The Entrepreneur's Notebook (part 1)

Part 1 of 3

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“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” - Francis Bacon, Sr.

I contend that the best thing you can do to improve your entrepreneurial skills is to practice thinking like one. What follows is my favorite technique for doing just that, and if you choose to emulate it, I guarantee you’ll end up with more business ideas to work on than you every imagined you had in you.

What is an Entrepreneur’s Notebook?

Simply put, it’s a collection of entrepreneurial ideas for businesses you have, or are thinking of creating: products, marketing, sales, strategy, etc. The techniques that follow will help you to massively multiply the quantity of ideas you have, your recall of past ideas, and your ability to create connections between ideas. And the only thing you have to buy, is a notebook.

These three posts will lay out the process, why it works, techniques for making a more useful notebook, backup strategies, and tips for choosing a good notebook, and more.

Step One: Get a good notebook.

notebook on a rail overlooking trees
(CC photo by thomas@flickr, on Flickr)

First, you need to get a notebook; a real, paper notebook. Lots of you will think “But I love [insert favorite note-taking app here].” Trust me, you want a physical notebook. A physical notebook always exists. It doesn’t disappear when you quit it. It doesn’t need to be launched. It doesn’t get low batteries, or need to be woken up, and you won’t be able to forget about it when you’re constantly carrying it around. It sits there, on the edge of your vision, silently encouraging you to write in it.

It’s easy to ignore, or forget about something you wrote down in an app, especially when it isn’t visible at the moment, but, your notebook is right there, and as you flip through it, looking for the next blank page, you are reminded of all the other ideas you’ve written down in it, and connections begin to form that wouldn’t otherwise.

Now, “Good” is very subjective when it comes to notebooks, but you’ll find my suggestions on what to look for in Part 2.

Step Two: Carry it with you everywhere.

notebook and fries
cc mush m.

The act of carrying your notebook with you constantly is far more important than which notebook you choose. Make sure you’ve always got your notebook and a couple spare pens or pencils. While you’re buying your notebook, take a moment to grab yourself some writing instruments that you’ll actually enjoy using, rather than whatever cheapy ball-point you found on your desk.

Don’t leave your notebook in your bag

Pull it out and put it on your desk when you get to work. Set it on the end-table when you relax at home. Make it a constant part of your daily routine.

Inside my Traveler’s Notebook
(CC photo by koalazymonkey, on Flickr)

Step Three: Write every idea down in it immediately.

Time and again you’ve sat at your desk, read an article, and had some little spark of an idea go off, and then kept reading and promptly forgot all about it. Don’t ever do that again. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or not. What matters is the act of capturing and exploring it. Whenever you have one of these ideas, stop your self immediately and write it down in your notebook. The article / video / TV show / boring business meeting will be there when you’re done.

My ideas notebook travels in my backpack, which goes with me just about everywhere, but I also carry a tiny pocket reporters-notebook in my jacket pocket so that, if I have an idea while walking down the street, I can just stop walking, pull the pocket-notebook out, jot down my idea, and keep going. Interesting ideas are not allowed to escape undocumented.

If you can take a few minutes to explore the idea, do so. You don’t have to flesh it out completely, just let the thoughts flow, unjudged, and unimpeded until they come to a natural stopping point.

If you have an idea for a web interface, sketch it out. If you thought of a great way to market something, write it down. If you thought of a gotcha that might send everything swirling down the drain, write it down. Thought of some software that would make creating it easier? Write it down.

It is very important that you do not worry about the quality of the ideas at this point. Just get them down on paper; good, bad, and mediocre.


The more you do this the more ideas you’ll capture, and not just because you’ll be accreting them over time. The act of capturing these ideas helps you to notice them more, and the more you notice, the more you write down. You’re having interesting ideas constantly, everyone is, but they slip through the graps of most people because they simply haven’t trained themselves to capture them.

Don’t use it for grocery lists

You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Doodling doesn’t affect the quality of the content in your notebook because it doesn’t contain information your brain needs to parse, but things like grocery lists contain information that’s irrelevant to your projects and become random noise that pollutes an otherwise useful resource.

With that said, you may find it to be a good place for to-do lists related to the projects in your notebook. I generally avoid this myself. My task-lists are constantly growing and changing.

Step Four: Evaluate

The more you do this the more your brain will start buzzing about all these possible businesses you could be starting or projects you could be working on. Choose whichever one you’re most excited about at the moment and dive into it. With me, I just hit a point every couple days where my brain is so abuzz with ideas for some app I want to create that I have to just stop and write for the next ten to twenty minutes. It’s almost always one that I’ve accreted a page or two of notes on already.

When you find one that you really think might be worth starting as a business, take some time to try and figure out every possible way you could monetize it. How would you have to market it? Where would you have to market it? How bad is the competition? If there isn’t any, take a minute to figure out why. Do a little research and see if there are actually enough people interested in this type of thing.

Draw circles and arrows. Make connections. Read Dan Roam’s: Back Of The Napkin. It is an incredible resource that is guaranteed to quickly, and easily improve the quality of your notes.

Why this works

At the start of this post I promised this technique would “…help you to massively multiply the quantity of ideas you have, your recall of past ideas, and your ability to create connections between ideas.” Here’s why:

Physically writing creates links between the spacial and verbal parts of the brain, and studies have shown that by some strange quirk of biology, the brain thinks that writing something is the same as if we were actually doing it. This is similar to how the practice of actively visualizing something can trick the brain into thinking it’s actually doing it.

Conversely, the more time you spend trying to recall something, the more likely you are to forget it in the future. It is better to look something up directly, than attempt to dredge it from your hazy recollection of a half-remembered thought stream.

Studies have shown that writing things down longhand improves recall. In part this is due to the fact that it increases blood flow to the parts of the brain that handle memory. If I remember correctly your recall is typically improved by 10%. Alas, I can’t find the study to quote for you.

“…a psych professor at Dominican University of California found that people who wrote down their goals, shared them with others, and maintained accountability for their goals were 33% more likely to achieve them, versus those who just formulated goals…* and a survey of note-taking studies found several examples where [longhand note-taking] helped students with recall and academic performance.” - LifeHacker

Now, there haven’t been any studies I’m aware of that address my claim as to quantity of ideas, but I find that entrepreneurial thinking is a skill that improves with practice, just like any other. Carrying an Entrepreneur’s notebook is just as much about having a central place to capture and connect ideas as it is about having a process that encourages you to think entrepreneurially on a regular basis. As I mentioned above, by getting in the habit of writing down every entrepreneurial idea the moment you have it you become more aware of them.

As to my final claim of creating connections to ideas, that should be obvious. You’ll have a book of them that you’ll be regularly flipping through. How can you not make connections in that situation?

What next?

Go get yourself a blank notebook!

If you want some helpful suggestions that will improve the usability of that notebook, continue on to Part 2.

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