In 1968, a research scientist named Dr. Spencer Silver with the 3M Company experimented with different configurations of compounds in an effort to create a sticky glue. One day, the scientist ended up with glue that was practically the opposite of what he was trying to create – it wasn’t very sticky at all.
However, Dr. Silver’s new glue was unique since it stayed somewhat sticky, even after repeated use. Dr. Silver knew that he had created something interesting and potentially valuable, but wondered what it could be used for. Since he was unsure of the full potential of this glue, he conducted internal demonstrations within 3M, hoping someone could figure out a use for the glue.
That someone turned out to be fellow 3M employee, Art Fry. Fry happened to be a singer in his church choir. He often marked his hymnal with paper bookmarks. One day while at church, Fry mistakenly tipped the book upside down and all of his bookmarks fell out. It was then that he said to himself, “I sure wish I had a sticky bookmark.”
Fry realized that Dr. Silver’s sort-of-sticky glue would be perfect. While it would still take several years and lots of work, in the end, the Post-It became one of the most successful products in 3M history.
The problems faced by Stuart Silver and Art Fry were not unique. Lots of people have great ideas, but the real question then is, how do you capitalize on it?
Several years ago, I wrote a book on this very subject called The Big Idea: How Business Innovators Get Great Ideas to Market. The book looked at everything from Post-Its to Silly Putty to the Xerox machine – all ideas that were ahead of the curve. The question for these innovators was the same one that Silver and Fry had, and the same you or I would have after coming up with a big idea. That question is: “What’s next?”
One thing I learned while developing the book is that the next step is to make sure other people think it is a great idea too because not every big idea is a great idea. If you have ever watched the TV show Shark Tank, you know what I am referring to . Different entrepreneurs come on the show with exciting, innovative, commercial ideas and products that the Sharks love and want to invest in. Other times contestants have invested time and money into a product idea that should never have been pursued.
Yes, entrepreneurs are dreamers and visionaries, but there is a fine line between vision and myopia, and the latter can be dangerous.
So the first step after the big idea is to make sure other people think it is a great idea too; you don’t want to invest a lot of time and money into an idea that only you think is extraordinary. Share your idea with your spouse and speak with business associates. You want to see whether others share your enthusiasm and understand your vision.
Specifically and importantly, you want to gauge whether the idea is commercially viable. Will people actually pay money for it?
After that, the next initial step is to analyze what resources you will need to get from Point A to Point Z. The process of actually manifesting that idea is usually not an easy, quick, or inexpensive one. George DeMestral looked at some burrs in his sock under a microscope and had a vision for what would become a new fastener – Velcro. But this took a decade and he almost went bankrupt twice before the idea became one of the most successful products in history.
So those are your initial steps – analyze and then clarify the idea.
After that, it is a matter of logistics – making a prototype, legally protecting your idea (though this could also be done earlier in the process to protect your idea prior to sharing it with business professionals), receiving funding, and then introducing it to market.
That’s what we will look at in my next article. Stick around!
About Steve Strauss
Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.