How To Become an Idea Machine

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Kelly Francis ?@KellyFrancisLaw: How do you know when you’re thinking too big or aiming too high (if that’s even possible)?

Answer:

In the mid-90s I had an idea that lasted about the amount of time it takes to drink two beers. I say this because I had the idea at a bar and it was quickly squashed by the two friends I was with.

I wanted to create a reality cable channel. All reality TV all the time. Reality TV was just beginning. “MTV’s The Real World” and HBO’s “Taxicab Confessions” were the only real two successful examples at that point. The day before, I had gone to a seminar at the Museum of Television and Radio about “The Real World”. All of the guests of my favorite season (but not Puck or Pedro, who was dead) were there answering questions. I felt reality TV was a cheap way to produce TV and people would get obsessed by it, particularly if sex was involved.

“What a dumb idea,” a friend said. “There’s only so much reality.” Which strikes me as funny now.

The other guy said, “you’re not a big TV company. How will you get the cable companies to go for the idea?”

So I never thought about it again. I put up a fence around the idea and decided I would not be able to leap over that fence to execute on the idea. Now EVERY television channel is basically all reality all the time, or at least 50% of the time.

My real problem was: I didn’t have confidence. And I didn’t know what the next step was. In retrospect, I should’ve written down my idea, written down ten ideas for possible shows to launch with, and started pitching TV companies to get someone to partner with me on it. That would’ve been simple and not taken too much time before there was some payoff.

Note: what might be too big for you (thinking of the next step) might not be too big for someone else (they might easily know, and not be afriad of, what the next step is).

Two examples:

I was first asked a similar question a few months ago and I replied that an idea would be too big if you can’t think of the next step. I then added that if I wanted to start an airline with more comfortable seats and internet access and better food and cheaper prices I might have a hard time because even if it were a good idea I wouldn’t know what to do next.

Then I read about Richard Branson.

When Virgin Records was making him a tidy profit of about $15 million a year he decided there should be a more comfortable cross-atlantic airline. What the hell did he know about making an airline? Nothing. Not only that, airlines are a difficult business. Three of the best investors in history: Howard Hughes, Carl Icahn, and Warren Buffett have crashed and burned buying airlines. Warren Buffett once said something like “that the best way to end up with a billion is to start with two and buy an airline. ”

And yet Branson came up with the idea and that very day he called up Boeing to find out what it would cost to lease an airplane. He made a great deal with them that if it didn’t work out he could return the airplane. Else if it did work out, he’d be a great customer for them. I’m assuming he made a similar call to Airbus and took the best deal. He then probably found out what it cost to lease space in the various airports he would need to use. They were probably happy with more business. And then, I’m guessing, he hired some pilots, some ground crew, and put an ad in the paper advertising his new air routes and he was in business.

Virgin Air is successful (I just flew it from NY to LA a few weeks ago) and has since spun off Virgin Galactic. So this scruffy kid who started a record label is now sending rocketships into space.

Note the important thing: the day he came up with the idea he also called Boeing and got a plane from them. So he took the next step. For me, I would’ve convinced myself that the “next step” in starting an airline was too big for me. And then it would’ve been too big for me. This is not quite the same as “the secret” — the idea that our thoughts can create our reality but…they do. If you think you can do something, if you have confidence, if you have creativity (developed by building up your idea muscle discussed in many other posts here), the big ideas become smaller and smaller. Until there is no idea too big. Nothing you can’t at least attempt.

On a much smaller scale I can state a few examples of my own but I’ll stick with one. I had an idea to create a financial news site that didn’t have any news but was just a site made up of various methods to come up with investment ideas. In particular, by piggybacking the investment ideas of the greatest investors. I spec-ed out the site the morning I had the idea, I put the spec on elance.com, several developers contacted me with prices, and I hired one of them. Within a few weeks, version 1.0 of the site was released, stockpickr.com. 7 months later and millions of unique users later, I sold the profitable company to thestreet.com.

So the question is not necessarily, “when is an idea too big” it’s: “how do I make all ideas smaller and achievable”. You do this by developing the idea muscle:

A) Every day, read/skim, chapters from books on at least four different topics. For myself this morning I read from a biography of Mick Jagger, I read a chapter from Regenesis, a book on advances in genetic engineering, a topic I know nothing about. I read a chapter in Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. Her recent book, Wild is an Oprah pick and was also excellent. I read a chapter from Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell, and I, to waste time, I played a game of chess online.

B) Write down ten ideas. About anything. It doesn’t matter if they are business ideas, book ideas, ideas for surprising your spouse in bed, ideas for what you should do if you are arrested for shoplifting, ideas for how to make a better tennis racquet, anything you want. The key is that it has to be ten or more.

You want your brain to sweat.

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