When it comes to innovation, talk is cheap. There are many innovative people who love to dream big ideas about starting their own business and building something great but there are few who actually take action. This post is not about theory or ideas but about doing. Whether you are a product manager, CEO, small business owner or wantrapreneur, I’ve assembled this list of action items you can do today to start you down the path of innovation.
Action #1: Start an idea journal (10-15 minutes) This is quite possibly the simplest and most important first step every innovator can take. When it comes to creating an idea journal, I recommend the following:
- Record ideas as they come and while they are fresh. Don’t let the idea go stale because even if it has a lot of potential, letting it go stale can cause you to forget the idea or dismiss it as dumb or unrealistic. Most often, ideas need time to be nurtured and refined before they are ready for implementation. Record them to ensure you don’t lose anything valuable.
- Record problems as well as solutions. By recording a specific challenge you faced, upon review you may be inspired with a possible solution as well.
- Use digital as well as analog recording tools. My idea journal is a mix of three tools – Google Keep, a whiteboard, and a notebook. Each medium serves a specific purpose. If the idea is best expressed visually as a flow chart, diagram, wireframe or drawing, I like to use a whiteboard and then take a picture of the board with my phone to make sure I’ve captured the idea digitally as well. If the idea is simple enough to write out, I prefer using Google Keep which is a no-frills note taking service from Google that is accessible from my computer, tablet and smartphone. There are many online note-taking programs, choose whichever one you like the most. For ideas where a whiteboard or phone are not accessible (such as a meeting at work where it might be inappropriate to use a phone or computer) I use a good old-fashioned notebook.
- Don’t erase or delete ideas. You never know which idea may become your next breakthrough. Don’t risk missing out on a breakthrough because you decided to delete the idea!
How this can change your life: Simply by writing something down, an idea becomes tangible. Writing out an idea is the first tangible step in innovation. You could be writing down an idea that ends up dramatically changing your life.
Action #2: Create a roadmap (30-45 minutes) Roadmaps are my all-time favorite planning tool. When done right, a roadmap helps tie things together over time and allows you to effectively plan for the future. Here are some simple steps:
- Decide what you are creating a roadmap for. If it’s for a product idea you’ve had, write that at on the top-left side of a paper or whiteboard.
- Draw a timeline in years at the bottom or top of the sheet. It’s usually best to start with a 5 year timeline. Much further out tends to be less productive because prediction accuracy beyond 5 years is pretty low.
- Create categories on the left of the page. These categories can be anything (career, life plans, etc.) but normally with regards to innovation the common categories include technology, hardware, software, competition, etc. Whatever categories you choose, be sure they relate to eachother in some way.
- Insert boxes to represent timeframes for items in each category. For example, if you anticipate your competition will come out with a new product in 6-12 months, label that on the sheet in the competition category. Do this for all categories.
How this can change your life: Building a roadmap is a gratifying experience because it’s the first step in shaping you or your products’ future. I recommend building roadmaps for all kinds of things including career progression, family life, etc.
Action #3: Submit an idea on Quirky (15-30 minutes) If you haven’t heard of Quirky, you’re in for a treat. Quirky is a crowdsourced innovation business model that allows people to submit their ideas and if the ideas are determined worthy to pursue, the Quirky team will build it and sell it and give you a share of the profits. In many ways Quirky is the future of innovation and new product development.
Submitting an idea is pretty straightforward so I won’t go into much detail here but just be sure that when you submit your idea you include drawings and images that clearly explain your product. The submission will be voted on by the Quirky community and you want to make sure the idea comes across clearly.
How this can change your life: If you submit an idea that gets traction in the community, ends up being created and sells well you can make enough money to eventually replace an income. Quirky is that big of a platform and the opportunities are endless if you have the right idea(s).
Action #4: Build a wireframe of your software or website idea (15-30 minutes) Many innovations involve software and new interfaces. If your idea is to create a new software platform or website, the best place to start is with a wireframe sketch. Balsamiq is my favorite tool for this. When building a wireframe, keep the following in mind:
- Start with the overall purpose of your site or software. Write out exactly what you hope people will experience and ultimately do when they use your new product. This is the most important step in designing a UI to meet your customer’s needs.
- Sketch out the homescreen first. With a homescreen mockup you’ll have a base from which you can branch off of. It’s okay to sketch the sub screens (or webpages) first but my experience has been that it’s usually better to build the homescreen mockup first then move on to the subpages.
- Keep it simple. Use fewer buttons than you think you may need and make it obvious to the user what they need to do on each page – especially the home page. Many websites or software programs get caught up in a frenzy of creating new features that once the site is done there are so many buttons and places to go that the user becomes confused and leaves the site. Don’t let that happen to your idea. Besides, you’re just in the early prototyping phase anyway, the mockup should only be the bare essentials.
- Show the mockup to your target consumer. Don’t spend days and weeks in isolation creating a wireframe of an elaborate website that may end up not being what your customer ultimately needs. Iterate quickly by showing your concept to potential customers and getting and incorporating their feedback from the beginning and all throughout the process. Think about it in terms of the Lean Startup approach. You only need an MVP (minimum viable product) that you can iterate on for now.
How this can change your life: Once you have a mockup wireframe, you have something to show for your idea and can explain it clearly to others. In my experience, unless you have something to show for your idea, it’s almost useless to talk with others about it. Unless they are a close and trusted friend, too often people will dismiss the idea as already been done or not very good in general. However, if you show them a drawing, they tend to listen before judging. Having a mockup helps build your credibility and if you get positive feedback it can boost your confidence enough to keep pushing forward – something that is essential to innovating.
Action #5: Buy a whiteboard (5 minutes) A whiteboard is an innovators best friend. No matter where you are in the process of innovation, having a whiteboard around can significantly boost your creativity and help you visualize your idea. I like to have whiteboards both at home and at the office because good ideas can come at any time and at any place. When using a whiteboard for innovation, it’s often useful to keep the following in mind:
- First, Sketch out your idea. Draw a picture of it then build, iterate and expand on that drawing.
- Outline your business plan. I like to use boxes and arrows for this. Process flow diagrams are helpful to draw as well to better understand exactly what your idea entails from a business model perspective.
- Draw out the customer experience process. This is another great thing to do with a whiteboard. Similar to the above, use boxes and arrows to make it clear what you would expect your customer to experience when using your new product or service.
- Draw whatever comes to mind! The above 3 items are just suggestions of what you can draw on the whiteboard regarding your idea but definitely draw everything useful that comes to mind.
- Take a picture with your phone. After you’ve created your whiteboard masterpiece and there’s no more room to work, take a picture of your work just in case you want to refer back to it later.
How this can change your life: Having a whiteboard at home has been a huge creativity boost for me. When I first bought it my family was skeptical about its usefulness but after seeing all the work I’ve been able to do with it they’ve really come to appreciate it. I’m much more productive by having it than I would be otherwise. Also note that whiteboard use is ubiquitous in Silicon Valley.
Action #6: Visit a TechShop (60-90 minutes) TechShop is an innovation lab full of advanced equipment capable of building any sort of product prototype imaginable. If you have an idea and need help building a prototype, TechShop can help you build it. For between $75-125 per month, you can have access to $1M worth of advanced software, machinery and expertise. For example, if your idea could be built with a 3D printer or CNC milling machine but you don’t want to buy either of those, TechShop is a great choice. Here’s a few things to keep in mind if you plan to visit a TechShop:
- Check to see if a TechShop is near you. TechShop is a relatively young company but they are expanding quickly. Several major US cities have TechShops open but their locations are still few. Check here to see if they have a location near you.
- TechShop experts can help you through the process. If you have an idea but don’t know how specifically to build it, ask the TechShop staff to help you create a prototyping plan and to orient you to the machines you will need to use to build the prototype.
- Plan to visit even if you don’t have a fully fleshed out idea. I don’t have any affiliation with TechShop whatsoever but I have visited one and I was really impressed with their setup and capabilities. Even if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to create, just going on a tour of the facility, seeing the equipment and the other products built there can prompt ideas of what you could create.
- TechShop is for large businesses and entrepreneurs alike. Many large businesses have some of the machinery that a TechShop has but few have the variety of machines that TechShops have. For this reason, many large businesses like to utilize TechShops for company innovation events. At the Detroit Techshop, Ford setup an off-site innovation center where employees can utilize all the TechShop equipment to rapidly prototype new ideas.
How this can change your life: TechShop is where you can take almost any idea and make it into reality. Imagine what it could do for you if you were able to take a new idea and make it real in less than a few days. You could show it to potential customers, get feedback and improve it until it’s something ready to turn into a business. This is the power of TechShop. Without facilities like this, building your idea may consist of trying to convince someone at your local community college or trade tech school to give you access to their facility and equipment. That’s a difficult thing to do whereas TechShop is setup for anyone to come in and build their dreams.
Action #7: Create a Crowdfunding Campaign on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo (60-90 minutes) If you’re serious about your idea becoming a business and don’t have the money to fund it yourself, creating a crowdfunding campaign with Kickstarter or IndieGoGo can be a great way to jump start your innovation efforts. For tips on creating a successful crowdfunding campaign, I recommend you read these guidelines from the Huffington Post.
How this can change your life: Kickstart and IndieGoGo have changed thousands of lives by transforming wantrepreneurs into entrepreneurs almost overnight. If you have an idea and a prototype that works, getting crowdfunding could be your next step to success.
Action #8: Apply to Join A Startup Accelerator (15-30 minutes) Startup accelerators are all the rage these days. As the “millennial” generation graduates from college and grad school, many are looking for their own path to success through a startup. Couple that with seemingly limitless opportunities in the apps and software space as well as low barriers to entry and you have the perfect conditions for startup accelerators to sprout up all across the country. These accelerators are designed to give young entrepreneurs access to funding and/or high-quality mentoring as well as free or inexpensive office space. Many people think of accelerators as elite programs that only young technology geniuses with a great app or website idea are able to gain access to. While this is true for most of the accelerators that you hear about in the news such as YCombinator and TechStars, the fact is there are many different types of accelerators all across the country. The following are some useful resources regarding accelerators:
- A map of many accelerators in the U.S. (note: this map is managed externally and some accelerators are not on this list)
- A list of over 100 accelerators globally (this list is also incomplete but check the comments for listings added by commentors)
- A list of many accelerators and links to useful articles from Emergent by Design.
- The Foundation – an online accelerator that enables you to start a business without an idea, money or technical expertise. For more on The Foundation, check out this podcast by Pat Flynn.
How this can change your life: Startup accelerators help ease the pain of creating a new startup. If you have the time and energy to devote to a new startup, using an accelerator is most likely the best way to go. Things such as office space, internet connection, office utility bills are all taken care of within an accelerator. Not only that but the friends and mentor relationships you can create during an accelerator experience can change your life forever.
Action #9: Call A Potential Customer And Find Out What Their Pain Is (25-30 minutes) The best way to innovate is to start by solving someone else’s problem. One quick way to find more problems you can solve is by calling someone you would consider a current or future customer and asking them the following series of questions:
- “What is the most important area of your business?”
- “Is there any pain associated with that activity?”
- “Tell me more…”
How this can change your life: By calling someone and determining what their pain is you will identify the highest opportunity area for creating something that would provide value to that person. It doesn’t matter if you’re part of a large business or a budding entrepreneur, this exercise can help you focus all your activity on doing those things that matter most to your clients or customers.
Action #10: Create A Sketch or Rapid Prototype of Your Idea (45-60 minutes) Regardless of what your idea is, the best way to start is by drawing it out and/or creating what’s called a rapid prototype. A sketch can be anything from a drawing on a napkin to a full CAD rendering of your idea. When drawing an idea or creating a prototype, it’s best to not worry about the details and just communicate the essence of the idea with whatever you have available – whiteboard, a notepad, and other objects tend to work well for this.
How this can change your life: In the process of innovation, many people stop at merely thinking about the idea. Few move on to the first step of actually drawing that idea and even fewer move on to the next step of actually creating a rapid prototype. This is where most breakdowns in innovation occur. As you move from the stage of idea in your mind to idea on paper, the idea takes on a tangible form and becomes one step closer to reality. This is when motivation kicks in even more to the point where it propels you into furthering the idea by creating a rapid prototype. Then a rapid prototype furthers the process and the motivation even more as you continue in a virtuous cycle of innovation and motivation. This process is can change your life because it is the process by which dreams become reality.
Talk is cheap. Talk about innovation is better but is still, ultimately, cheap. Taking action is what truly provides value and even if all you do is take action on just one of these points, you’ll be that much closer to creating a breakthrough.