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Flea Market Smarts

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Recently, I went to the monthly Treasure Island Flea Market for the first time. I was amazed at the ingenuity and creativity behind some of the items for sale there, some of which were made by the people selling the items. For instance, one woman was selling recycled decorated wine bottles that she heated and reformed as small cheese plates or as bowls for dip, complete with spreader. At another stall the vender sold purses in the shape and appearance of the body of an electric guitar. Still another vender sold pendants in the shape of mah-jong and Scrabble tiles, but each pendant had different artwork on it. I was struck by how clever some of the items were, how they seemed to fill a niche that most of us didn't even realize existed.

(In looking for links for this article, I discovered that for each type of product, there are numerous vendors and fabricators. It seems that once someone has the idea for the product, copycats invariably follow.) Perhaps it's because I'm reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, but I was struck by the very particular type of intelligence it takes to "see" a niche -- an opportunity -- and to create a product or service to fill that niche, and then to launch a business with that product or service.

First, the most creative part: seeing everyday objects, or combinations of objects, in a different way. This ability is sometimes referred to as "thinking out of the box," meaning the ability to see beyond the current form and function of the object (or an aspect of a situation). Most people, most of the time, fall victim to being stuck in interpreting only a usual function of an object -- what psychologists refer to as functional fixedness. Thus, we will look at an empty wine bottle and see only an empty wine bottle, not the flattened bowl or serving platter that it could become when heated and reshaped, at least not until you'd seen these recycled wine bottle products for the first time. Similarly, when we see an electric guitar, we see only the guitar itself, not fabric sewn to resemble the shape and appearance of the guitar.

Once someone has had an "out of the box" idea, the trick is bringing it to life, so to speak. Making the imagined creative image into a reality. This takes the knowledge and ability to figure out how do so, which requires persistence and diligence, as well as seeking appropriate help when needed to learn new skills and abilities. Having the right tools to heat and remold empty wine bottles and learning how to do it. Knowing how to sew and having a sewing machine. Patience is also helpful, since it can take a few or even many tries to get it right -- at least right enough that someone would want to buy the creation.

Once the creation has become a reality, there's the sales and marketing angle. How to let folks know about it? We are fortunate to live in a time when it's incredibly easy and relatively inexpensive to set up a "shop" on the internet and at flea markets. To launch one's own startup. Getting the word out can take a different kind of intelligence: Figuring out how to use existing technologies and "people smarts" so word of the creation goes viral. Once the demand is there, smarts again come in to play by figuring out how to meet the high demand. Then when the demand tapers off (and it almost inevitably will, even with robust business after the holiday shopping season), smarts again come into play to figure out either how to keep going, when and how to "cut bait" and close shop.

The process of bringing a creative idea to (flea) market may seem simple at first glance, but I don't think it is. It involves a series of talents and abilities, types of intelligence, persistence and being willing to accept a certain degree of risk. Risk of time, risk of effort, risk of money, risk of "losing face" with the possibility of failure. That it all will be for naught.

So thanks to all the folks who bring us interesting products at flea markets and on the internet. Who are willing to take that risk.

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Stanford, Calif. Rosenberg specializes in treating people with anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders. She often writes about the psychology of pop culture figures and has co-authored several psychology textbooks, including "Abnormal Psychology" and "Introducing Psychology: Brain, Person, Group." To find out more about Dr. Rosenberg and her work, read her Psychology Today blog and visit her on Red Room, where you can buy her books.

Copyright 2011 Robin S. Rosenberg