A profit for your thoughts Featured

10:48am EDT October 23, 2001

Don Snyder is in the business of getting people to buy into his ideas -- literally.

Take, for example, the $500 he received in a Brightidea.com competition for his suggestion that Sears Kenmore design a rechargeable ice chest that plugs into your refrigerator. More than 4,000 ideas were submitted in the contest, which touted $3,500 in prizes.

Also consider Eureka! Ranch, a Cincinnati company dedicated to helping clients create ideas. Eureka! Ranch pays Snyder and others about $600 each time they're called to the ranch to be a "Trained Brain" to help a particular business client in its quest for innovation.

Snyder, special projects manager at J2 Creations in Delaware, says he's been called "the idea cowboy" because he's not shy about sharing his ideas. A former marketing and promotions director at Smooth Jazz 104.3 who later created training materials and intranet content for CoreComm as an instructional designer, Snyder's taking advantage of the so-called Idea Economy.

"My goal is to make more from the idea generation than from the production," he says.

Branding himself as "Don! the IDEA guy" since 1989, he's written a handbook, "100-Whats of Creativity!" full of questions to spur creative thinking; developed an Idea Journal to help people keep track of their brainstorms; written idea columns for publications such as Syndicate Inc., as well as for national sales trainer Jeffrey Gitomer's newsletter; and helped design Web pages for a new Brand Caf∪ section of business consultant Tom Peters' Web site.

Snyder frequents Web sites such as Brightidea.com to submit ideas and collect royalties -- about $2,000 so far -- as other members rate his contributions. At ideas.com, his suggestion for a new children's drink made the finalist list in a $5,000 contest for Coca-Cola.

In addition, he's frequently checking in with Ideadollar.com, which takes promising ideas to companies and investors to find buyers. The operators of that site have deemed four of his ideas worthy of shopping around: new packaging for alcoholic drinks, a sponsorship giveaway for college students, a way to disinfect pay phones and a new style of baseball cap.

Snyder also helps business owners assemble an internal "Idea Department" -- bright thinkers within the company to call upon for brainstorming on topics such as new services or customer prospecting.

Admittedly, he's nowhere near making a living off of his ideas -- yet. But he's quick to point out others who, across the nation and even in Columbus, are profiting from the business of using brains.

The big picture

In his book "Thinking for a Living," Joey Reiman theorizes, "Today currency is the idea, but tomorrow ideas will be the currency."

Reiman closed a profitable advertising agency to start BrightHouse, an Atlanta-based company whose only commodity is ideas.

His view of the future: "The company of tomorrow will encourage investigation."

He envisions "illustration houses" that come up with ideas and "execution houses" that translate those into reality.

Another beneficiary of the Idea Economy is Doug Hall, who at Eureka! Ranch is making a living helping others come up with ideas. Visitors to his facility have included executives from Coca-Cola, American Express and Johnson & Johnson.

He declines to state revenue but says he built the ranch and paid cash for it four years ago -- at a cost of more than seven figures.

Hall contends the Idea Economy is nothing new; it's just gaining attention, in part because of the media.

"This country 200 years ago was a wild and crazy idea," he says. "We are a culture, by nature as a melting pot, that we've brought about a lot of ideas."

He disputes the theories of those who claim they'll make money simply by selling ideas, saying the key is to convince clients to take their ideas to market and implement them.

"A big idea is a son-of-a-gun to execute," he says. "Big ideas change the world. They also change the way we do things."

Hall uses a technology called Merwyn, a simulated test marketing system for ideas. He's refocusing his business with what he calls a Trailblazer Training program, teaching small business owners scientific principles and practical tactics for thinking smarter and more creatively about how to grow their companies.

Snyder, himself, is becoming widely known in national "ideation" circles. In fact, the International Idea Trade Association has named him its first president.

Matthew Greeley, chairman of the association, says the group will be similar to a trade union, where inventors or "idea people" can create industry standards as well as a structure and different levels of certification. This will ensure quality for businesses using online idea exchanges.

"We just think Don's the most informed individual and that he really has a vision as to where this thing can go and how big it possibly can be," says Greeley, who also is CEO of Menlo Park, Calif.'s General Ideas Inc., which owns and operates Brightidea.com.

He predicts idea exchanges, which started in 1999, will grow even during the slowdown in the economy.

"It's really one of the few bright spots in a rather gloomy Internet outlook right now," Greeley says. "There are too many great ideas out there and too many companies hungry for them. What we're struggling with is setting the price points, and to a larger extent, companies don't necessarily understand how to take advantage of these types of services."

National and even international examples of companies jumping on the idea bandwagon include Edy's Grand Ice Cream Co., which invited consumers to invent an ice cream flavor in exchange for a $25,000 dream kitchen, and Johnnie Walker Scotch Whiskies, which offered $500,000 in grants and mentoring (see www.keepwalking.com) to inspire entrepreneurs and innovators to put ideas into action. Winners will be announced in September, and will be chosen based on submitted ideas that have the potential to change an industry, provide an innovative product or service, significantly impact a community and/or fulfill a personal dream.

In the real world

There's no shortage of idea-profiting wanna-bes in Central Ohio, either.

Consider Mark Henson, who nearly a year-and-a-half ago opened sparkspace, a Short North professional meeting space designed to stimulate idea generation.

Henson, who calls himself sparkspace's "director of guest happiness,"was inspired to start the business by Eureka! Ranch and by his seven years with local design firm Fitch Inc.

"I saw client after client after client come into our place and say the same thing: 'I wish I could work in a place like this,'" Henson says. "I said, 'I need to build this and see if they'll really come."

Clients the likes of Huntington National Bank and Nationwide, as well as smaller companies and design and advertising firms, have used the space, which in the first quarter of this year started turning a profit.

To foster creativity, Henson filled sparkspace with comfortable furniture, bright colors and items to stimulate visitors' senses, such as Starbucks coffee, aromatherapy candles and mind puzzles. He's also included the practical side -- overhead projectors, pens, flip charts.

"You can generate ideas under the gun and under stress and in discomfort, or you can do it in a comfortable setting," he says.

Henson's confident about the demand for his business -- so confident, in fact, that he more than doubled the daily rate from $500 to $1,200 this spring.

The price increase also covers amenities he's added: more technology, including additional phone lines and high-speed Internet access; a digital presentation system; meals; and other pampering. He stresses that he wants the technology enhancements to remain in the background.

"We're trying to get people to think with their brains instead of unplugging at the office and plugging in here," he says.

Henson watches the brainstorming in action.

"I've seen a wide range of idea-generating, from stuff that is truly companies getting together to propel themselves forward -- 'What are we going to do next? How do we make ourselves even better?' -- all the way down to, 'How do we stay afloat? How do we make it through this time of change so we don't have to lay off people?'" Henson says.

He's considering expansion options because sparkspace is most ideal for 15 people, and he's getting requests to accommodate larger groups.

Another local face "fanning the flames of innovation," as his slogan says, is Bruce Davis, who founded Creative Fire LLC one year ago to help companies come up with ideas.

"What I'm mainly doing is trying to bring in a culture of innovation where people can truly make sure they keep up with what's going on -- and not only keeping up, but doing something new and different -- and that isn't just a one-time thing," he says.

He makes sure corporate executives buy into the fact that the people who are working for them have insights that are valuable, then helps them empower employees to understand creativity and generate ideas. He's affiliated with Parthenon Innovation Group, a Tennessee company that's promoting innovation as a profession by actually offering a certification in the field.

Earlier this year, three other former Fitch employees started a local company called Frame360 LLC, which helps companies establish focused frameworks for their business, brand or communications.

"The Idea Economy really is about, I think, being able to focus and evaluate whether an idea is valuable and beneficial for you, or is it just another idea," says Jaimie Alexander, a partner in Frame360. "What we're trying to do is give people a framework for deciding what ideas will really translate and be valuable to their clients and be in sync with everything they are doing."

Fortune magazine's 500 list rankings, Davis points out, show corporations including Charles Schwab, Maytag and Microsoft that are recognized for innovation and admired by employees, customers and shareholders.

He says his experience at an insurance company that was bought and sold and merged into another was a world in which companies believed downsizing -- "becoming leaner and meaner," he says -- would drive stock prices up and help business.

"That's a temporary fix," Davis says. "The long-term fix has to be radical innovation. You have to be constantly recreating yourself and what's going on inside your company."

"True innovation," he says, "should be a comprehensive, cultural thing and should be part of the core competencies of an organization." How to reach: Don Snyder, 630-3438, ideadepartment@yahoo.com or www.dontheideaguy.com; Doug Hall, (513) 271-9911, doug@eurekaranch.com or www.eurekaranch.com; Joey Reiman, (404) 365-0550 or www.brighthouse.com; Mark Henson, 299-6995, mark@sparkspace.com or www.sparkspace.com; Bruce Davis, 485-3473, or Parthenon Innovation Group, www.proinnovator.com; Jaimie Alexander, 421-0360 or www.frame360.com; Matthew Greeley, International Idea Trade Association, (212) 267-5877, ext. 21, or mgreeley@generalideasinc.com

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.


What's the big idea?

These idea magnets have their own thoughts about the best ways to foster innovation. Here are their suggestions:

"Collect ideas from customers. Any company not collecting customer suggestions via the Internet is missing out on a great resource. Customers are literally telling them what to do in order to get them to buy more of their product."

Don Snyder, a.k.a. Don! the IDEA guy

"Be willing to listen to the wildest and wackiest things, because that's where some of the best stuff comes from."

Bruce Davis, Creative Fire LLC

"As an Idea Economy or weightless economy, it's really not so much how many ideas you have but how you identify the ideas that will be the most profitable or effective for your clients in the marketplace."

Jaimie Alexander, Frame360 LLC

"A big part of idea generation is to remove the distractions. Have everything you need close at hand so you don't have to think about anything except the problem you're working on."

Mark Henson, sparkspace