From prophet to profit: How entrepreneurs see into the future 

There may be no guidebook to being a visionary but here, Christian Nellemann explores the things you can do to stir up creativity and generate ideas for your business.

Why do we admire entrepreneurs so much? A glance at LinkedIn’s newsfeed or a quality newspaper will prove that we’re a nation obsessed with those who make their mark by creating new businesses. We’re clearly not just fascinated by their financial success, however: there’s something about that person’s creative spark, their charisma, and the fact that they have really changed the way we do things.

To me, business is all about creativity. It’s about constantly searching for new ways to improve your customers’ experiences; always striving to make the world a better place to live and work in. The best entrepreneurs are those who are aware of this. They come up with the visionary ideas which have the potential to make a genuine contribution to society. They are not merely number crunchers but artists who would identify themselves with Bobby Kennedy when he said, ‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’

It’s this creative process that drew me into business. The one question that I am constantly asked is, ‘How do you come up with these ideas?’ Or ‘how is it that people like Steve Jobs are so good at bringing new ideas to market and seem to be able to almost predict the future?’

Of course, there’s no guidebook on how to be a visionary. I can’t guarantee that if you follow my advice you’ll be the next Steve Jobs. But there are some things you can do to help you stir up your creativity and discover some great business opportunities.

I can do better than that!

Identifying areas for improvement is a tried and trusted source of inspiration. So start by looking for the flaws in what others are doing. Richard Branson is a brilliant example of someone who employs this method. In the 1970s, British Airways made the mistake of delivering bad service on a number of transatlantic flights directly affecting Branson as passenger. Instead of fuming impotently, he started thinking how he could do a better job if he had his own airline. Finally, when British Airways cancelled one of his flights, he put these ideas into practice. He chartered his own plane and took all of the other stranded passengers with him, dividing up the cost on a blackboard. Thus, Virgin Atlantic was born. The important lesson to be learned from this is that great ideas can come from turning a negative situation into a positive and potentially entrepreneurial one. Anyone can moan about bad service, but surprisingly few people take the time to come up with a serious plan to improve it. They’re the people who end up making a difference.

Know what’s happening in the wider world – and how it relates to you

When I was starting out in business in the early 1980s, I planned to move to Taiwan and set up my business there. Why? Because I wanted to take advantage of the Chinese market. Nowadays, everyone is doing this; but back then China was only beginning to open up its doors to foreign investors. Not many people would have guessed it would become such an economic superpower and very few people were paying attention to it at the time. But if you want to be an entrepreneur you have to stay ahead of the curve on exactly this sort of thing. The best way of predicting what’s going to happen before anyone else is to learn more about the world. Take the time to keep up with the news, especially business and international news. Don’t let opportunities pass you by. Seize the moment before someone else.

Think about great entrepreneurs

Which entrepreneurs do you admire? I’m sure you will have your own favourites. Now you’ve identified them, read about them, and attend their talks. I don’t just mean skimming a quick profile: really discover where their ideas came from, and how they were able to steal a march on the competition. Above all, learn how they were able to convince people that their vision was going somewhere, and wasn’t just another pie in the sky idea. Whenever I’ve been unsure about whether one of my ideas could ever work in practice, I’ve been reassured by seeing what my business heroes have been able to achieve.

If you take all of these steps in your business life, your creativity will soar. Being more creative will greatly improve your working life, even if you don’t become the next Richard Branson. 

Christian Nellemann is CEO and founder of XLN Telecom.

Further reading on business ideas

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