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How to Come Up With Startup Ideas Worth Pursuing

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This post is part of a series called Launching a Startup.
Recruiting a Team of Founders: How to Attract Talent to Your Idea
The Lean, Agile Way to Build Your First Product

Somewhere along the continuum of the art versus science debate lies the topic of startup idea generation. It’s easy to draw the connection of an idea to a creative or artistic process—as any thought or idea is in and of itself a creation. But recent movements sparked by Lean Startup and Agile Methodology proponents suggest that taking an iterative approach to both developing and validating ideas can greatly increase the chance that what once began as a simple idea could be transformed into a valuable organization, company, or movement one day.

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Stuck for ideas? This tutorial will help. Image source: Envato Elements

This article marks the beginning of the “Launch a Startup” series, where we’ll explore everything that goes on before you publicly launch your new company. The first step to creating something from nothing is uncovering the idea to do so. And so to kick off the series, I’ll present you with a framework for generating startup ideas worth pursuing.

Of course, it’s ultimately up to you to determine if something is worth doing or not. So it’s best to consider this framework as one dedicated ‘self-validation tool’ in your toolbox. Subsequent posts will address external (or market) validation, building a founding team, developing a product or service, and the launching of your startup. But first, it all starts with questioning to uncover ideas with potential.

Question 1: What Are You Passionate About?

In your quest to have good ideas, you’ll need to embrace focus. And if you’re anything like me, focus and passion go hand in hand. That is, if I care about something deeply, I’m far more likely to spend quite a bit of time thinking about it, which turns out to be a good thing in considering how to generate actionable ideas. 

The good news is that you probably don’t have to ruminate on this question too much. If you’re passionate about your current job, your hobbies, or any other facet of your life, then you have at least one starting point. List these out and prioritize them to help you remain focused in your idea generating efforts.

The bad news is that without passion, you’re not likely to get very far. Your ideas  as good as they may be  will sit on the shelf. This is why venture capitalists often cite passion in founders as one of the key criterion by which they judge a startup’s potential. So, if it’s one of those days where you’re feeling particularly uninspired or lacking in the passion department, use that time to embrace your inner intellectual curiosity. Learn. Read. Do. Passions are developed; we’re not born with them.

For more on passion, the concept (and positivity) of ideas, as well as motivation to help you get started on your idea generation quest, head over to James Altucher’s blog.

Question 2: Where Is the Pain?

Having successfully focused in on your areas of interest, the next step is to explore areas of extreme pain within those categories. That is, areas that present problems and—in turnopportunities for improvement. To effectively make this leap, you may have to get a bit more specific than you were in answering the first question.

For example, let’s say you’re passionate about education. What’s wrong with education? How can it be improved? In general, the answers to these questions are going to be very high-level (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). You may, however, find that a more helpful way to approach education might be to break it down into smaller sub-categories. 

Accepting that everything is ultimately interconnected to some degree, better clarity (and more actionable ideas) typically flows from identifying the pain points for one specific group (e.g. preschool, collegiate mathematics, grade school applications, etc.).

The more painful and prevalent a problem is, the greater the need for a solution. The greater the need for a solution, the more likely it is that people or companies will pay for one, and the more likely you can build a business from that solution.

An important distinction to make, however, is that not all problems are painful. I call those empty opportunities. If you fall into the trap of pursuing an empty opportunity—one that isn’t built on a painful problem—you’ll quickly find that no one cares about your solution and, as a result, no one will pay you for your solution. 

A good way to avoid the empty opportunity mistake (which is one of the most common causes of startup failure) is to solve for a painful problem that you experience personally, either in the workplace or in your personal life. This way, the associated risk is not related to whether or not you’re solving a real problem but, rather, how many other people experience the problem you have.

Check out Paul Graham’s essay on taking a problem-solving approach to generating startup ideas.

Question 3: How Is This Pain Currently Being Alleviated?

After you’ve identified some pain points within your field of passion, the next step is to start digging on existing solutions. In other words, what companies would you be competing with if you had an idea that solved your identified problem(s)?

This step of the process is a double-edged sword, to be sure. If there is absolutely no one else out there working on solving the same problem you are, you invariably must ask yourself whether or not the pain is deep and widespread enough to be considered real. 

I personally subscribe to the notion that the startup market, mirroring the overall economy, is fairly efficient. This means that by the time a ‘real’ problem is recognizable, there are already some existing solutions available (some created specifically to address this problem, and some that could be considered substitute-type products or services). This is why startup success is often rightfully attributed to execution and not the originality of the founding idea.

On the flip side, if there are many other solutions to the pain you’ve identified, you’ve validated that the pain is real but will inevitably face competition that has a head start on you in solving it.

I’d caution against doing a single Google search, looking at the top 20 results, and coming to a premature conclusion on the competitive landscape. Instead, tap your network, subscribe to related blog material, and allow yourself to be informed over days, weeks, months or longer—not seconds or minutes. With a thorough, open-minded approach, you’ll be developing domain expertise that can further feed your idea generating powers.

Question 4: Can It Be Done Better, Faster, or Cheaper? 

With a solid understanding of the existing solutions to the problems you’re passionate about solving, you’re now in a position to assess the opportunity. The opportunity can be defined as the delta between the existing solution and a ‘perfect’ solution. That is, how much room for improvement exists? Perfection would perhaps eliminate the problem and the associated pain forever, for all people and companies. Outside of healthcare, there are very few clear-cut examples of ‘perfect’ solutions.

Of course, this step of the idea generation process is highly subjective. What may be a sufficient solution to you may not be passable to someone else. This is where you’ll want to rely on your domain expertise to adequately flesh these assumptions out.

Should you see an opportunity for improvement, what is it? Are you improving efficiency? Are you improving a product or service? Are you making an existing solution available for a new demographic? Are you making an existing solution available for cheaper? If even one of these areas can be addressed, you may be able to generate a good idea. If, on the other hand, you can address multiple problem areas with a single solution, you may be able to generate a great idea.

This discussion on Quora can give you some insight as to the different approaches people take in considering startup opportunities.  

Question 5: Can You Do It Better, Faster, or Cheaper?

If you’ve made it this far, you’re on the brink of an idea that might not be terrible. The last step in the process is to have an honest discussion with yourself. This is the discussion that separates the dreamers from the doers. The question is, can you take the opportunity to solve a painful problem you’re passionate about and do something about it? If the answer is “Yes, here’s how:”, what follows is your idea.

At this stage, don’t concern yourself with how right, wrong, good, or bad your idea is. Your idea(s) will undoubtedly evolve over time. The important thing is to have the idea itself. Write it down. Sleep on it. If, a week later, you find that that seed of an idea has grown into something that occupies your mind at all hours of the night, it might be time to take the next step.

Go Forth and Ideate

There are a few really important things to keep in mind as you explore the idea generation process.

Most (good) ideas we have in life are probably not the result of a deliberate idea generation process. I’d call that organic idea generation—or, more simply, thinking. 

Organic idea generation likely includes breezing through some or all of the steps in this article subconsciously, to the extent that the ultimate idea you have seems very obvious at the moment that it pops into your head. In the realm of startup idea generation, this happens all of the time. It usually flows in a format similar to this: 

  • You encounter a problem. 
  • You construct a solution that alleviates the associated pain. 
  • It dawns on you: “Maybe I could sell this solution to others!” 

The underlying concept, however, stays the same, that problem-solving is the key.

Ideas (even great ones) are not easily translated into burgeoning startups. However, the more ideas you have, the greater the likelihood you have of identifying and taking action on a strong opportunity. It’s a great habit to dedicate yourself to strengthening your ‘idea muscle,’ as this also increases the likelihood that one of your organic ideas can be self-validated using a framework like the one provided in this article.

Henry Ford once famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Bottom line, we’re all opinionated—sometimes to the detriment of those trying to change things. And so while idea-centric feedback is certainly important, it’s perhaps equally important to take input from others with a grain or two of salt. 

Ideas are fragile. They come and go. But if you allow criticism to derail you at this stage, you’ll find yourself stuck on the idea treadmill unable to ever move forward. On their own, ideas are worthless. What stems from them, however, are the things that change the world.

We’ll look at idea validation in the context of determining the viability of your potential world-changing startup in the next article.


Graphic Credit: Light Bulb designed by Dani Rolli from the Noun Project.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2014. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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