buying more than 50 years ago.
• You are not limited to one newspaper. You have the choice of several daily, weekly and community newspapers and classified adverts. If you’re unable to access hardcopies you can also read the news online
• You can read international newspapers.This
broadens your horizons and alerts you to overseas trends.