The B!g Idea

Entrepreneurs reveal their eureka moments -- and how they turned a burst of inspiration into a business

Slide Show >>

Walt Disney was at a local carnival with his grandkids when he was inspired to create Disneyland. A cold winter day of skating in Farmington, Me., got Chester Greenwood thinking up earmuffs. And Bill Bowerman saw in his morning waffles the design for the Nike (NKE ) Waffle running shoe.

Eureka moments -- those sudden bursts of inspiration -- can happen anywhere. But for most of us, they come when we step out of our routine and go someplace different, someplace special. Children seem to know instinctively the importance of having a special place to sort out their thinking. When I was a child, mine was the woods behind our house, which at various times hosted a castle, a fort, a spaceship -- in reality, a couple of pieces of plywood and some two-by-fours nailed together. As a teenager I spent summers leading Boy Scouts on canoe trips. At one of the camping areas was a set of granite rocks where I would sit and think about the world as I watched the sun set. Many years later, sitting beside a lake or ocean at sunset still calms my mind, setting up an opportunity for new connections. For many adults, it's often visiting new places that opens the mind to new ideas.

Most of us spend our days working in dim offices, so it's no surprise that many entrepreneurs find insight outdoors. Disney believed so much in the power of sunlight to kick-start creativity that he designed his animation studios to leverage natural light. Recent research backs him up: A study of more than 21,000 students found that children in classrooms with the most daylight learned 20% to 26% faster than those whose classrooms got the least light. Even math and reading scores on standardized tests increased significantly.

No matter where you are, the key to inspiration is to relax. A rested mind makes fresh connections that are obvious in retrospect but hard to see during our overworked, overstressed lives. Millions of people have enjoyed the fresh smell of pine or briny ocean air. But Mark Peltier, one of the entrepreneurs featured on the pages that follow, turned that appreciation into a business that takes the scents of the outdoors indoors. Millions of adults have attended awkward networking events, but Tom Jaffee thought about those uncomfortable moments in an innovative way and built a new kind of events management business.

You can't force eureka moments, but you can increase their odds of happening by preparing your mind. Cram your cranium with your problems, challenges, ideas, and insights. Then relax and let your mind work. But don't forget to listen. Be conscious of your thoughts, so that when inspiration does strike, you can grab the idea and run with it.

The last step is the hardest. Ideas are everywhere. What's rare is the courage and conviction to act on them. In the end, creativity means the audacity to believe in yourself and your ideas. Just like the folks in this slide show.

By Joan Raymond with an introduction by Doug Hall

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