Where Do Successful Entrepreneurs Get Their Brilliant New Ideas From?

Mediating businessman brainstorming

By Eric B. Schultz

We sometimes associate successful entrepreneurs with a flash of brilliance, a moment when some earthshaking product suddenly crystallizes in their minds.

In the summer of 1895, for example, King Gillette found his heavy, forged razor too dull to use. He wrote: “As I stood there with the razor in my hand, my eyes resting on it as lightly as a bird settling down on its nest—the Gillette razor was born. I saw it all in a moment.”

What Gillette saw “in a moment” would take six years of arduous fits and starts to become a prototype, and longer than that to become his successful disposable razor. Yet, if we take him at his word, who wouldn’t welcome such a flash of brilliance just once in his or her career?

Take heart. My research suggests that transformative moments do occur for most entrepreneurs, but in a different way than King Gillette’s experience in the summer of 1895.

Moments of clarity

When entrepreneurs are “struck by lightning,” it’s rarely because they see a fully formed disposable razor, a Ford Model T, or an iPhone in their minds. Instead, they are more likely to have their moment of clarity unfold around something just as profound but less tangible. Perhaps it’s some undiscovered passion, or a new direction their work might take. Maybe it’s a glimpse into their future. And sometimes this turning point is less pleasant than a bird settling down in its nest.

For Jean Brownhill, CEO of Sweeten, such a moment occurred during the terrorist attack on 9/11. “I was coming across the Manhattan Bridge on the train,” Brownhill recalls, “and we could see the first building on fire. Then we watched the second plane hit . . . And I’m sitting in a steel tube that I can’t get out of.”

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Trained as an architect, Brownhill had spent years learning how to construct buildings. “You have no idea,” she says, “why anybody would want to take them down. You have no idea the kind of economics or political conditions that brought this attack about. And so,” she adds, “I decided that I needed to understand about money and power.”

This quest would mean immersing herself in the study of economics and politics, a self-education that would lead her away from architecture to life as an entrepreneur focused on building community.

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Alfred Sloan is another entrepreneur who recalled an unpleasant but career-changing moment of clarity. Before becoming CEO of General Motors, Sloan owned Hyatt Roller Bearing Company, a supplier of ball bearings to the emerging automotive industry. One of Sloan’s customers was Henry Leland, a cantankerous entrepreneur with a genius for mechanization. Leland had built power looms for the textile industry, firearms at the Colt revolver factory, and had now launched an automobile line, one he had decided to call “Cadillac.”

Leland ordered Sloan to his office in Detroit. There, the angry carmaker measured several Hyatt bearings with a micrometer and blasted his young, embarrassed supplier. “You must grind your bearings,” Leland commanded Sloan. “Even though you make thousands, the first and the last should be precisely alike.”

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