Generating inspiration close to home – creative thinking consultant Terry Richey – Managing Your Small Business – Brief Article

Steve Bates

Terry Richey would like to find the next big idea that could help overhaul a company’s product line or even shake up an entire market. But there’s one thing he would like even more: for small-business people to find that big idea themselves.

Richey, a consultant who promotes innovative thinking, tries to shake up the mind-set of his clients — to have them step back and reassess their approach to their products and services.

Often he is brought in by a company to help it adjust marketing strategies that aren’t working. His frequent advice to clients is to reassess whether their product or product line is light and what the next one should be rather than focus exclusively on how to unload a warehouse full of widgets.

This might not always be what the executives want to hear, but it likely is what they need to hear — and to take to heart says Richey.

“Innovation is not a one-time event,” he says. “Most ideas don’t work; most innovations fail.” Small and large companies like must be flexible. enough to try bold new ideas and to toss them aside if they don’t work.

Sooner or later, something will strike a chord, Richey says. “If something comes up that makes the executives in the room nervous, then you know the idea may have merit.”

Richey’s reputation is the only marketable asset of his one-man operation — Timberline Strategies, based in his mountaintop home near Santa Fe, N.M. Though he has broadened his client list of generally small companies to include some large corporations — General Mills, Hallmark Cards, and Splint Corp. among them — he’s still only one player in a large field of consultants on creative thinking.

If one thing sets him apart, however, it is his recent annual report. The document contains no numbers. It was distributed to no stockholders (there are none). But at about 5 inches square, bound in imitation, leather and twigs, and containing examples of creative business approaches, it’s a unique tool designed to attract new business.

Richey, 48, who five years ago traded a smooth-running advertising agency in Kansas City, Mo., for an uncertain future as a consultant, finds much of his inspiration in nature. Pensive walks in the woods near his Santa Fe home prompted the earthy appearance of, and advice in, the annual report.

To innovate, Richey says, business people must be open to “accidentals” — unanticipated events, no matter how small, that can point to big results. He cites the example of a delivery-truck driver who was wise enough to be inspired by something that easily could have been overlooked:

Clay Mathile delivered mink food to ranches in Ohio. Dogs collected around his truck when he arrived it his stops. At one, he noticed that the dogs’ coats were unusually shiny and healthy-looking. He learned that the rancher fed some of the mink food to the dogs.

The result: The Iams Pet Food Co. “Clay comes face-to-face with an `accidental’ that will change his life and make him one of the richest men in America,” writes Richey in the annual report. In a “balanced approach to business and life, we see accidentals as tiny sign posts alerting us to other paths and possibilities.”

Richey notes, however, that in many companies — particularly large ones — innovation isn’t given much of a chance to blossom.

“It’s surprisingly rare. Innovative people often have a very difficult time with the corporate culture,” he says. “A lot of corporations use consultants for that type of thinking. They would be much better off using people they have, who are the best thinkers.”

For small businesses, “innovation is often the only real ingredient that allows them to be successful against larger competition,” adds Richey. AR too often, he warns, “as a business grows, it loses its creativity.”

“The capacity to be very creative is inherent in everyone,” Richey says. Yet sometimes the most innovative ideas are surprisingly simple: a metaphor, a symbol, even a color can be the focus of a marketing strategy.

He cites the example of a catalog that was being designed for Macy’s kitchenware. A creative team came up with three ideas, and all were shot down in flames. Amid the chaos of discussion, someone started unpacking samples for photos, and by coincidence five red products ended up next to one another An art director wondered aloud, What if everything in the catalog was red?”

They did the catalog that way, and it became a big success.

Richey, whose site on the World Wide Web is at, promise miracles to his clients. He does pledge to provide advice in terms as basic as the color red. “I’m a professional simplifier,” he says.

COPYRIGHT 1998 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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