1000 Little Ideas

A compelling argument for developing the skill of ideation lies in the 1000 Little Ideas vs 1 Big Idea paradigm

it takes hundreds if not thousands of little ideas to create a single big idea
– Bryan Collins, The Power of Creativity

I also wrote about ideation in this rambling, 20,000-word review of “A Technique for Getting Ideas”, a book first published in 1965.[1] This was an attempt to reconcile the book’s approach to ideation with marketing. Not hard since the book was written with advertising in mind. Like its 1926 predecessor Art of Thought, is beyond marvelous. 

Why the emphasis on ideation in your marketing?

Because approaching ideation in a systematic way will help you with:

  • content strategy
  • copywriting/UX
  • product design
  • paid advertising

I’m probably leaving something out here, but the point is it makes all these things produce better results – because all these things require a consistent flow of good ideas. Lots of little ideas over a few big ones.

This lets us to get away from copying formulas of others – and move towards ideating our own formulas for doing these kinds of work.

Case: Outbound Email Marketing

Take outbound email marketing as a case in point. Let’s count how many little ideas are involved.

To dive right into the particulars, when you reach out to new prospective clients via outbound email, you customize your opening line, even while the remainder of the email – and even the entire outreach sequence – is templated.

That custom opening line should not be something shallow, common, or formulaic, which is the usual approach. It should contain an original, creative idea related to the business or person you are writing to.

Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient? What will spark your interest from a stranger?

If you write 20 such outreach emails per week, that’s 20+ new ideas. Factor in email subject line ideation (a good rule of thumb is to test a new subject line every 10 or so email sent), and you can see the direction in which we’re headed. 

Over a year, that’s 1000 little ideas.

And that’s not even counting the prospecting and campaign strategies that got you your outreach list in the first place.

If you practice ideating on an iterative basis, a daily basis, you’ll be more likely to produce good ideas – and the X number of execution hours you invest in execution will yield much better results.

In summary: there is a direct relationship between how seriously you approach ideation in your outbound marketing and how many leads you actually generate from it.

1000 Exceptional Business Ideas

Have you ever heard the saying, “Ideas are a dime a dozen”?

Completely false.

At least when taken at face value – what this saying actually means is, “stop talking and do the work”. Which is often a good point.

But ideas are not a dime a dozen – at least not ideas that are valuable in a business context.

Counterpoint #2: you need a lot more than a dozen ideas to make your marketing work. In the example above, we needed at least 6 dozen valuable ideas just to run a one-month email outreach marketing campaign.

Not sure how you value your time, but unless you produced those ideas in a fraction of a millisecond, I’m guessing those ideas cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of effort. A lot more than 6 dimes, let’s put it that way.

Case: Facebook

So-called “big ideas” are overvalued compared to the aggregate outcome of little ones. Was a Facebook a big idea? Not really. It was just a hyper-niched down version of Friendster and MySpace; it was a classy MySpace for Harvard University students.

There was no big idea; there were some medium ideas, such as “make the interface templatized and clean, unlike MySpace”, “make the product psychologically addictive to increase ad revenue”, and “just run AdWords to monetize until we sort out our ad network”.

But nothing truly innovative, like the original Napster, or like Wikipedia.

It was those 1000’s of little ideas that made Facebook enormously successful.

I guess that relates somewhat to why daily publishing makes sense – if it communicates ideas [2]. If I can give you one little idea that will help, then my work is done. Not saying I’ll keep this up for 1000 days though (:

Warm regards,

– Rowan

Footnotes & Errata
  1. It’s really hard to find a good copy of A Technique for Getting Ideas unmarred by low-budget production. The digital copies I’ve seen were apparently transcribed from print because they are so full of typos, formatting, and grammatical errors that sometimes the meaning is lost. 

    Thus, I made my own copy on Google Docs: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cPwK-1Av2PJGYj5X5br-djwEdCN_EzFIYJv74kd6i0o/edit. Feel free to comment on it, as I have over the past couple of years. Bear in mind that I took the enormous liberty of revising the chapter outline, though, and inserting chapter titles… that’s the beauty of open source.


  2. One of my favorite passages from A Technique for Getting Ideas is about words-as-ideas:

    Another point I might elaborate on a little is about words. We tend to forget that words are, themselves, ideas. They might be called ideas in a state of suspended animation. When the words are mastered the ideas tend to come alive again.

    Take the rather recent work “semantics” for example. The chances are you will never use it is an advertisement. But if you have it in your vocabulary you will have a number of symbols which will be of very practical value indeed.

    Thus, words being symbols of ideas, we can collect ideas by collecting words. The fellow who said he tried reading the dictionary but couldn’t get the hang of the story, simply missed the point that it is a collection of short stories.

    (The OED: the world’s largest short story anthology)