How to transform your napkin sketch into a business reality

You’ve probably heard of famous rags–to–riches stories by way of a simple napkin sketch: A lightning bolt of inspiration descends on a few ‘lucky’ entrepreneurs. They scribble down perfectly–formed, magically made–to–order ideas on a napkin and the rest, you can say, is history. From Finding Nemo to Harry Potter, these very timely downloads all began from reaching for a humble little napkin and transforming its contents into pop culture iconic status.

Does it really happen like that? Well, history has shown us time and again that it does, but managing yourself (and your creative process) on the way there is another story and a much needed disciplinary skill.

Even if we’re not incubating ideas on the level of Pixar and legendary wizards and witches, we all have napkin sketches of our own. Some of your ‘napkin sketches’ include actual drawings on restaurant napkins to sticky notes to Evernotes to “Getting It Done” tickler files to heaps of bought–but–unused–parked–domain–names to stacks of journals with ideas written down over the years.

Crossing the bridge from napkin sketch to reality is an art that I had been stumbling on but have been rediscovering and refining for the last few years. If you are a visionary, artist, inventor, engineer or any kind of creator, your ability to see into the future means being able to receive ideas (and envision ideals) effortlessly, but transforming them into reality is a whole other animal.

If you’ve never navigated this unfamiliar territory before, it’s daunting at first, especially if your idea is much bigger than yourself and requires lots of parts and resources outside of your domain. So today, I’m going to simplify and demystify the process a little bit for you.

What is a napkin sketch?

A napkin sketch is actually & symbolically exactly as it sounds—jotting down a creative seed that bursts into your consciousness. Maybe it arrives like a quick flash of lightning or maybe you gradually map out a unique solution.

You can call it incubation, idea downloading, an a–ha moment or being visited by the Muse—it’s when an idea that you most likely weren’t trying to “figure out” just arrives like a neatly–formed knowing into your mind. Instantaneously, you just know you’ve got something very viable on your hands.

How it becomes a napkin sketch is because often, the idea that arrives is outside of you. Maybe it’s a rapid divine download or maybe it swirls out of intense or lighthearted discussions with creative partners. Maybe you inconveniently get hit by genius ideas just before you’re about to fall asleep (that happens to me all the time!). If you don’t capture it on paper right away, you may very well lose that thought while it’s passing through your consciousness. It’s so ‘flighty’ and airy that you need to descend that idea and ‘ground’ it into the physical by getting it on that napkin or notebook.

Some artists, entrepreneurs and idea creators (like the old me) never get past the napkin sketch stage. It’s very seductive to over–plan, map out, and to generate idea after idea and become very dazzled by possibilities, without investing the effort and heart to making them real.

The jewel, of course, is in mining those ideas, taking the right action on them, and translating a humble little piece of paper into tangible reality.

It’s crucial what you do next

For the first 8 of 10 years in my life as an artist, I took action on my napkin sketches by writing out long–drawn business plans—sometimes to attract investors (which I did) but mostly to map out a grand vision and how I would get myself there.

For example, last time when I went into the diamond business, my first instinct was still to write an investment plan to gather shareholders onboard. I did that for my real estate ideas too, sometimes getting so enamored by the b–plan that I could practically frame the pages and study them like museum artifacts.

Looking back, what I didn’t realize is that sometimes, business plans are nothing more than extended napkin sketches. Business plans can paint future perfection in an ideal world, but they’re still only ideas, spelled out using an alphabet and printed on dead sheets of wood pulp. In other words, not meaningless but not very meaningful nor powerful either.

I realized that in order to transfer napkin sketch to reality, you have to stop creating more napkin sketches and planning so much. When I went into the interior business, for the first time in my life I didn’t start out by opening up Microsoft Word. In fact, I planned nothing at all and went straight into prototyping my furniture collection with my production team.

In your world, maybe that is to start working with a business mentor and to stop creating yet another new version of your blog. Maybe, it’s to hire someone to build out your business and refrain from buying yet another parked domain name. Or, maybe instead of blogging, you turn your stories into a fictional book or paid speaking engagements. Or, maybe you take all of your notes and turn them into something you can sell. Or, if you love to create mixtures in your home kitchen laboratory, maybe it’s time to turn them into a catering business or manufacture your own line of beauty or food products.

Expanding it outside of you

Transforming a napkin sketch into reality also involves hiring people to help. Entrepreneurs get stuck when they think they have to do and learn everything themselves. For a while, I got very stuck on my vision, thinking that I needed to master AutoCAD or pursue an architecture degree or an interior design license before I can create the business I want.

I also thought, maybe I am not a legitimate furniture designer because I don’t have any carpenting or woodworking skills. Who am I to not ‘pay my dues’? Recently, I re–learned again that success doesn’t come from mastering all the skills but in knowing who to hire. Who can you hire to help you move your idea forward?

Building appropriate boxes and walls

Taking a napkin sketch into reality also means compromising, a word that idealists and artists don’t really like to hear. Sadly, not every idea can be made into reality because we are bounded here by time and resources of the Earth, and also by the limits of our own time and energy, too. You can’t do everything and you can’t do it all. In his book The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks says: “Part of maturity, both in spirituality and in business, is to realize that you can’t have everything, but that if you choose carefully you can have anything.”

As a multi–passionate entrepreneur who wants to do everything (for example, I’d love to own car washes because it feels to me that they print money!), it’s just not possible to enact on every idea. So sometimes, the first step to making things real is to realize what can’t become real or what you don’t truly have energy to make real. By temporarily imposing a creative restriction on yourself, paradoxically you start to tap into more creative ideas. Perplexing, but sometimes you need to impose a box in order to expand your horizons.

Take a detour

Boxing yourself in (in a good way) also means focusing. Making a napkin sketch real not only means cutting out what is impossible in general, but also what’s impossible for you, for where you are in life right now. For years, I’ve been wanting to build hotels and residences, but I know that this isn’t a line of business that’s available to me right now.

In the past, this realization only led me to feel sad and to generate more and more napkin sketches in order to feel like I’m doing something—which is not the worst idea, but not the most helpful either. More napkin sketches doesn’t equal getting you there faster. Sometimes, when your idea is not immediately available to you, you’ve got to take a slight detour and pick something that is in the vicinity of your vision, so that when acted upon, it will bring you closer to the business you really want.

What to do next

Are you still in the napkin sketch stage and haven’t yet found the courage to get real? Self–doubt and fear of not being good enough are often the demons hiding in the artist’s and creative’s shadow.

Napkin sketches are exquisite and dainty and pretty, but unless you are exhibiting your notebooks in the museum gallery, your ideas are not real. In fact, they aren’t worth anything. Don’t get so infatuated by the ideas inside your napkin sketches that you forget they only live in the secrecy of your home or computer or notebook.

Or, what if you don’t have the fear but simply don’t know where to take your ideas and how to engineer them to reality? Executing your concept, manufacturing your products and launching your services involves lots of steps, details and considerations.

Hi, I’m Ana Coeur

I teach entrepreneurs how to create their business straight from their soul. I offer a complete Intuitive Business Suite to help you create, design, write and sell all from your intuition. Here’s the services you can take advantage of to empower your business: Intuitive Web & Brand Design, Intuitive Copywriting and Intuitive Selling. If there’s anything I can help you with, I would love to hear about it! You may email me at

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