By Kate White
September 18, 2012
One of the reasons for the success you have today is that along the way you must have had a few damn good ideas. Perhaps you suggested to your boss some clever way to trim costs, or you came up with a compelling tag line to use in the company’s marketing brochure. Being a good idea person helped you do your job and blast ahead. But now that you’re poised to go big with your success, you need to go big with your ideas, too. You need to come up with not just good ideas but bold, brilliant ideas, the kind that these days are called “game changers.”
Think for a moment about some of the most exciting products and companies you know. Facebook, for instance, or Netflix, or lash-lengthening mascara or those spinners that dry your lettuce, or Paperless Post, whose online cards are as fabulous as anything in traditional stationery. They’ve made your life better or easier (or possibly even more exciting), and now you may even feel you couldn’t live without them. Each began with a bold new idea.
The ability to generate ideas comes easily to some people. I also believe that you can learn how to do it and make it a regular and exciting process in your job. Here are the tricks I’ve used–as well as a few I’ve stolen!
Think about what’s really needed. “You have to consider what the world wants from you, not what you want from the world,” Paperless Post cofounder Alexa Hirschfeld has said. In other words, if you hope to make money and be a success, your idea has to be marketable. Step away for a minute from your concept and consider whether it’s really going to be in demand.
Put your wildest, craziest thoughts out there. Years ago, I read an essay by Cynthia Heimel called “How to Be Creative.” I still have a tattered clipping of it, and I reread it from time to time. One of my favorite parts: “There is only one way to be creative–and that is to have the courage to examine all our secret convolutions, hopes, and jokes and transform them into art. To hell with what the other guy thinks! The odder and more personal we get, the more everyone identifies. It’s magic.” Let your wacky ideas see the light of day. Others can probably relate to them.
Ask yourself “What if . . . ? ” That’s a technique that’s recommended for novelists as a way to develop plots. You see a lone glove lying on a sidewalk. You ask, for instance, “What if the woman wearing it hadn’t simply dropped it but was kidnapped and forced into a car? What if she had stumbled on information in her job that put her in jeopardy?” And on and on. You can use that same trick at work.
When I had lunch with reality star Bethenny Frankel, I learned that that’s basically how her multimillion-dollar Skinnygirl Margarita business happened. On an episode of Real Housewives of New York, she’d asked a bartender to make her “a skinny margarita,” and gave him a recipe she’d concocted. After the show aired, lots of women went online and asked for the recipe. Rather than simply share it, Bethenny asked, “Since so many women like it, what if I create and sell the mix myself?”
Try thin slicing your concepts. Sometimes making an idea tighter or more specific actually makes it much stronger. That’s been one of the tricks I use with cover lines. To me a great cover line deals with a universal issue but hooks you by addressing a specific aspect of it, thus making it seem an even more intriguing concept. Compare “9 Stress-Busting Tips” to “What to Do When Stress Keeps You Up at Night.” The second is just grabbier (you can’t help but wonder, How do they know?). Two of my all-time favorite Cosmo lines are “The Most Crucial Thing to Ask Your Gyno” and “Why Guys Cheat in August.”
I think this same approach works with ideas in general. So when you’re letting your mind play, don’t be afraid to thin slice.
Never ignore the pebble in your shoe. When you’re playing with information, look for patterns, too. Not long after I arrived at Cosmo, I began to notice all the e-mails from guys saying how much they loved sneaking a peek at the magazine because it was like “having the other team’s playbook.” That eventually led to the iPad app CFG—Cosmo for Guys.
Once you have an idea, don’t overly perfect it. When you try to hold on to an idea too long in order to make it perfect, you can miss the moment. So put it out there. “Even if your product isn’t as perfect as you’d like, perfection in your hands isn’t relevant,” says Paperless Post cofounder Alexa Hirschfeld. “You need to know what your consumer thinks. When you put it out there, you can begin to collect data to make it more perfect.”
And always ask yourself, “Did I go big or go home?” You’ve got a winning idea. But could it be bolder? Could you take it further? Hold your ideas up to a phrase that nudges you to go bigger. When I met Colin Cowie, the lifestyle guru and party planner who put together Cosmo’s fortieth-anniversary party, he told me that everything he created needed to be a “jaw-dropping moment.” What a great phrase to use! From the moment I started writing Cosmo cover lines, I tried to use a similar tactic: I asked myself if they were fearless enough. That’s how lines such as “Heinous Break-ups: You’ll Want to Slap These Jerks” turned into “The Most Heinous Break-ups in Cosmo History: You’ll Want to Bitch-slap These Jerks.”