Five rules for getting your ideas off the ground

The 99% Conference — a two-day event about turning (hopefully good) ideas into reality — kicked off today in New York. It drew more than 300 creative thinkers and consists of a number of 20-minute presentations focused on issues of productivity and the process of executing ideas.

The event, put on by Behance, which runs an online network for creative professionals, and online design publication Cool Hunting, gets its name from inventor Thomas Edison’s insight that “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

Scott Belsky, founder of Behance said the downturn is an ideal time to incubate new ideas. The payoff could be big, he said, yet “the risk is kind of low. And if the idea doesn’t pan out, it won’t necessarily make your situation worse.

Five themes kept popping up over the course of today’s talks:

1. Engage in personal projects and things that you love.

Jake Nickell, chief strategy officer of Threadless, talked about how he started the crowd-sourcing T-shirt company in 2000 as a side project to his full-time job as a web designer. He had no idea that Threadless held such business potential but simply wanted “to do something fun for people we knew.”

Ji Lee, creative director at Google Creative Labs, talked about one of the personal projects he started in addition to his day job. He spent a few thousand dollars out of his own pocket creating speech-bubble stickers that he placed on top of street ads and billboards. Passersby unfailingly filled those bubbles with amusing or poignant thoughts, which resulted in his public art project attracting media coverage and leading to professional opportunities from people who liked his creativity. “When everything else falls apart in the workplace, I can always fall back on my personal project,” Lee said, adding that it is both empowering and fun.

2. Share your ideas and listen to other people’s.

Often people don’t share their ideas liberally because they’re scared other people will either steal them or criticize them, Belsky said. But he and other speakers emphasized the importance of sharing ideas, and do so quickly — because debate helps you decide which are likely to gain traction. Talking about your ideas will also increase the chances you’ll see them through, he said, since you’ll feel accountable to the people you’ve shared them with.

Nickell said Threadless “was 100% reactive to what the community wanted.” If they suggested a different kind of T-shirt to print their designs on, Threadless would offer that. There were no clear-cut consequences to experimenting, including making radical changes to the website’s design, said Jeff Kalmikoff, the company’s chief creative officer.

3. Prioritize your projects so you don’t sabotage yourself by trying to do everything.

In 2004, Threadless “fired all of our clients,” because the team didn’t have enough time to pour into its own T-shirt making project.

Seth Godin, author and chief executive of Squidoo, said it’s important to rip ideas apart and reinvent them rapidly at the beginning stages, rather than right before the product is supposed to be shipped. “Thrashing at the beginning is cheap,” he said.

4. Do what makes sense.

The Threadless guys said they were able to innovate and not get trapped in the “this is how you’re supposed to do it” mentality because they didn’t go to business school and weren’t in art school very long. They developed their company according to what made sense to them.

5. Be proactive.

Too often people come up with a million reasons not to take the first step on an idea. But the longer you postpone taking action, the more time you’re wasting, said Belsky. You need to be aware of this when you’re hiring, he said. Too often managers hire all-stars. But instead of picking people based on talent, choose them for their initiative. The best indicator that they’ll be proactive as an employee is if they’ve taken initiative in the past, even in developing hobbies or personal projects into companies. If they take an interest in what your company is doing, chances are they’ll take initiative when working on it and be instrumental in helping you succeed.