Innovation is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship. Many of the most successful companies today came about because someone had a big idea or was able to come up with a new twist on an old way of doing things. Of course, plenty of would-be business owners find themselves wondering how they can generate a big idea in the first place. The task can seem daunting, to say the least.
The good news is that developing innovative ideas is a skill that can be developed over time -- particularly if you take the time to focus on a few key things.
1. Perform small experiments.
Similar to what you may have learned in science class, performing experiments can be key to unlocking new discoveries and ideas. When it was founded in 1999, Zappos essentially operated as an experiment to see whether people would buy shoes off the internet. Its founders, Nick Swinmurn and Tony Hsieh didn't know if people would buy shoes if they couldn't actually try them on in a store.
Building on his former success with online marketing, Hsieh was able to validate Zappos' core concept that consumers would be open to buying shoes online. This allowed the business to scale dramatically before selling to Amazon for over $1 billion in 2009.
In this case, the founders had an idea in mind, but they weren't sure if it qualified as a "big idea." The simple act of testing the business model was what transformed a hypothesis into a successful company.
Testing a business idea at a small scale allows you to probe the market with relatively little risk. You'll soon discover whether or not you've truly stumbled upon a "big idea" based on the reaction from your initial test group.
2. Lean into your insatiable curiosity.
Successful entrepreneurs are naturally curious. They're always looking for more information and trying to discover the "why" behind all parts of the world. Quite often, this process of asking questions can lead to unexpected answers -- and new business ideas.
Steve Motosko, co-founder of Ingredient Optimized, founded his current business from curiosity about his grandparents suffering age-related muscle loss. A simple desire to learn more about the issue led him to research protein malabsorption, which in turn led to the creation of technology designed to enhance the body's protein absorption capabilities.
Motosko has stated that curiosity requires a strong dose of humility, and understanding that there are limits to what you know. Truly curious entrepreneurs are always willing and wanting to learn new things, even on subjects that are outside their normal realm of expertise. By fostering a love for learning, you'll naturally make exciting connections and get new ideas all the time.
3. Pay attention to diverse opinions.
As an extension of the concepts of curiosity and humility, it's worth noting that successful entrepreneurs often get their big ideas from the people they interact with. This could include their current customers or the dissatisfied customers of your competitors. Unique ideas could come from friends or family, or others in your industry who share the problems you are currently experiencing.
Sometimes, new ideas could come from someone who doesn't even work in the same industry as you. The idea for the successful Disney movie Fantasia came about simply because Walt Disney noticed British conductor Leopold Stokowski sitting nearby, and invited him to dine together. A conversation about music eventually led to the 1940 film, which had music conducted by Stokowski.
As an entrepreneur, you should always be open to making new connections, regardless of whether they seem like a fit for your business niche. There should be no sense of pride or segregation -- this isn't like the high school stereotype where there are clear dividing lines between the jocks and the nerds.
Engage with a broad range of people from all walks of life, including those whose opinions you might normally disagree with. You never know where your conversations might lead.
Your next big idea could come from just about anywhere. And while not every idea will turn into a successful business, cultivating the ability to consistently come up with potential ideas will put you on track for discovering that one success that can take your entrepreneurial career to the next level.