Oswald Letter

Where’s your next big idea going to come from?

Ideaby Dan Oswald

Among my favorite movies is the 1991 film City Slickers. Billy Crystal plays radio ad salesman Mitch Robbins, who is having a bit of a midlife crisis. Mitch and his two best friends decide to leave New York City to spend two weeks on a cattle drive in the Southwest. It’s there that Mitch meets Curly, the crusty trail boss played by Jack Palance.

While on the cattle drive, Curly asks Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Mitch, who is struggling with his midlife crisis, eagerly responds, “No, what?” Curly holds up one finger and says, “This.” Confused, Mitch responds, “Your finger?”

In his raspy cowboy voice, Curly answers, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.” Not really satisfied that he has learned anything, Mitch comes back with, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?”

“That’s what you gotta figure out,” comes Curly’s retort.

I’ve used this story before to illustrate other points, but today it’s about new ideas. You know what it takes to change the life of your customers? Just one thing. One new idea. But what that one thing is—that’s what you have to figure out.

One new idea can change your customers’ lives, your industry, and your career. Some people have been lucky enough to have a few. Steve Jobs gave us the Apple computer and then followed it up with the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and iTunes. Not too shabby. Just one idea like any of those can make a business or a career.

Benjamin Black had an idea like that. In 2003, he was working as a website engineering manager for Amazon when he came up with the idea of selling virtual servers as a service. Ten years later, Amazon Web Services generated $3.8 billion in revenue. Yes, that’s billion with a “b.” Not too bad! All of us could use just one idea like that.

So how do you find your “one thing”? That’s the tough part. It’s not unlike the secret of life. It sounds so simple—it’s just one thing. Yet it’s so elusive. So how do you come up with that truly great idea that could change everything?

There’s no simple answer to that question, but here are some things that might just help.

Know your customers well. So many breakthroughs come from really knowing the customers and what they want. I’m not sure anyone could have described the iPhone if you had asked them what they wanted in their cellular phone. But somehow Jobs understood his customers well enough to create a device that included computing capabilities, a music player, a phone, and just about anything else you might want, and it was a huge hit.

It doesn’t have to be a new idea. Steve Jobs didn’t come up with the idea for a personal computer, and he didn’t invent the cell phone. But he took those products and improved on them. He saw them for what they were, analyzed their limitations, and then built a better mousetrap.

Consider what you want as a consumer. We’re all customers of someone, yet new businesses pop up and do extremely well. That means they’re taking customers away from someone else or creating new customers. Starbucks sells coffee at prices that are double what others are charging, yet the company has grown at astronomical rates. Zappos is selling shoes over the Internet, yet it has provided something to its customers that has allowed it to succeed very quickly. It’s doing something differently, and people are flocking to the company because of it.

Give yourself and others permission to dream, tinker, and experiment. I’m sure we’d all like to think Steve Jobs woke up one morning with the idea of the iPad. But it’s much more likely that he was thinking about how to improve on the laptop idea. Maybe thinking about how to make them lighter because so many of us experienced shoulder pain from lugging around our briefcase with that 10-pound brick inside. And through tinkering and experimentation, he ended up with something that created a whole new category of devices—tablets.

Be willing to fail. Not every new idea is a good idea. Not everything you try is going to work. The people I like best are those who are willing to try and try again and aren’t afraid to fail because they have enough confidence and resilience to understand that “next time” might just be the one that produces the big idea that changes everything.

If you’re in business, you’d better be thinking about your customers and what they want and need. You’d better be looking for ways to remain relevant to them or else you won’t be in business for long. Every day you should ask yourself, “What is that one thing my customers really want?” And if you know your customers, you dream and experiment, and you’re not afraid to fail, maybe you will come up with the next big idea.

2 thoughts on “Where’s your next big idea going to come from?”

  1. Amazing advice: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”
    I took me 50 years to figure it out, but now I am focusing strictly on my publishing and writing business. Keep up the good writing.

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