Not that long ago I gave up on an idea. I'd wasted a lot of time on this startup so I was determined not to make the same mistakes again. All I needed this time around was the right idea. But how do you ensure that you pick the right idea? Whilst I’m an advocate for ‘ideas are worthless, execution is everything’ you could also argue that the best execution in the world won’t make an obviously terrible idea a successful, growing, sustainable business. I needed a way to find viable startup ideas.
Since you're reading this post, I suspect you have been or are in a similar place; searching for that great idea or at least one worth pursuing. Over the past few years I’ve come across several great articles describing different approaches to this problem. This post is an attempt to collect these approaches in one place. A place to reference every time you’re searching for that next idea.Approach #1: Scratch your own itch
The ‘scratch your own itch’ approach is obviously the first place to look for startup ideas because it’s where you’re most likely to come up with viable solutions. If you understand the problem clearly then you are in a good place to create a solution that may also solve the problem for others. However, your solution is just the starting point, and so it will need to be refined.
What you're really looking for is an inadequate or annoying process or product in your own personal or working life. Something that you believe could be better, simpler, or more fun to use. Every time you come across one of these problems write it down, record it somewhere, and mull over potential solutions, but don’t jump on the first one that comes to mind.
I find that ideas have a honeymoon period of about a week. By honeymoon period I mean a period of time where your solution to a problem seems like a sure thing, and if you just put it out there it will be successful: but wait a week, continuously test it for weakness and nine times out of ten it won’t be as great an idea as you first thought. However, if you are still excited about it after a week or so then it’s probably worth pursuing a little further.
My favourite startup success stories are from people and teams who have solved their own problems first. Checkout the founding story of Basecamp for a brilliant example of this.Approach #2: Listen for keywords
So, if you cant find any problems of your own you're going to need to solve someone else’s. To get started just listen to conversations amongst friends and family. Listen for keywords/phrases such as 'I hate', 'I wish', 'this is frustrating', 'thats so annoying', 'this sucks', 'I need', 'I want', etc.
Each of these words and more are queues for potential startup ideas. Obviously not every occurrence of these words represent an opportunity but some will. You can also discover problems this way by searching forums and social networks like Twitter for the same keywords. When you find a few people complaining about the same thing and if its something you could potentially solve for them, talk to these people and get to the root of the problem.
However, it's worth remembering that there is a lot of noise on social networks. Simply typing 'I hate' in to a Twitter search will reveal very little if anything. You have to narrow your search to a niche you can understand. Rob Walling calls these warm niches in his book Start small, stay small: A Developers Guide to Launching a Startup.
His suggestion for finding warm niches is to brainstorm areas of your life like hobbies, interests, work experience, etc, for potential problem areas. Areas where you have enough knowledge or the ability to acquire the knowledge to solve problems in that niche. He also suggests to add the hobbies and work experience of close friends and relatives to your list of niches; if you can talk to them, you can at least try to understand their problems.
Once you have a list of niches it's time to dig a little deeper. Pick the niche that interests you the most from a business perspective and start searching for your keywords. This is not easy unless you can really talk, in depth, to others involved in this niche. Regardless of whether you are talking to people on forums, social networks, through email, or in person, you have to carefully plan the questions you ask.
The Mom Test (book) accurately describes the hazards involved in talking to people about business ideas. People often exaggerate problems if they suspect you are invested in trying to solve it. I recommend reading the book if you go down this route, it will help you craft conversations in a way that exposes the real problems in whatever niche you are investigating.Approach #3: Copy but make it better
Also known as a market driven approach as discussed by Paras Chopra in his great post ‘How to find startup ideas that make money’. This approach is simple:
- Pick an industry that is growing and that interests you;
- Pick a product or service that already has customers in that industry and make sure you have the necessary skills and/or resources to establish yourself as a competitor;
- Make it better in some way.
I like this approach because you skip the risky validation part. That’s not to say it’s any easier to succeed. The fact that there is established competition will make it a lot harder in certain ways. However, the real benefit is that you know there are customers out there willing to pay. The challenge is to simply convince them that your solution is better.
To get started with this approach search for ‘fastest growing industries [enter current year]’ or ‘fastest growing companies [enter current year]’ and look for particular products/services where you could innovate. This approach can work well if you have a strong understanding in two industries where one industry could benefit from the skills you have acquired in the other. The obvious example here is someone who can build web/mobile apps but also works or has relevant knowledge in an unrelated industry.Approach #4: Don't
Don’t try to think up startup ideas. Yeah, I know this contradicts the previous three methods. But if you think about it, does it really? Paul Graham touches on this in his essay - 'How to Get Startup Ideas'. The approach he suggests is to just work on interesting things at the forefront of whatever technology or field you happen to be in or have an interest in and solve the problems you come across. In this way, he says - startups tend to just happen, you don't plan them. The underlying solution is still the same - problem solving, but this approach is problem solving out of interest and not specifically for profitability.
So, if you're not trying to think of startup ideas what‘s the purpose of the other three methods I’ve discussed? That’s a difficult question because there are times when you actually just want to start a business. You’re not sure what you want to start but you know thats what you want to do. In that case you need a structure to ensure your ideas are at the very least semi-viable. That’s what I think the other three approaches are for — ensuring that any ideas you do purposefully come up with stem from a process that solves a problem.
If you’re not in a rush to start a business then by working on projects that interest you at the forefront of some field, it's more likely you’ll create something of real value. It may not always turn out to be a viable business but at least you won’t have wasted your time. Another benefit of only working on things that interest you is that you’ll always have motivation - especially if you can suppress any expectation that your project will become financially profitable.Conclusion
The underlying solution here is to ensure that your ideas stem from existing problems. It’s easy to fall into a trap whereby you generate ideas for non-existent problems simply because you want to build the solution.
A good technique for improving the quality of your ideas is just to practice. At the end of every day or week set aside ten minutes to record all the things that have annoyed you or wasted your time, and then come up with several solutions to each problem - even if they seem unrealistic. Good luck!
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P.S. Leanlab can help you and your team define and develop your startup ideas, please check it out.