Leading industry members constantly wonder: Where is the "next big thing" coming from in the amusement and music industry? Where can we get new blood? How can we generate fresh thinking? And above all, where do great new ideas and opportunities come from?
The answers to these questions can determine the future of an individual route, an arcade, a single distributor or manufacturer. The same sorts of answer can also determine the destiny of the entire industry. We are, after all, in the novelty business. Our profits depend on providing new, fresh, exciting entertainment. That means anything from putting a new tune on the jukebox to inventing a brand-new game genre.
So where do we find great new ideas and opportunities? A columnist for Businessweek recently pointed the way to potential sources. Small business expert Victor Cheng said, "When you're in an industry that's been doing the same thing for 30 years and you personally have not spent much time outside of your industry, it is very hard to notice new opportunities."
Hidden inside Cheng's deceptively simple observation is a gold mine of business wisdom. In many cases great new ideas, fresh thinking and the "next big thing" are borrowed from outside your own narrow field of expertise, then applied in a creative way to what you do every day. (As the painter Pablo Picasso once said: "Immature artists borrow; mature artists steal." I always wondered, who did Picasso steal that line from?)
Some very successful amusement operators already use this principle of "creative stealing" very aggressively. For example, they borrow ideas from other service industries that cater to the same locations they do -- security, restaurant supplies and heating, among others. They supply their locations with everything from locks and cameras to salt and pepper, napkins, bottled water and even outdoor heating units (for smokers who have to step onto the verandah to take a drag).
Other music and games operators, as well as distributors and manufacturers, make sure they stay informed not only about music and entertainment trends, but also about full-line vending, office refreshment services, bulk vending and even casino gambling. Even if they don't operate in all these non-amusements sectors, these industry pros read the trade magazines, attend the trade shows and cultivate a network of contacts. When they learn about a proven idea that really works in one sector, they try to apply it to their own sectors.
Still other music and games pros look farther afield for new ideas. They keep informed about computers, electronics and hi-tech. They watch what's happening with the Internet, smartphones and computers. They "creatively steal" technology that has become popular enough, cheap enough or widely dispersed enough to be applicable to this industry. Thus are born many new products and incremental improvements.
Another "not in my own backyard" place to seek profitable new ideas is other countries. The amusement trade is a global industry. To some, the London Show … or for that matter, even shows in China … may seem utterly irrelevant to operating jukeboxes and pool tables in Podunk. But anyone who thinks this is missing the point.
The more farsighted (figuratively) among us closely track the trends overseas. Now and then, they make leaps of imagination. They see connections that may yield anything from a new operating technique to a new kind of legal, risk-reward game. Or maybe they discover new and cheaper methods of designing and manufacturing redemption games. Or possibly even a new, profitable market for certain kinds of imports or exports.
Finally, of course, there is the time-honored expedient of simply copying your immediate competition. It's amusing, or maddening, but some chief executives refuse to be first with anything. They wait until their competitors take the risk of trying something new. If the new idea works, they rush to copy it. If the new idea fails, they scoff and pat themselves on the back for wisely resisting change.
There is nothing particularly admirable about this ultra-cautious strategy. But the point is that "creative stealing" doesn't have to take 100% of its inspiration from the geographically remote and wildly off-the-beaten-path. Sometimes you can -- and should -- steal a great idea from the guy who is just across the street or on the other side of town.
Even if we are No. 1 in our market, we should never be above learning. We should learn from our immediate competition, from other industries in our locations and from industries around the world. Winning in the free market begins with active participation in "the free market of ideas."