While reading the newspaper with a group of young black entrepreneurs, one of them called Vuyisile said he might have a bright new business idea. I looked at the picture of a group of angry protesters with sticks and banners. He said the sticks reminded him of his youth and how they had done stick-fighting. Excitedly he said: "Can I start a stick-fighting company?" I looked at him incredously and said: "You can start anything you like." He did start the Stickfighting Company and within a month he had been profiled on CNN, BBC and Transworld Sport. He has held many tournaments and they are highly popular, sometimes attracting up to 1 000 spectators. He has also taken some of the champions as well as others for corporate workshops and trains young people in the township with some of the elders.
This was not the first time newspapers had delivered an innovative and creative entrepreneurial idea. Using the concept of reading the papers daily with the objective of finding innovative ideas, a new technique can easily be shown and taught.
Why use newspapers to find innovative ideas in entrepreneurship? Because they appear daily, exist almost in every part of the world, thousands of stories and pictures are presented and they can be read even when they are a few days or weeks old. The most important reason to read newspapers to find new innovations is that journalists write about problems and facts, whereas entrepreneurs try to solve problems through creative solutions. The job of the journalist is to write about problems; the job of the entrepreneur is to find creative solutions to them.
Over the past five years I have been perfecting this technique at universities, corporates and schools. I can honestly say that every time I read a newspaper I find another innovative opportunity.
There have been so many innovative ideas that have emerged. Vocal exams, graffiti boards, "I love tripe", Zabaleen daily garbage collection, the Gangster Museum, Vegas weddings, Toi, Lavender in Lavender Hill, ZUKA, K Ushers … the list goes on. There have been 1 000 new ideas created over the past five years.
The truth is there are always opportunities to generate innovative new ideas and the concept is easy to teach. But this type of thinking is not taught at schools and young people do not read the newspapers anymore.
Innovation and entrepreneurship are about pushing the boundaries further and further until they almost become science fiction, where the idea of the impossible seems ludicrous.
The mistake made in South Africa is that all innovation is seen as technological change. This is not always true. While reading the newspaper, a sportsman looked at the picture of a golfer who had made a large divet in the ground. He realised there were thousands of golfers who made hundreds of thousands of divets every year and the majority used a simple sand bag. Was this not an opportunity for a new idea or innovation?
Taking an innovative idea to the next level is also a challenge for many young South Africans. I believe that as many innovative ideas as possible need to be tested to ascertain whether they are viable. This would require a testing period as well as funding for hundreds, if not thousands, of new innovations.
Many innovative ideas will not pass the viability test but some will. It is a kind of natural selection process. What we need in South Africa is masses of innovation, loads of testing and money to do that. Sometimes the ideas must be technological but mostly they must contain innovation for the marketplace – and then we will see a massive turn around in our fortunes.
<em>Charles Maisel is a global multi-award winner for social entrepreneurship. He has started 25 of his own ventures and runs a successful company called Innovation Shack. He lectures on innovation at many South African universities.</em>