Where do ideas come from? It’s surely one of man’s most compelling questions and I don’t pretend to have the answer to it. I do, however, have some inspiration on the topic of cultivating more ideas in the form of a great little book I read years ago called A Technique for Producing Ideas, (first published in the 1940s) by James Webb Young. It’s a true classic that you can get on Amazon for a few bucks- well worth it in my opinion. It’s focused more on advertising/marketing ideas but I think it’s plenty relevant for all types of ideas, including new ideas for start-ups, apps, websites or whatever really.
In his book, Young has this to say about ideas:
“An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”
So how do you combine old elements into new? Young tells us:
“The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.”
Young says the ability to see relationships between facts is the most important factor in coming up with ideas. This, he says, is a habit of mind “which can be cultivated.”
How do you cultivate it? By reading widely, taking an active interest in life, the world, people around you, a wide variety of subjects and areas of study.
Young also proposed a five-step process to producing ideas:
Step 1: Gather Raw Materials
Gather both specific and general raw materials. In advertising, the specific materials are related to your products and your target audience, while the general materials are about life and events. You need to know how your products impact your audience’s day-to-day lives.
Constantly browse and gather information. “Part of it, you will see, is a current job and part of it is a life-long job.” Train your minds to observe, then store it away.
Step 2: Digest Materials
Start putting different pieces of information together. Bring 2-3 facts together and see how they fit. “What you are seeking is the relationship: a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination like a jig-saw puzzle.”
This is also a stage at which you get mentally exhausted and feel lost and hopeless without clear insight. That’s OK! Don’t give up. This stage is overcome when you have a preliminary idea of how you fit your puzzle together.
Step 3: Internalize Materials Unconsciously
Drop everything and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can! Let your subconscious mind work on it.
It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.
[…] When you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.
Sherlock Holmes used to stop right in the middle of a case, and drag Watson off to a concert. Yes, Sherlock is working through step 3 and is very close to solving his case.
Step 4: The Eureka Moment
This could happen while jogging (a biggie for me for whatever reason), watching TV, taking a shower…it’s the “a-ha moment:
Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.
It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.
Step 5: Bring Ideas to Life
Young calls the last stage “the cold, gray dawn of the morning after,”when your newborn idea has to face reality with patience and persistence:
The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.
Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.
When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.
Years later, upon reissuing A Technique for Producing Ideas, Young recounted the many letters he had gotten from “poets, painters, engineers, scientists, and even one writer of legal briefs” who had found his technique empowering and helpful. So….if it was so useful to so many people “back in the day,” I contend that it is a useful book/process for aspiring start-up founders to follow too.
Parting shot: This last step “Bringing Ideas to Life” is where the real magic happens. In my work with Gisteo, I’ve literally seen hundreds of start-up ideas of all types in diverse stages of development and I’ve written hundreds of scripts for their marketing videos.
Through my own experiences and by working with so many start-ups, I’ve come to fully understand that the idea is just the beginning. The secret lies in the arduous implementation of that idea. Like Mark Cuban has said: “Ideas are actually the easiest part…The hard part is knowing what you need to do and then executing on your plan and then staying focused with it.”