Recent Posts

Archives

Site search

August 2014
M T W T F S S
« Jun    
 123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031

Categories

Tags

Focus Groups Can Turn The Tide Of A Nasty Slide

bp

MY OPENING REMARKS ON SATURDAY MORNING, February 20, 2014, to a small group of business professionals were straight and to the point: “Boulevard Printers in Huntington Beach, California, owned by our host Jim Cavener, is on the brink of failure after only four months in business. As Jim’s public relations consultant, I’m here to moderate the group. You’ve been invited here to help find potential new markets for his printing business and hopefully save him from impending disaster. Are you ready to take on the assignment?”

Sound like a new job for the Mission Impossible team? It wasn’t. Cavener had opened his home to a focus group. Those attending included a CPA, a marketing professional, a financial planner, and a retired printer–people who could provide valuable insight based on their experience and skills.

I began by asking Cavener a series of questions to give the participants some background information about his business: “What services do you offer? Why? What’s the markup on each of these services? Who is your typical customer? What type of equipment do you own, and what are the capabilities of each? Who is your competition?” I then initiated a brain-storming session by directing a few questions to the participants: “What do you see as the qualities that give Cavener the edge over competitors? Are there any services he can include to enhance his present offerings?

How can he cut overhead. What new markets should he tap into? How can he stir up interest among these potential clients?”

A momentum began to build and a sense of excitement pervaded the group as one suggestion built upon another. No one was ready to wrap up at the end of the scheduled two-hour session. But when the meeting concluded at 12:30 p.m., Cavener walked to the lunch table with new hope, enthusiasm, and direction for his failing business. The group had not only provided suggestions for penetrating 20 potential new markets but also found ways for Cavener to turn his 20-year sales background into an asset for his printing business.

Like Cavener, more and more small-business owners are using these interactive brainstorming sessions as a research technique to uncover new trends, monitor customer loyalty, and assist in new product development.

“Focus groups can be as effective for small-business owners as they are for the large corporations, especially when these owners understand when to use this research technique and how to conduct a group effectively,” says Wayne Howard, owner of Wayne Howard & Associates, a full-service market research and analysis firm in Claremont, California.

Informal vs. Formal Although Cavener’s focus group took an informal approach, you may want to consider hiring a professional. The determining factors regarding your decision will be the importance of the issues involved and the affordability of services, according to Howard, who regularly organizes and moderates focus groups for his clients. For example, if the new widget you want to introduce won’t make or break your company, you probably don’t need to call on professionals. Or if you’re operating on a tight budget, chances are you won’t be able to afford a full-blown professional setup that can can cost hundreds or even thoudands of dollars.

Some professionals, however, will work with you on a piecemeal basis, such as providing only consultations, working just as the moderator, or serving as a participant recruiter. For more information about marketing firms in your area that specialize in providing services to small businesses, contact the American Marketing Association, 250 S. Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL 60606; (304) 648-0536. The American Marketing Association’s New York chapter ([212] 687-3280) has published a directory of the names, addresses, and phone numbers of local marketers. It also has a section dedicated to focus groups.

If you choose to set up your own focus group, there are a few essential but simple steps you should take to ensure that you get the most out of the experience. First, establish specific goals for what you’re trying to achieve. For example, are you looking for feedback on a new product or service? Seeking evaluations of your business start-up? Or do you need help uncovering new market incentives? After you’ve determined the purpose of the meeting, develop a list of specific but open-ended questions for participants. Next, establish an agenda for the meeting. Your schedule should provide structure but be flexible. You don’t want to stifle a good idea because you’re watching the clock. For Cavener’s group, I allowed 30 minutes for introductions, an overview of the problem, and Cavener’s answers to the background questions. The next 90 minutes were set aside to explain the guidelines and to conduct the brainstorming session.

Picking the Players Once your questions and agenda are developed, begin the careful selection of your prospective participants. Dr. Ivan Misner is the founder and president of Business Network International in Claremont, California, a company that specializes in the formation of business-to-business referrals, with 300 chapters across the United States and Puerto Rico. He started using focus groups when he needed to iron out specific growth and logistic marketing problems he encountered as his networking groups expanded across the country. “The effectiveness of a focus group rests heavily with your participants,” says Misner. “You need people who interact well with others, not overbearing people who always take over the discussion or overly shy people who won’t participate at all.”

Your group should include those with diverse talents or skills and those who are representative of your target market. For example, in her focus group, Mary Ann Payne, a freelance writer based in Ontario, California, included present clients and professionals from a variety of fields to help her find a niche. “My clients were valuable because they knew my writing style; others offered fresh points of view in helping me develop new markets,” she explains.

The number of participants may depend upon the location where the meeting is being held, the desired diversity of the members, and whether you’re going the professional moderator route. If you plan to stage your own group, Howard suggests that six participants is a manageable number for beginners. Payne held her eight-member focus group in a client’s office and ordered in gourmet pizzas, and Cavener’s group of seven met in his home, where his wife prepared a luncheon. Another alternative, however, is to rent a conference room and the pay the participants. Howard suggests paying $30 to 40 for two hours of their time.

The moderator of your focus group should be someone who can stay focused, keep the group on track, and draw out the less outspoken in the group. In other words, the moderator should be sensitive to group dynamics. Although some business owners can function adequately as their own moderators, others may find it difficult to remain objective and unintrusive throughout the session. Remember that the primary reason for conducting a focus group is to get ideas flowing. You don’t want your participants to feel inhibited.

Howard also suggests that you ask someone to serve as your assistant. “This person must act as the gracious host or hostess and make your guests feel welcome and comfortable. When people have warm feelings about a group, they’re more responsive in offering advice,” he says.

Running the Show Begin by clearly stating to the group the reasons for the meeting. Also explain that you’re looking for a variety of ideas and that nothing should be thought too wild for consideration. (It’s easier to tone down ideas than to think them up. Quantity, not quality, is the important factor in a brainstorming session.) Keep your questions and comments directed to the issue but also be willing to investigate tangents that may provide insight into other possible problems or solutions. Encourage participants to build one another’s ideas. For example, with Cavener’s group, I asked partipants to bring their own experiences–be it as a professional, business owner, or customer–to the table when elaborating on one another’s suggestions and comments.

Use a flip chart or blackboard to list all ideas that surface during the brainstorming process. Then go back and discuss each one. This process is the key element to getting the feedback you’re looking for–suggestions that will help you effectively solve your problem. Payne’s group, for example, helped her find a way to generate more income by suggesting she de velop a new facet of her writing business–newsletter publishing workshops.

Misner offers a few tips he’s used to make his own focus groups run smoothly.

* Provide soft drinks, coffee, and snacks to help keep the session friendly and comfortable. Avoid serving alcohol.

* Seat participants around a small conference table. It helps to unify the group and allows people to communicate easily.

* Use samples as a point of reference if you’re discussing a product and supply copies of your competitors’ brochures, fliers, or catalogs if discussing a service.

* Take notes for later reference and evaluation. If you find this to be too distracting, use a video or audio recorder.

Evaluating Your Results Once your meeting is over, start sifting through this vital information and write down the most viable suggestions in relation to your specific business and budget.

In Cavener’s case we uncovered a market for preprinted forms and set up a step-by-step approach to how he could penetrate that niche. The group also suggested that he replace his present employee with someone more trustworthy and knowledgeable in the field of printing. Cavener would then have time to incorporate some of his old sales experience and make the necessary cold calls to potential customers. “If you want to succeed in today’s business world, you’ll have to be a good listener and handle constructive criticism well,” says Cavener. “Recognize your focus group’s advice for what it is–an opportunity to more effectively operate your business and reach new markets.”

Considered An Exporting Business? You Should.

caeb

EVEN THOUGH MOST COMPANIES WOULD GLADLY WELcome a chance to sell seasonal goods year-round in new markets and diversity their services globally, actually selling in the next state–let alone a foreign country–is often too daunting. But business owners who haven’t considered exporting may be motivated once they read about the wide range of available resources in this article.

Take people like Brian Gauler, who delivers the names of contacts abroad and reports on sales potential in various foreign markets. Gauler works with the Center for International Trade Development at Oklahoma State University. He also operates Trade America, a home-based business that provides a dial-in computer bulletin board with information on sales and purchases of hundreds of goods and services by foreign customers, industry forecasts, and other data.

For instance, Gauler introduced Oklahoma’s former first lady, Shirley Bellmon, to the possibilities of esporting. Bellmon’s home-based doll-making company employs 29 people during peak season, but she hadn’t considered exporting. At a Trade America demonstration, Gauler needed only an hour to convince her. In 60 minutes Bellmon got detailed reports on the $2.4 billion worldwide toy industry, names and phone numbers of Oklahoma’s export consultants, and data on toy importers in Canada and Japan, the two biggest markets. The information wasn’t specifically on handmade dollss from Oklahoma but referred to the right industry –toys–to point the way.

“Some of these reports were less than 30 days old,” Gauler says. “But it’s like selling a car no one knows how to drive” ifr people are unsure of what information they need or what sources to use.

Data from federal agencies is posted on Trade America, includes sources ranging from the CIA to United States embassy staffs abroad. The bulletin board is open to the public and costs $90 for a one year subscription with a free 30-day trial.

Researching Online Infact, businesses of all shapes and sizes are currently exploring overseas deals, inspired by headlines about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the potential United States-Japan trade war, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Marc Freed wants to stay close to his clients. How close? He plans to open his next office in his Palmyra Harbor, New Jersey, home to take advantage of 24-hour computer-and fax-based information sources and the eight-hour time difference between the United States and his Russian clients in Moscow. After seven years of building a social relationship into a commercial one, he closed his first sale of medical equipment to Moscow late last year. International Acquisitions Inc., which buys and sells various items worldwide, is preparing for monthly transactions of $500,000 or more.

Freed intends to prospect for requests for goods and services on Network, a members-only bulletin board of trade leads and queries set up by the World Trade Center of New York. He also phones or faxes federal government offices to learn about trade regulations in Pacific Rim countries via a faxback service. Other options he’s investigating are the interactive forums for traders available via such online services as CompuServe and the Internet.

“I’m trying to take advantage of as many sources as I can,” says Freed. Doing business abroad requires gaining any edge possible, he notes, adding that the $4 faxes and $50 20-minute phone calls to his Russian counterparts can make or break a deal.

Coordinating the Flow The information motherlode Freed taps into is overwhelming and may not provide exactly what you’re looking for–until you know where to look. For a company seeking data on boat motor–purchasing trends in Honduras, say, any other data eats up valuable time.

Freed’s experience, and his periodic frustration with the search for useful information, is the reason federal officials are working to streamline export-promotion programs and why local agencies from the chamber of commerce to utility companies are helping small companies to go global.

For example, this past January, the Department of commerce opened four trial sites for Export Assistance Centers in Miami, Chicago, Baltimore, and Long Beach, California, to better coordinate export promotion. The Small Business Administration (SBA) is one of 19 federal offices that provide international trade services such as advice on getting financing, finding the right overseas market, and insuring your deal–these questions and more can now be answered under one roof.

State and local export-promotion programs exist in more than half the states, from Ohio to California, and ventures like the Southeastern Pennsylvania Export Consortium have already embraced this idea of one-stop shopping, as it’s described by SBA spokesman D.J. Caulfield. The goal, he says, is to bring together experts on shipping, marketing, law, sales, and other subjects, with the results being more business for companies with products or services that are ready for export. One-stop shopping at the federal level could be expanded nationwide withing two years, Caulfield says.

Because there are so many different sources of data, export-promotion programs have to work like a bucket brigade, with each agency handing off to another to avoid duplication of efforts. New York State used to mail qualified trade leads to companies every few weeks, an idea used by several agencies. some newspapers and magazines, including Crain’s Chicago Business, even reprint leads provided by the government. One benefit of all these leads is to help companies avoid dead-end prospecting.

Although bulletin-board listings don’t favor goods over services, leads–especially fav service companies or consultants–come from human networking as often, if not more, that from searching databases. Universities, private consultants, and organizations such as the members-only World Trade Centers in hundreds of cities worldwide are all sources for connections.

Eventually, you’ll create your own database of experts, says Stephen Kukan, a general manager at New Jersey’s Public Service Electric & Gas, which created TradeLink New Jersey to get small manufacturing firms into exporting and now has more than 1.000 clients in a variety of industries and sizes. Kukan advises that attending every world trade event can get redundant, so choose carefully, since keeping your business in business is your highest priority.

“Small and medium-size companies are in the business of keeping themselves alive right now, so they can’t spend month finding out who can help them best,” he adds. “Part of our job is to coordinate all those groups and make customers feel comfortable using them.”

Amen, says Freed, who admits he is still discovering new sources of data and sales leads for the next big deal. Communications and networking are critical in any business, even more so in world trade, he says. The speed and convenience of computer and fax can provide a real edge, if they’re employed effectively.

Export Help

The United States Department of Commerce’s Flashfax service can answer basic questions on Mexico, Eastern Europe, the Pacific Rim, and GATT. Each area offers reports via fax.

Questions on finance, shipping, packaging, and other issues are often easily answered, but you have to know whom to ask. For example, certain computer and chemical technologies have the potential for military use, so such exports need to be licensed with the government. Companies should first check to see if there are any export restrictions on the product itself or the country to which it might be sent. You can then call ELVIS, ELAIN, and STELA (voice phone numbers).

Skip The Lawyer When Contracts Are Needed

wdc

You don’t have to be a personal liability Attorney to see the benefits of writing contracts, nor do you have to hire one to create any number of them. A little common sense goes a long way, and a good contract does a lot more than just cover your butt should you end up in court some day. Written correctly, a contrast can establish a reassuring air of professionalism, weed out insincere clients, organize your duties, speed up your pay, help you get insurance, nip disputes before they arise, make mutual obligations clear (and therefore help establish a better working relationship), and–when all else falls apart–cover your butt.

Karen Koostra, a pet sitter from Washington, D.C., obtained liability insurance by creating a contract before she started Pet-cetera three years ago. “Basically, I just sat down with a couple of neighbors who were lawyers but not licensed in this city, and we brainstormed about my business,” she says. She wrote a straightforward contract that runs a page and a half. In it, she leaves blanks for the details of the job–the names of the pets, the days, dollars, and chores involved. She then outlines the limits of her liability.

That’s about it. After writing the contract, koostra took a copy to a licensed attorney in Washington, and he approved its language. She sent the contract to her insurer, who wrote a liability policy on her business that the firm had been unwilling to write before she had the contract.

And Koostra’s clients are happy with it, too. “They prefer having a contract,” she says. “It gives them a sense of security.”

What’s in a Contract? Koostra’s contract is simple and straightforward, but it has all of the essential elements. According to Manhattan attorney Charles B. Chernofsky, any contract should contain these key ingredients. It thoroughly identifies the parties involved, includes a meeting of the minds about what is to be done, details the payment, is signed by both parties, and–if it is a specific kind of legal contract, like a lease or a will–follows a strictly defined format.

But you don’t have to be so formal; a letter of agreement is a contract, too. “In fact, a contract can be anything,” says Hilary Miller, a Greenwich, Connecticut, attorney who has written contracts for small-business owners for use with their clients. “It can be oral, it can be on the back of an envelope or letter, it can even be a purchase order or any combination of documents that have been exchanged by the parties. It has no particular form.” Written is better, however, Miller concedes; then the terms don’t have to become a question of fact.

To construct your own contract, put in the kinds of issues that matter in your line of work. Independent consultants, for example, may currently be struggling with Internal Revenue Service rules that threaten to reclassify them as employees. So, says Chernofsky, “state clearly in the contract that the consultant is an independent contractor and not an employee.” That will protect your business identity and relieve your client of the fear that he’ll end up having to pay your health insurance premiums and Social Security taxes.

Include specific services you are to perform, with deadlines. Write in a pay schedule that pleases you both. And–important if your work is of a creative nature–including details about who owns rights to the work involved. If you work on projects that evolve overtime, add some description of when the job will be officially done. That can be the delivery of a second draft of a report or any other finite explanation.

Finally, include a method of dispute resolution, suggests Miller. Indicate the state under whose laws the contract is being written and, if possible, a mechanism for resolving complaints. This can be through binding arbitration, voluntary mediation, or any other noncourt dispute resolution process. “You can even stipulate a particular neutral person who might be an expert in the business to whom you would refer disputes,” he suggests.

Contract Etiquette Unlike koostra’s customers, Pauline Dillenbeck’s clients are not happy pet owners–they are lawyers themselves and not always thrilled to sign on the dotted line. Dillenbeck, who works out of her Springfield, Missouri, home, makes litigation exhibits such as posters, graphs, and timelines that her clients use when they are arguing cases in court. But four years ago, when she started InterAction Design with a partner, her main responsibility was the business side of things, and part of that was getting contracts signed.

“It was a real hassle,” she remembers. “I could never get a signature; it would go into limbo. I had to make a real pain of myself just to get them to sign, and it got really hard to do business.”

So Dillenbeck, harking back to the business law course she took in college, remembered that a contract was “an offer and an acceptance” and figured out a way around it. Now, when Dillenbeck takes on a new assignment, she tells her client she will be sending a summary letter of agreement. That letter lays out all the details of the project, including tasks, deadlines, and payment terms. And it also requests a 50 percent retrainer paid up front to get the project stated.

“When I get a deposit, I put copies of the letter and the check in the file. That’s proof of acceptance, if I ever have to go to smallclaims court,” stresses Dillenbeck.

Other professionals report a similar need for finesse with some clients. “There’s a fine line between caution and paranoia,” concedes Susan Kuhn, a Washington, D.C., consultant and strategic planner for both nonprofit organizations and corporations. “You need to know where in that spectrum you should be with your clients.”

kuhn doesn’t typically employ the more protective approaches used by some of her business-consultant colleagues–one asks clients to sign off on every stage of a project, another requires signatures on a statement declaring the project complete. Kuhn uses the same letter of agreement approach that works for Dillenbeck and introduces it after she and her clients have hashed out most details in conversation. “I’ll send you a summary of our meeting,” she tells them. Usually she’ll request a client signature on that letter, sometimes she just writes, “Unless I hear from you within a week, I’ll proceed according to this document.”

“A confirmatory letter has considerable weight,” notes Miller. “There’s a general principle that when a party retains without objection correspondence from the other side that construes the agreement between the parties, that party later on should not be permitted to offer a contrary construction.” Which is Miller’s legal way of saying, if you get a letter like that and you don’t agree with it, answer quickly.

For his own clients, Miller prefers a little more formality. “I always insist on having a written retainer agreement if there is any material service. My experience is that such a requirement scares off a lot of people whom I probably don’t want as clients anyway.”

Put a Lawyer in Your Disk Drive So how do you write your own contract? In your word processor, of course, so you can fill in the specific details of every arrangement and spit out a nice, clean contract every time.

Or go one better, and let one of two software packages put the contract in your word processor for you. Legal Letter-Works ($80; Round Lake Publishing, [203] 438-5255) and 301 Legal Forms and Agreements ($90; E-Z Legal Software, [305] 480-8933) exist to take the work out of legal correspondence. Each offers business contracts, such as those for consultants and sales representatives, in a text format that can be pulled right onto your own letterhead.

Legal Letter Works includes a bit more information about how each of its 165 legal forms and greements is used and gives greater detail about how to customize each form. The forms were written by Chernofsky and Griffith G. deNoyelles Jr., who explain enough in the margins (or pop-up hints, if you’re working in Windows) to probably qualify you for a few extra credits in contract law. 301 Legal Forms includes more letters and forms, although the contracts seem sketchier and the explications are nonexistent.

You could probably buy both for what it would cost to spend an hour with a good attorney and then pick and choose the phrases you like best. Look to the printed work, too: The Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business by Fred Steingold (Nolo Press) includes a substantial chapter on how to put together your own contracts. Finally, spend that hour with your attorney going over the details of your new agreement, and start doing business by the book.

Make Your Presentations Shine

myp

When you think about multimedia in business, think presentations. According to Dataquest, a market research firm, 66 percent of the corporations in a recent survey reported using multimedia in presentations. Thankfully, multimedia is enlivening those ever-static flip charts and slides.

In addition, one of the newest uses of multimedia is something called disk-based advertising, and it’s not just for big companies. Virtually all presentation programs let you package presentations on disk to send to prospects and customers, who then place the disk in their floppy drives and watch your pitch.

Printed four-color brochures can easily exceed a dollar a copy. For the same amount, however, disk-based marketing lets you send much more information in a potentially more powerful medium. And disk-based fliers are still new enough to demand your prospect’s attention, especially considering the pounds of junk mail he gets every day. Studies also show that once your prospect boots the disk, he tends to spend more time with the demonstration than with traditional print communication materials.

Developers of presentation programs have worked hard to make all forms of multimedia more accessible to even casual users. In the process, these products have evolved into environments that help you plan, design, and produce the presentation – all you supply is the coffee and doughnuts.

A key feature to look for in a presentation package is ease of multimedia integration. The program should not only enable audio, video, and animation playback, but it should also provide precise control over placement and sequencing. In addition, timeline editors, which let you plan multimedia sequences graphically by event, are extremely helpful, as is the ability to play only portions of selected clips.

If you’re low on multimedia resources or don’t have enough time to be as inventive as you’d like, built-in animation tools and transition effects also help retain the viewer’s attention. And if you’re working primarily with numbers, a charting feature that dresses up those dry spreadsheets is very important.

A word of caution: Animation, special effects, and transitions between slides eat up system memory, 8MB of RAM is probably the minimum even for simple effects. If you’re building the presentation for delivery on another computer – such as a notebook – be sure to test the resulting show thoroughly on that computer.

Finally, remember that the more effects and transitions you program into your presentation, the more can go wrong with it. Bring printed copies in case your computer won’t boot or your program decides not to run. As with all demonstrations, the more advance tribute you pay to Mr. Murphy and his law, the less likely you are to experience it firsthand.

Astound ($399; $279 street) by Gold Disk practically builds your presentation for you. Choose a template, import an Excel spreadsheet, and select a chart type. Astound assembles the raw presentation; just customize the text and you’re done.

Although other programs, such as Micrografx’s Charisma, Macromind’s Action!, and Asymetrix’s Compel, also include some level of animation support, Astound’s implementation leads the pack. It includes 29 animated actors for inserting into presentations. For example, choose a popping bottle of champagne to demonstrate a dramatic increase in sales.

Adding animation takes just a couple of extra steps. After selecting the actor, you set its entry, exit, and animation paths, as well as its duration. Test for placement and timing, and you’re done.

While traditional presentation packages such as Harvard Graphics and Freelance Graphics add support for new media, specialized multimedia programs provide the best method for creating presentations. Compel uses a timeline metaphor to unify all actions in a way that simplifies arranging your effects. Action! comes with a variety of templates that rivals Astound for creating a presentation. If you need extensive speaker’s notes to calm your jitters, Charisma is the program to ease your mind. Regardless of which program you use, be sure to rehearse your animation before actually giving the presentation. Animations steal your audience’s attention, so make sure they complement rather than conflict with your show.

Great Ideas Come From Everywhere

gicme

The factory of the information age is the human mind. Yet the average person uses less than one-tenth of one percent of his brain power. “We now know that breakthrough ideas come from the integration of logic and imagination–the merging of left brain (analytical, convergent) and right brain (creative, divergent) thinking,” says Chic Thompson, author of What a Great Idea! (HarperCollins). “We can transform our minds into idea-generating powerhouses if we learn to operate them a peak efficiency.” Innate convergent thinkers often find that their linear approach is too limiting. They get stuck on the root of an idea and find it difficult to branch out. Naturally divergent thinkers pop out plenty of ideas but find itdifficult to backtrack, focus, and bring a single concept to full development. By gaining a better understanding of how the mind works and using techniques that stimulate your creative and problem-solving abilities, youcan groom your thought bank into a great idea-generating machine.

Identifying a Problem Before You Create a Solution

“It just hit me” is the explanation most people give when asked where their great ideas come from. Serendipity, it seems. Yet closer examination reveals that “the best ideas start with a passion to solve the specific problem or find an answer to a burning question,” says Thompson. Simply asking yourself the right questions is a launching pad to problem solving. The world changed forever when the first nomad stopped asking, “How do we get to water?” and askedinstead, “How can we get the water to come to us?”

It was sheer frustration that led Philip Payne of Edmonds, Washington, on a quest for a solution that would eventually evolve into a fruitful business. Twenty years ago, Payne was a Cambridge University student typing his doctoral dissertation on an IBM Selectric. “Much of my research was in Hebrew and Greek,” he recalls. “It was an extremely painful process because I had to leave blank spaces, then go back and hand-write the foreign lettering. I realized the need for a system that could handle both Roman and non-Roman scripts.” He often thought about writing a book based upon his research, but he was hindered because there was no software that handled English, Hebrew, and Greek. “The minute I saw the Macintosh WYSIWYG interface, I knew I’d found my answer,” says Payne. “I studied the internal architecture and learned how to create my own fonts. Within a month, I was printing documents in Greek.”

Payne was so elated with his discovery, he wrote a letter to a computer magazine. The editor wanted to run an article on his product line. Caught off-guard, Payne invented a company name on the spot: Linguist’s Software. After the article was published in the September 1984 issue, Payne’s phone started ringing off the hook. He also received dozens of special development requests, including programs for Russian, Hungarian, and Chinese. Payne now offers a catalog that contains more than 200 different language programs available in Mac and Windows versions. “We hope to sell $600,000 worth of products this year,” he says.

If you want to generate great ideas, “Ready, Fire, Aim” should be your motto. Clearly identify the problem by asking the right questions (Ready). Throw out dozens–even hundreds–of possible solutions, from wacky to wonderful, from silly to sublime (Fire). At least one of these ideas is bound to be good (Aim). The notebooks of geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Eistein are filled with scribbles, doodles, and unconnected thoughts–all evidence of a vigorous Fire stage.

Where to Find Fuel for Thought Ideas to fuel the Fire state can be so simple that people often overlook or dismiss them. “Fuel for great ideas lurks everywhere,” says Bill Shephard, director of programs for the Creative Education Foundation in Buffalo, New York, a non-profit organization founded by the father of modern-day brainstorming, Alex Osborn, and dedicated to nurturing creativity, innovation, and problem solving. “Newspapers, magazines, and books are filled with idea fodder. So is nature and recreation. Children are infinitely creative and can often spark new ideas.” He cites a case in point. “When Edwin Land took a picture of his young daughter playing at the beach, she asked when she could see it. Land replied that the film had to be developed first. His daughter asked, ‘Why can’t we see the picture now?’ That picture inspired Land to invent the instant photography technology for the Polaroid Land camera,” says Shephard.

Summoning the carefree child within us can also fuel ideas. For example, Barry and Susan Brooks wanted to start a business, but they needed to choose a field where they would truly enjoy and have fun with their work. They wondered about professions for several months until one day in 1977, sitting at the kitchen table, Susan asked, “What do we enjoy doing together?” The seed for an idea was planted and Barry shouted, “Cookies!” Each year they had a blast baking holiday cookies using old family recipes. Their cookie-filled tin cans were always a big hit.

Bankers, however, laughed at their plan. And they were left with no option but to sell their home to open a retail cookie shop, which turned out to be an instant success. By 1978, they had 12 franchises up and down the Southeast Coast. But after encountering major problems with quality control, they decided to disassociate themselves from the company.

The couple moved to Tempe, Arizona, to start over. They still wanted to sell cookies but not only through a retail store. “There were plenty of options, such as grocery stores, warehouse clubs, and gourmet shops. But we were looking for a unique niche,” says Barry. That’s when the second idea hit. One day a friend of Susan’s asked if the pair would bake cookies that her husband, a prominent surgeon, could give as holiday gifts to patients, and colleagues. “Even as we talked, the idea began to click,” recalls Susan. “Surely, there were lots of professionals and executives who would like to give homemade cookies as gifts.” Indeed there were.

Today, Cookies From Home sells 80 percent of its product to corporations and professionals. Each order is customized with the corporation’s name and logo oin the tin, packaging, and inner wrappings. For Valentine’s Day, Psicor, a medical supply company in San Diego, California, placed an order for more than $25,000. “We packaged the cookies in Psicor’s surgical containers and sent them to 800 of its customers. They were delighted to discover not needles and rubber gloves but chocolate-chip cookies. The promotion was a huge success,” adds Susan. The Brooks now have 30 employees and projected sales for 1994 are $1.5 million.

Create a Brain-Nourishing Environment

Although the eureka factor worked well for the Brooks, it isn’t necessarily a dependable means for producing great ideas. Creating an idea-inspiring atmosphere, however, fosters the right frame of mind for the consistent development of innovative concepts.

“Unfortunately, many people take the wrong approach when decorating their home offices,” says Michael J. Gelb, founder of High Performance Learning Inc., which offers creativity-boosting resources, including books, audiotapes, and seminars. “They create the same dull, stark environment that’s been stifling corporate creativity for years.” Gelb suggests replacing fluorescent lights with halogen, incandescent, or natural light. He also swears by his hammock and the 10-minute brain breaks he takes regularly.

Gelb was created what he calls a “brain-nourishing environment” in his Great Falls, Virginia, home office. “I have a large dry-erase board and scores of magic markers for mapping out projects or things to do. I’ve realized that the mind remembers in images, not words, so I create drawings of anything I need to recall.”

Gelb’s office is filled with flowers, plants, books, stimulating artwork, colorful carpeting, decorator accents, and even a set of juggling balls. “Nothing balances the brain like juggling,” he insists. His window offers a picturesque view of a wooded area and he fills the air with classical music. “Everywhere I look, I see something that inspires and energizes me,” says Gelb.

Even so, Gelb’s great ideas don’t always come when sitting in his office. “Like most people, I get my ideas when I’m not trying too hard. The trick is to write them down immediately, so they’re not lost,” he says. To that end, Gelb stocks notebooks and microcassette recorders where his best ideas usually strike: by his bedside, in the car, and, yes, in the bathroom.

According to research conducted by Thompson, the top 10 idea-generating times are when you’re:

1. sitting on the toilet,

2. showering or shaving (Note: Albert Einstein said: “Make friends with your shower. If inspired to sing, maybe the song has an idea in it for your.”),

3. commuting to work,

4. falling asleep or waking up,

5. in a boring meeting,

6. reading at leisure,

7. exercising,

8. waking in the middle of the night,

9. listening to a church sermon,

10. performing manual labor.

Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats, inventor of the floppy disk and owner of 2,300 patents (more than double the number held by Thomas Edison), comes up with his best ideas while swimming. He frequents a local hotel that has a pool. “I have a special way of holding my breath and swimming underwater–that’s when I come up with my best ideas. I’ve created a Plexiglas writing pad so that I can stay underwater and record these ideas.”

NakaMats has also designed two rooms (totaling 300 square feet) in his Tokyo home, where he goes for inspiration. His static rook is a place of piece and quiet. “I only have natural things in here: a rock garden, natural running water, plants, a five-ton boulder from Kyoto,” he says. “I go into the room to free-associate.” His dynamic room is dark, with black-and-white-striped walls, leather furniture, and special audio and video equipment. He starts by listening to jazz and always end with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Conduct Collective-Thinking Sessions In addition to Gelb’s brain-nourishing home office, he also calls on a group of creative-thinking colleagues. “Most ideas come when you’re alone, which is a great advantage for those of us who work at home,” he says. “You can’t get to that phase, however, until you’ve worked through the preparation and generation stages. And for those steps, a group effort often works extremely well.”

Gelb’s brainstorming participants include people from related fields and even several from entirely different professions. “That way, I get both a reality check from the experts and a fresh perspective from the unjaded.” Such brain teams can meet in person, over the phone, or even onlin (see “Creative Resources” for a list of organizations devoted to promoting creative thinking).

Break From Tradition Even the most adept creative thinkers can succumb to the dreaded mental block. And the phrase “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is the most prominent symptom of this type of imagination suppression. The key to unlocking new doors is to eliminate this creativity-squelching chant.

When Ed Pankau, of Houston, Texas, entered the private investigation business in 1973, his gumshoe technique was wearing thin. “There’s got to be an easier way,” he would mumble as he traipsed around town searching out information for clients.

One day an attorney hired him to complete several hundred investigations within 60 days. “The government had closed six banks, so they put me on the trail of any debtors with assets worth chasing,” he recalls. Pankau knew the information he needed was available in public records; the question was how to get rapid, around-the-clock access to it.

“Would the government sell me the public records I needed on microfiche?” he wondered. Apparently no one had ever asked before, but the county clerk was willing. Pankau not only discovered a lucrative business, but he also invented a new industry. Today, thousands of people use the methodologies he developed to retrieve information online.

Pankau’s there’s-got-to-be-a-better-way philosophy paid off with another great idea in 1985. When his hairstylist informed him that she was planning on closing shop and investing her life savings in a business venture with a new boyfriend, Pankau was concerned. “Let me check the public records and see what turns up on him,” he suggested. It turns out that lover boy had several wibes and a lengthy prison record. After the salon owner told friends and customers what Pankau had uncovered, scores of single women began calling him to check out their new beaus.

When Pankau mentioned to a reporter from The New York Times that “women are checking out boyfriends like bankers check out buyers,” the story made front-page news. Within days, he had received invitations to appear on Donahue, Geraldo, and Larry King Live. Pankau had unwittingly launched yet another industry. Today, computerized character checks on prospective mates are de rigueur and Pankau’s company, Intertect Inc., grossed $2 million dollars in 1993.

It Won’t Fly, If You Don’t Try Whether you have a fleeting notion or a product concept or a fluke–until you put it out for all the world to see. As Alex Osborn has said, “A fair idea to use is much better than a great idea kept on the polishing wheel.” Plunge boldly into the arena of ideas, and you just might come out a winner.