Perhaps your company has expressed an appreciation for entrepreneurial thinking, and you’re wondering how to expand your creativity. On the other hand, perhaps you’re considering starting your own venture, but are unsure how to get started. Or, maybe you already have your own business, and you’re looking for incremental ways to improve your game.
Whichever scenario applies, I think we can all resolve to be a bit more entrepreneurial in 2017. Below, you will find a few ideas for putting this idea into action in the new year:
- Ask “why” more often
Young children ask questions like, “why is the sky blue?” to better understand the world around them. As we grow up, we sometimes develop an aversion to asking questions. Entrepreneurs recognize that asking good questions is a vital skill, and one you should never stop practicing. If you learn to notice the oddness in the world around you – the things that are unnecessarily cumbersome, or expensive, or slow, or low quality – you’ll start to spot opportunity.
In addition, being curious will make you more effective in almost any situation. For example, if you’re speaking with your manager or an interviewer, it’s a good idea to clarify what they’re asking you to do before beginning the task you’ve been given. If you’re the one managing someone, you’ll get better results if you find out what support they need to excel in their role. When trying to make a sale, you need to understand your client’s priorities in order to position your product to appeal to them. Before speaking at an event, knowing your audience is crucial to ensuring your content resonates, and so on.
- Stop doing things simply because everyone else is doing them
It’s easy to fall into a pattern of doing what everyone around you is doing. We assume that’s the best way to do things, and even if not, it’s easier to fit in that way. Being entrepreneurial means working on something that has never been done before. Entrepreneurs need strong conviction in their vision, and to take often unconventional approaches to get there.
The trick is to realize that this is merely a slightly more intense version of what we all do anyway. Whenever we complain about the processes, tools or people in the company we work for, we are challenging the established way of thinking about or doing something. We can’t help but see the opportunities to improve something – it’s what makes work exciting, and full of possibility. In our minds, we all stand out from the crowd every day, and have our own distinct lenses on the world. So rather than fearing being different, embrace it and act on it. If you find yourself thinking, “I don’t know why everyone does X – it doesn’t make sense to me,” figure out what people would do in your ideal world, and talk to people about it. Chances are, they have thought the same thing at some point, and dismissed it because nobody else ever mentioned it.
- Carve out more quiet time
How often do you find yourself craving silence, privacy or solitude at work? A bit of respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers when you need to focus on something without distraction for an hour or two? Most employers are now starting to understand the impact that open plan offices have on employees, and if you’ve built up a relationship of trust, they may surprise you with how willing they are for you to work somewhere you can get a bit of peace and quiet now and then.
Thinking entrepreneurially and having alone time go hand-in-hand. That might be in a very literal sense for a founder, of working from home to save money in the early days before establishing a team. Co-founders usually divide up responsibilities, and end up spending most of their time doing very different activities – one is typically out doing sales meetings, while the other builds the technical platform. The wonderful thing is, having that alone time actually enables entrepreneurship by giving you the space you need to go into your “zone,” and think deeply about what you can do specifically to make a difference in productivity or efficiency.
Only you know how to get the most out of your day. If you’re a morning person, make sure you have breakfast in a quiet spot, perhaps, with only your notebook for company. If you get the most out of a mid-day break, get into a routine of going for a lunchtime gym session or walk by yourself. I’m a night owl myself, and often have my best ideas after everyone else has gone to bed. The important thing is to regularly carve out time by yourself at times you tend to think most inventively.
Related: 7 Lessons for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
- Solve more problems with less money
If you encounter a problem in a large company, it’s easy to have a mindset of, “if only we had a larger budget, this wouldn’t be a problem.” That might be the case, but entrepreneurs don’t have that luxury. They don’t have the budget, and they have to solve the problem, so they find creative ways to do so. Creative problem-solving takes many different forms: building a team in an unconventional way, or experimenting with new avenues of revenue, or finding ways of cutting corners.
In art, it’s widely accepted that very few works, if any, are entirely original. Musicians sample old songs, current fashion designers incorporate vintage elements, and there’s an argument for many books and films being inspired by one or more Shakespeare plots. Creativity benefits from sharing and building on others’ ideas. Creating something that inspires even one person to create something else is valuable, even if your thing didn’t quite work.
So get up in the morning with the goal to create something! You don’t have to identify as being a “creative” in order for that to be the case – it could be as small as creating a positive emotion in one of your colleagues, laying out a new process that will improve the way something gets done, or proposing a new way for team members to collaborate. It doesn’t need to cost lots of money – in fact, the goal should be to have the biggest impact whilst spending as little money as possible.
- Connect with people who are not like you
You may be familiar with the “echo chamber” effect: if we seek to spend more time with people who share our own viewpoints, we hear our existing assumptions reinforced, so prejudices persist. If we preferentially work with people who fit a certain profile because we think they’re more likely to have the right expertise, rather than seeking people who have that expertise regardless of their background, our companies will miss out on the opportunity to be exposed to different ideas.
We need to talk to people who might have a different mindset from our own, whose business education and trajectory was different, or who has been operating in a vastly different context, to shake us out of our deep-rooted assumptions about what is worth trying. What didn’t work in a startup might work in a large company, and vice versa. What didn’t work in one industry might work in another. What didn’t work in one country might work in another. And this goes beyond startups – businesses of all sizes are increasingly having to take risks and try new things in order to keep up with rapidly changing competitive landscapes and challenger operating models.
Entrepreneurs know that a diverse network is essential. If you don’t have much budget to spend on marketing, recruitment or partnerships, having relationships with a wide range of people who are willing to help you is a huge advantage. Networking has become a bit of a dirty word, partly because a lot of people don’t know what good networking looks like. But the dictionary definition is very simple: “interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.” That’s it. Be friendly, share information with others generously, make an effort to stay in touch with your contacts, and let them know what help you’re looking for without being demanding.
- Get your hands dirty
I used to work for a startup, which was an Uber-type platform for home cleaning. I launched it in the UK, and in the early days when we were just setting things up, we didn’t have enough cleaners to always be able to find someone to cover if one cleaner canceled last minute. We knew the early customers in London could make or break our brand here, so we wanted to ensure nobody had a bad experience. So if a customer had already been canceled on and a cleaner canceled last minute again, I would grab a bag of cleaning supplies and go to the job myself. I learned three things: first, that I am a terrible cleaner! You shouldn’t assume that a job isn’t skilled until you’ve tried to do it yourself to a professional standard. Second, that you only really understand your customers and feel their frustration when your service has fallen below standard when you are on the front line. And third, when your business is young, you can’t afford any extraneous resource, so when you have more demand than supply you’ll have to find a way to plug the gap yourself.
Lots of companies already have some sort of program to expose employees to the “shop floor,” as it were – seek it out, book yourself onto it, and soak up the experience. If it doesn’t already exist, don’t stop talking about it until someone lets you shadow someone on the front lines, if only for a couple of hours. You’ll learn so much about your product or service, your customers, the competition, colleagues you never knew you had and your place in the whole thing.
- Start a new project and lead it yourself
If you haven’t read Mary Schmich’s letter in the Chicago Tribune, the quote “do one thing every day that scares you” is one I live by. When you look back, your most significant periods of growth were probably when you were regularly doing things that were out of your comfort zone.
The hardest thing about being an entrepreneur is becoming an entrepreneur. If you’re not quite ready to take that jump, think of a project you’d like to take on, either within or alongside your day job. Don’t water it down by asking a friend or colleague to lead it with you, or even offering to support them while they lead it – take on the responsibility of making it a success yourself. If it doesn’t work out, what’s the worst that can happen? And if it does succeed, you’ll feel one step closer to striking out on your own, if that is what you eventually want. It’s like reminding yourself of how good it feels when you get back from a run rather than focusing on how much effort it is to get out and start running.