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Sara Blakely’s Tips for Brainstorming Business Ideas
Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, is living proof that you don’t need a business degree—or even that much money in savings—to become a successful entrepreneur or start a successful business. “One of the most common misconceptions of entrepreneurs is that we had it all figured out before we took the leap,” she says. Many successful entrepreneurs get started by simply offering a new solution to a widespread issue.
To do that, you must brainstorm. Many different times, and in many different ways. Here’s a few of Sara’s brainstorming techniques to get started on discovering your next business opportunity.
1. First, Ask Yourself Why
“I like to ask the question, ‘Why?’ a lot. ‘Why’ should become your best friend.”—Sara Blakely
Why doesn’t a certain product exist? Why isn’t a rudimentary task done in a more efficient way? Why hasn’t any product within a specific space evolved in a while?
The answer to why something doesn’t exist may be that no one’s been able to make it well, or no one’s had the time—or even the idea. Until you, of course.
- Carry around your notebook for a week and make a log of every product, design, or process you come across that bothers you. This could be anything from the way the subway tunnel is designed, where you have to push through crowds to get to work, to how the zippered compartments on your favorite purse aren’t big enough to stick your phone into.
- After the week is over, challenge yourself to brainstorm a few solutions for some of those peskier problems. You don’t have to find a solution for all of the issues you see. But if you keep up with this exercise and incorporate it into your daily life, you may find certain problems that crop up week after week. Pay close attention to those and think about why no one has solved them.
- Make a list of all the products or businesses you can find that are similar to the product you want to create or the business you want to start. For each of those companies, write down what you do and don’t like about them, pro/con style. Once you do that, write down all of the ways that your idea is different.
2. Let Your Mind Wander
While scientists can’t perfectly pinpoint why great ideas often come to us in the shower, we all know it works. There’s something to letting your brain relax instead of forcing yourself to churn out ideas on command. The more you let your mind wander, the more likely you are to come up with new, profitable business ideas.
Give yourself some room to dream by putting yourself in a creative mindset. Go someplace where you know you won’t be interrupted—your bedroom, somewhere in nature—and start by getting quiet. Spend a few minutes wiping your mind of other tasks and worries. Focus on creating a blank slate upon which to sketch some business ideas.
Once Sara realized the car was where she came up with her best ideas, she doubled down, designing herself a “fake commute” to work to give herself an extra hour to drive aimlessly around town just to have time to do her best thinking.
- Every day for a week, spend 20 minutes brainstorming in seven different places. Once you find the place where you can be most creative, spend another week thinking in that space for at least 20 minutes per day. If you realize that you rarely find yourself in your best thinking space, make a manageable change in your routine to put you there more regularly. Maybe that means fabricating a commute, or maybe it means foregoing your favorite podcast while you shower so you can brainstorm instead.
- Try playing a little word association game. Without thinking too hard, focus on your product or service and quickly write down the first five to ten words that come to mind on a piece of paper. Now play around with those words—combine them, change a letter or two. Remember that the Internet will play a role in people finding your product. If you hit on some names you like the sound of, check the availability of URLs you can fit that name into—whether it’s purely the name or you have to add a few extra, but still intuitive words—like getspanx.com.
- Try using a blank Venn diagram. Let the circle on the left represent what you enjoy doing—this can go beyond business and encompass hobbies and types of activities, like “telling a story.” Let the one on the right represent what you are good at in life and at work. Let the circle on top represent the ways in which you want to serve the world. The best way to make this last list, says Sara, is to think about “what breaks your heart.” For Sara, that was women being held back. What is it for you? How do items from those three circles intersect to create the purpose hiding in the middle of the diagram? Using the lists you made as a guide, write out at least three potential mission statements that could fit your future business.
3. Give it a Name
Sara names her ideas early because, as she says, “it gives them energy.” When you name something, it makes it feel more real, whether we’re talking future achievements or the planet Mercury’s effect on your daily life. Not only that, the right name may come in handy when it comes time to market your idea to the masses. Since Sara didn’t have much money for marketing when she first launched Spanx, its catchy name was her calling card (just make sure to Google it first, in case someone else has already claimed the name!).
4. Make it a Group Activity
A brainstorming session doesn’t have to be a solo endeavor—regular group brainstorming with your fellow team members is a crucial way to boost creative thinking, problem solving, and creative idea generation at every stage of development. Different perspectives from a diverse group of people and experiences may be just the thing to bust you and your idea out of a rut.
- Use icebreakers to lessen inhibitions, and emphasize that there are no bad ideas in effective brainstorming.
- Pass out Post-Its, and organize them for at-a-glance mind mapping on a whiteboard.
- Set a time limit to brainstorm ideas. This encourages rapid-fire creative solutions. When there’s no time to doubt yourself, the number of ideas go up.
Learn More About Entrepreneurship
Sara Blakely had no fashion, retail, or business leadership experience when she invented Spanx in the late 1990s. All she had was $5,000 and an idea. Which means you can start your own billion-dollar business, too. Learn more about finding your purpose, making prototypes, building awareness, and selling your product in Sara Blakely’s MasterClass.
Get the MasterClass All-Access Pass for exclusive access to video lessons taught by business luminaries, including Sara Blakely, Howard Schultz, Anna Wintour, and more.