A lot of great ideas start as scrawled notes on bar napkins. And a lot of those same great ideas are tossed away and never become what they could. People are scared to take risks, they don't have enough money to turn their idea into a reality, or they're too busy to transform themselves from followers into innovators. Just because you face challenges, though, doesn't mean you can't turn a big idea into a bigger reality.
In 2002, after my colleague and I turned our idea on a napkin into a direct mail company, we found ourselves facing an "aha" moment when we visited a D.C.-based union insurance client whom we were providing direct mail support. More than 100,000 valuable direct mail response cards were just sitting in boxes in the lobby until the secretary decided how she would divvy up the "money makers" to insurance agents who treated her to lunch. We knew we could engineer a better way to manage the lost potential in those boxes.
I was soon back in Dallas with my colleague Chele, wondering what to do next. We decided to create a new system for our clients to efficiently manage their incoming leads, drastically expanding the services of our direct mail business. Within weeks we took another gamble and invested what we had into building new technology and servers from scratch for our clients' data management. It was the solution to the problem I found in D.C. with all the boxes, the same problem too many businesses couldn't solve on their own.
Every entrepreneur has that "aha moment", here are 6 ways to run with it:
When the big idea hits, be open to it.
If you find yourself struck with a big idea, listen to the idea scratching at your brain. It could lead you to something bigger. There are a lot of reasons not to do something. But if you're brave, you can make yourself lean into your "aha" moment and turn that bar napkin into something big.
Don't be afraid to leave behind something "stable."
It was daunting for Chele and I to start a business when we had full-time jobs, but we found a way to make it work. If you have an idea worth sacrificing for, you can make it work, too. There is nothing like building something from scratch, and for us it was worth the time. It was hard work, but because the company was ours, it was also fun.
Limited funding doesn't mean your dream can't become a reality.
Chele and I didn't have much to invest, but we hated the idea of debt. We cashed out our 401(k) for $2700 and bought our first computer and laser printer, then opened up shop on the floor of my apartment. We later used our personal credit cards and savings to hire our first employee, set up folding tables, and invest in more equipment. In 1991, just two years after the "aha" moment, we marked $151,860 on the books. Instead of cashing out, we reinvested in the company.
Expect hard work ahead.
Just because your dream is magnificent doesn't mean you won't have to sacrifice to make it thrive. After a couple years of late nights, missed holidays, and skipped vacations, we landed an account with Westinghouse that shot our revenue to $873,274. We reinvested in state-of-the-art data management software, expanding the business from a variable printing company to incorporate creative lead management software. True entrepreneurs are willing to evolve with the needs of clients; doing so early can push you into adapting technological changes that may later land you ahead of the curve.
Success goes beyond dollars--it's also about the quality of what you create.
Winning is about the value of your product and the impact your company has on clients and employees. In 2008, during the worst of the economic spiral, we broke the $6 million dollar mark and celebrated our most profitable year to date. But success is about more than numbers. Laser Image now calls Dallas's old DuPont building home, and we have donated a portion of the land to the Trinity Strand Trail. We employ more than 50 talented people, and we are proud to say we have never laid a single person off. Engineering a creative haven where talented people love going to work and creating solutions that makes clients' businesses thrive is priceless.
You can play hard while you work hard.
As you build your business, take steps to engineer the kind of company you would love to work for. Our work environment fuels innovation, collaboration, and creativity; we have four break rooms, a workout facility, two resident cats (Stella, and Storm), pool table, retro Coca Cola machine with nickel beers, a dart board and a Ms. Pac-Man machine. We turned our dream office into a reality. When you have to make choices about the kind of business you run, ask yourself where top talent would want to work and go from there.
Success, to some degree, is about luck. But I believe it's mostly about using your gifts, making the right choices about what you want to build, and working hard. When you're staring down at a genius bar napkin, it's all about having the courage to say yes.