A common way to generate new business ideas is through brainstorming. In general, brainstorming is simply the process of generating several ideas about a specific topic. The approaches range from a person sitting down with a yellow legal pad and jotting down interesting business ideas to formal “brainstorming sessions” led by moderators that involve a group of people.
In a formal brainstorming session, the leader of the group asks the participants to share their ideas. One person shares an idea, another person reacts to it, another person reacts to the reaction, and so on. A flip chart or an electronic whiteboard is typically used to record all the ideas. A productive session is freewheeling and lively. The session is not used for analysis or decision-making—the ideas generated during a brainstorming session need to be filtered and analyzed, but this is done later. We show the four strict rules for conducting a formal brainstorming session. As you’ll see, the number one rule for a brainstorming session is that no criticism is allowed, including chuckles, raised eyebrows, or facial expressions that express skepticism or doubt. Criticism stymies creativity and inhibits the free flow of ideas.
RULES FOR A FORMAL BRAINSTORMING SESSION
• No criticism is allowed, including chuckles, raised eyebrows, or facial expressions that express skepticism or doubt.
Criticism stymies creativity and inhibits the free flow of ideas.
• Freewheeling, which is the carefree expression of ideas free from rules or restraints, is encouraged; the more ideas,
the better. Even crazy or outlandish ideas may lead to a good idea or a solution to a problem.
• The session moves quickly, and nothing is permitted to slow down its pace. For example, it is more important to
capture the essence of an idea than to take the time to write it down neatly.
• Leapfrogging is encouraged. This means using one idea as a means of jumping forward quickly to other ideas.
2. Focus Groups
A focus group is a gathering of 5 to 10 people who are selected because of their relationship to the issue being discussed. Although focus groups are used for a variety of purposes, they can be used to help generate new business ideas.
Focus groups typically involve a group of people who are familiar with a topic, are brought together to respond to questions, and shed light on an issue through the give-and-take nature of a group discussion. Focus groups usually work best as a follow-up to brainstorming, when the general idea for a business has been formulated, such as casual electronic games for adults, but further refinement of the idea is needed. Usually, focus groups are conducted by trained moderators. The moderator’s primary goals are to keep the group “focused” and to generate lively discussion. Much of the effectiveness of a focus group session depends on the moderator’s ability to ask questions and keep the discussion on track. For example, a retail establishment in which coffee is sold, such as Starbucks, might conduct a focus group consisting of 7 to 10 frequent customers and ask the group, “What is it that you don’t like about our coffee shop?” A customer may say, “You sell 1-pound bags of your specialty ground coffees for people to brew at home. That’s okay, but I often run out of coffee in just a few days. Sometimes it’s a week before I get back to the shop to buy another bag. If you sold 3-pound or 5-pound bags, I’d actually use more coffee because I wouldn’t run out so often. I guess I could buy two or three 1-pound bags at the same time, but that gets a little pricey. I’d buy a 3- or 5-pound bag, however, if you’d discount your price a little for larger quantities.” The moderator may then ask the group, “How many people here would buy 3-pound or 5-pound bags of our coffee if they were available?” If five hands shoot up, the coffee shop may have just uncovered an idea for a new product line.
3. Library and Internet Research
A third approach to generate new business ideas is to conduct library and Internet research. A natural tendency is to think that an idea should be chosen, and the process of researching the idea should then begin. This approach is too linear. Often, the best ideas emerge when the general notion of an idea, like creating casual electronic games for adults, is merged with extensive library and Internet research, which might provide insights into the best type of casual games to create.
Libraries are often an underutilized source of information for generating business ideas. The best approach to utilizing a library is to discuss your general area of interest with a reference librarian, who can point out useful resources, such as industry-specific magazines, trade journals, and industry reports. Simply browsing through several issues of a trade journal on a topic can spark new ideas. Very powerful search engines and databases are also available through universities and large public libraries, which would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to access on your own. An example is IBIS World (www.ibisworld.com), a company that publishes market research on all major industries and subcategories within industries. IBIS World published a 30-page report on the solar power industry, for example, in March 2011, which includes key statistics (about industry growth and profitability), a complete industry analysis, and an outlook for the future. Spending time reading this report could spark new ideas for solar-powered devices or help affirm an existing idea.
Internet research is also important. If you are starting from scratch, simply typing “new business ideas” into Google or Yahoo! will produce links to newspaper and magazine articles about the “hottest” and “latest” new business ideas. Although these types of articles are general in nature, they represent a starting point if you’re trying to generate new business ideas from scratch. If you have a specific idea in mind, a useful technique is to set up a Google or Yahoo! “e-mail alert” using keywords that pertain to your topic of interest. Google and Yahoo! alerts are e-mail updates of the latest Google or Yahoo! results including press releases, news articles, and blog posts based on your topic. This technique, which is available for free, will feed you a daily stream of news articles and blog postings about specific topics. Another approach is to follow business leaders and experts in the industries you’re interested in on Twitter. The best way to locate people on Twitter you might be interested in following is by typing into the search bar labeled “Who to Follow” relevant keywords preceded by the “#” sign. For example, if you’re interested in solar power, type “#solarpower” into the search bar. All the results will be people or companies who tweet about solar power topics.
4. Other Techniques
Firms use a variety of other techniques to generate ideas. Some companies set up customer advisory boards that meet regularly to discuss needs, wants, and problems that may lead to new ideas. Other companies conduct varying forms of anthropological research, such as day-in-the-life research. Intuit, the maker of Quicken, Quickbooks, and TurboTax, practices day-in-the-life research. The company routinely sends teams of testers to the homes and businesses of its users to see how its products are working and to seek insights for new product ideas.