Don't Reinvent The Wheel, Reinvent The Guitar Pick

Stephen Key—inventor of HotPicks (think skull-shaped guitar picks)—riffs on how the best business ideas come from existing products.

Years ago when I left San Jose State, I didn't have a degree, relevant job experience, or savings. I genuinely doubted that anyone would hire me.

It was obvious to me that I would have to create my own job. So, starting out, I sold my own designs on the street. Fast-forward to now: I've successfully licensed more than 20 simple ideas that have generated billions of dollars of revenue.

After hawking handmade designs on street corners and at craft fairs to pay for lunch, a few basic tenets of business readily revealed themselves.

Keep it simple.

The best ideas are simple ideas. There's no need to attempt to reinvent the wheel. My experience has taught me that the more basic an idea of mine is, the greater my chances of immediate success are.

In 2003, I asked myself why the shape of the guitar pick hadn't changed for decades. Could musicians still play if it were different? I saw an opportunity to personalize the guitar pick to better reflect a player's interests and style. I built and grew my company, HotPicks, from the kitchen table to Walmart and 7/11 based on this incredibly simple idea. Changing the shape of the guitar pick ultimately generated over seven figures in revenue.



When you design a thoughtful and relevant improvement or addition to an existing idea, you've already begun to eliminate some of the risks inherent in bringing a new product to the market. You can be confident that at least some consumers are willing to reach into their pockets to pay for this item. I knew that there was an existing market for guitar picks, so the question wasn't, "Are people willing to buy these?" But, "Will people buy my product instead of those?"

Working with a simple idea requires less initial financial investment because it increases the likelihood that the technology needed to manufacture your idea is accessible and inexpensive. When I set out to start HotPicks, I knew that guitar picks were already being made in an alien shape from my research in the marketplace. This told me that designing new molds would be relatively inexpensive and easy, which I confirmed by following up with manufacturers.

Does your idea have what it takes to make it? Simple ideas can be rapidly tested to determine if they're good ideas because they don't require the creation of a prototype (a simple idea can be explained without the use of one). Many of the entrepreneurs I've met and taught become so blinded by excitement and hope that they fail to vet their ideas thoroughly. They move forward without really being sure that there's a large enough market for their idea. And some, even when they do test their ideas, ignore the many warning signs that the idea isn't worth investing in.

You must be able to answer basic questions about your product idea with confidence before moving forward. How do you know you have a good idea?

Test your ideas quickly, efficiently, and mercilessly.

The key to creating your own job is to be sure as hell that the idea you're selling is desirable to consumers and possible to manufacture cheaply. The only way to be sure is to test your idea—and by that I mean, to get as close as possible to having consumers fork over cash for your product, even though it doesn't exist yet.

Developing a questionnaire and conducting a survey is a good start, but you should delve further. Go beyond knowing what consumers and industry experts such as retail buyers think. Know that someone stating that they like the product and would probably buy it is a league away from them actually paying for it. Don't rely on friends or family to validate your idea or provide insight or criticism; they're not your target audience and may distract you.

Find a way to market your idea to its target audience and provide a way for interested consumers to get back to you about the idea. Track the number of responses you receive. Do people pick up a flyer or basic prototype of your idea that you've asked the manager of a retail outlet to display on the counter, for example? Do they ask about the product, email you for more information, or attempt to place an order on your fictional website?

When I set out to confirm that consumers were interested in HotPicks, I asked the manager of a local gas station to display the picks on the checkout counter. Any sales he made, he could keep. I just wanted to know if and how fast they would sell out. When I returned the next day to check in, they had all been sold! I could hardly believe it. At a gas station, of all places. I was energized and excited and quickly began testing the picks in other settings. This is just one example of the multiple strategies I used to test the picks before moving forward.

The time, money, and energy you devote to testing the strength of the benefit of your idea could not be better spent. Whenever I have moved forward with an idea I wasn't quite sure was a winner, it has never really worked out. Some ideas may be before their time, even if they truly are brilliant. The market may not be ready. Put these on the back burner.

If it seems ludicrous to create a rudimentary website about a product that doesn't even exist yet, I promise, it's not. What is ludicrous is investing in an idea that no one else wants but you love. Remaining objective about your product ideas is challenging for most people, but very necessary. You are not your ideas. Be able to kick a bad one to the curb without hesitation.

Have the confidence to walk away from anything less than a product people love.

When I sold my designs on the street, I had no choice but to immediately abandon ideas that didn't sell. The experience couldn't have been more explicit. If people walked by my table without stopping or even glancing, without coming over to investigate further, the products on display weren't ones I was going to make again. There weren't any excuses. If you are not sure that you have an idea consumers will pay for after testing your idea, walk away from it. It's that simple. Believe that you'll come up with more ideas. Be patient, and remain confident. There will be others. When you aren't obsessed with developing one outstanding idea that you believe will change the world, you're free to use your creativity to imagine lots of ideas. The possibilities are limitless. And so are the jobs you can create for yourself.



When you have a simple winning idea to offer, you've created a job for yourself—to get that idea out to as many people as possible. You've started to build the foundation of a lasting and successful business.

Stephen Key is the author of the best-selling One Simple Idea: Turn Your Dreams into a Licensing Goldmine While Letting Others Do the Work. His second book, One Simple Idea for Startups and Entrepreneurs: Live Your Dreams and Create Your Own Profitable Company, will be available in stores this November.

[Image: Flickr user Dávid Lukács]

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3 Comments

  • Stephen M Key

    #BKP,

    I'm glad my book helped you. Thanks for the kind words.

    Dr. Amy,

    I know exactly how you feel. It's hard to let some ideas go.

  • Dr. Amy

    Great insight.  The simpler your idea, the faster it is to bring to market too.  The discipline of letting an idea go if you're the only one who loves it is deceptively difficult.  Good insight.

  • #BKP

    Excellent article about an innovation thought leader. I've studied Stephen's first book diligently and have successfully applied his concepts in my independent innovation practice.

    Go Stephen!