Need a Brilliant Idea? Steal It

Last Updated Sep 13, 2011 1:52 PM EDT

Ever since Steve Jobs announced his retirement as CEO of Apple a couple of weeks ago, there has been an avalanche of articles about his status as a visionary, and how he transformed music, the phone, and information accessibility. You can't dispute his success and the company he built, but it got me thinking about whether being a visionary is a necessary condition for building a successful company. I say it isn't. Here's why.
OK, I'm not saying that understanding people's needs is not important. And I'm not saying that meeting those needs with a truly original idea isn't valuable. Both are important. But what I am saying is that when you can borrow and build off of ideas from other entrepreneurs and companies, do it. As the leader of your company, you already know that you alone can't possibly come up with all the ideas to improve your business; you rely on your employees. So why not also take from those outside your company who have thought things through before you?

Here are some examples of smart ideas I've taken from other successful companies:

  • Choosing a location: Meineke Muffler Shops used to choose locations by doing virtually no research at all, other than locating right next to its competition, Midas. Using others' research departments saves you time and money.
  • Marketing: When I first launched an e-commerce blinds website, NoBrainerBlinds.com, in 1996 (yep, I'm old), I wanted to convey speed and credibility. So I chose a logo with the colors purple and orange (a la FedEx). I don't have any concrete evidence that it was the logo that made everything happen, but our good-looking website gained traction -- enough for us to launch Blinds.com -- and the rest is history.
  • Website: Our marketing team at Blinds.com spends time every week scouring others' websites to learn better ways to show products, navigate, and highlight advantages. We found a consumer electronics website that made a point of introducing customers to its call center experts on its home page. We liked the idea so much that we copied it by featuring photos and bios of our expert decorators on Blinds.com. It's really helped personalize the business of buying blinds online.
  • Communication: After visiting the Googleplex and learning that its founders hold all-hands meetings every Friday, it occurred to me that if Google can shut down for 30 minutes, we could for 15. Now every Friday from 2-2:15 p.m. we shut down the phones and the entire company talks about whatever is important at the time. (We also now call our office The Blinds.comPLEX.)
  • Hiring people: No doubt as you've bought goods and services for your business, you've found people who provide you with good service. If those people were trained well, it might be worth your while to ask them to work for you and reap the benefits of the other company's training.
  • Culture: Your company culture cannot be copied or borrowed from another company, but when you find ways others have illustrated a core value of your own, it's fair game to copy it. When I visited the Zappos.com headquarters, there was a small white board where visitors could write anything they liked. We now have a white board encouraging our employees to post ways they're improving (one of our core values is to continuously improve).
We all wish we had the aptitude and success of Steve Jobs and other star entrepreneurs. Until that happens, do yourself a favor and keep your observation skills sharp. There's nothing wrong with harnessing his and others' success, if you can.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr.com, by lorenzolambertino
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    Jay Steinfeld is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window blinds sales. He is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. His company was named Best Place to Work in Houston, won the American Marketing Association's Marketer of the Year, and Steinfeld was named by the Houston Chronicle as Houston's top CEO in the under-150 employee category for the last 2 years.