OneSpark 2015 Startup tips

Jeff Hoffman’s 4 Ways to Harvest Ideas

During the One Spark Speaker Summit on Tuesday, Jeff Hoffman – one of the founders of Priceline.com – gave an interesting talk on the process of cultivating and harvesting ideas. Hoffman made some interesting points, and shared some of his processes for ideating.

JeffHoffman-1spark Jeff Hoffman's 4 Ways to Harvest Ideas

Hoffman began by pointing out some characteristics common to successful entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs, Hoffman argued, tend to look at the world in a different way, removing all of the various filters and biases. These filters and biases arise when companies and entrepreneurs get too focused and too caught up in their own project and industry. The successful entrepreneurs, however, approach the world, their companies, and their problems with their minds wide open, looking for solutions from anywhere and everywhere.

To the very brightest minds in the world, this approach comes naturally. For the rest of us, this approach can be learned, but it takes some practice. Hoffman offered up four main points to train yourself to think about and approach problems in such a way.

1. Remove your blinders and open your mind

The world’s most innovative minds, argued Hoffman, tend to look at the world with a sense of wonder and amazement, always seeking out new information about how it works. The best way to cultivate such an approach, said Hoffman, is to look at the world like a 5 year old, constantly asking questions about everything you see, everywhere you see it.

2. Explore the broader world around you; step outside of you industry every once in awhile

Inspiration can come from absolutely anywhere. That said, if you are hyperfocused on your own industry, improvements to your business and industry as a whole will often be incremental. Hoffman illustrated the benefits of such a holistic approach with an anecdote:

Way back in the 40s, the owner of a fast food restaurant decided to take a day going in and out of banks to see if he could uncover some way to improve his business.1 After around 4 banks, and little in the way of inspiration, said owner came across a spark. In pulling into the parking lot of the next bank, the restaurant owner saw some men doing some sort of construction on the outside of the bank building. The rest is history. The men were building a drive-through window for the bank. The restaurant owner immediately set about building the first drive-through window at a fast food restaurant.

Hoffman went on to suggest an easy way to incorporate this approach into your daily routine. Once a day, read an article that is completely outside of the scope of your industry or business, something that you would not normally read. After reading this article, write down a one sentence, top level summary of what you learned. These one sentence summaries become puzzle pieces of sorts. Alone, these notes don’t amount to much, but when put together, they could ultimately lead to the next great idea.

3. Think with no gravity

The brightest innovators are at home with huge ideas and concepts. To utilize this technique, Hoffman suggested that companies hold “blue sky sessions” ever quarter or so. These sessions do not have to revolve around any one aspect of your company, or even around your industry at all. It is more of an exercise in inspiration. In practice, Hoffman argued, these sessions need to be 100% inclusive; anyone in the company can attend and anyone in the company can choose not to attend. What’s more, there should be no sort of hierarchy or chain of command in these meetings, every single idea is to be treated exactly the same, be it from the CEO or from a temp receptionist.

In a nutshell, these “blue sky sessions” are a practice in exponential thinking, as opposed to incremental thinking. As an example of this sort of thinking, Hoffman suggested a possible topic of one of these sessions: what would you do if you were rebuilding your company’s industry from scratch.

4. Get out of your office

The best possible way to validate any possible business idea is to learn as much about your customers as possible. Hoffman used his experience at Priceline as an example. Whenever inspiration hit, Hoffman said, he would immediately leave his office. The reason why is pretty simple. The people who made up his staff were mostly MBAs and other various classically trained business minds, who all made higher than the average salary. Essentially, Priceline’s staff was made up of people who would never use the company’s service. As such, their ideas about the validity of some new product or approach were, essentially, meaningless. Therefore, Hoffman would leave and go talk to the people that made up his customer base.

Hoffman-2 Jeff Hoffman's 4 Ways to Harvest Ideas

Training yourself to harvest ideas is no quick task. It is one that takes patience, dedication, and practice. However, even if you do not come up with the next Priceline, these approaches will drastically increases your knowledge and expand your worldview. A pretty good side effect.

  1. Hoffman never named the restaurant or the owner, but I am fairly certain it was Sheldon “Red” Chaney, the owner of Red’s Giant Hamburg.