Out of the ether: Where do startup ideas actually come from?

You’ve heard the smug CEO interviews and seen it portrayed in movies: the moment of profound epiphany. The eureka moment, the apple falling on the head. The spark of inspiration in a dream, on a drive, or over a pint down the pub. But do ideas really appear like this in the real world? Or do they take a little more effort?

The next world-changing idea won’t be a random brainwave that went viral all by itself. It will likely be the final step of a thousand mile journey. 

Great ideas take serious strategy and a ton of hard work.

Some people are ideas men/women. Some people are natural-born founders and leaders. The categories don’t always overlap. 

If you’re in the latter group, struggling to find your eureka moment, remember this: it doesn’t matter what you think people want, only what people actually want. Ideas don’t come from a lucky guess, they come from dogged searching, industry understanding, and a lot of market research. 

To get you started down the path, here are five sources of startup ideas, as noted in the Harvard Business Review:

  • Solve a pain point you experienced in your own life. Finding a solution to solve a personal problem has led to more business ideas than anything in history.
  • Turn your own passion into a business. Passions, hobbies, and personal talents are a great place to identify things you might be able to do better than anyone else, and solve a burning problem in the process.
  • Identify a paradigm shift in an industry you understand. All those years you thought you were wasting your life in a corporate role might not have been wasted at all. Maybe they were exactly what you needed to recognise a great idea in a not-so-obvious market segment.
  • Brainstorm with friends to come up with a great idea. Sometimes a braintrust can lead to an epiphany if you use a process of elimination to narrow down to a single business idea.

Is there such a thing as a bad idea? (yes)

Opinions about how to find ideas for a new startup abound. But perhaps the most successful method is not to look for ideas at all.

Consider this, as a future founder your first accomplishment will be to find a worthy problem. Something that’s a substantial pain point to enough people that it deserves a creative solution. 

You can simplify the process by starting out in a business sector that you’re already experienced in. If you know the industry, you might have already witnessed customer problems that you’re uniquely qualified to solve. You’ll be more likely to know if your idea is viable, and the market landscape will be familiar. You might also possess the technical skills or know people who do, and have the contacts to put together a great team.

Classic mistakes new founders make often revolve around being attached to your idea

Checking your ego at the door is worthy advice. Don’t let yourself get so wrapped up in an idea that you feel wounded if it doesn’t pass the litmus test.

Control your enthusiasm to solve too many problems at once. Better to refine your ideas to a focused niche and a well-defined market.

Good =!= sustainable  

As was the case of Quibi, which had a marvelous idea for a smartphone-formatted streaming service. Think TikTok for films and TV. 

Launched by Jeffrey Katzenberg – previously a Walt Disney exec and DreamWorks co-founder – and Meg Whitman, they had major Hollywood support. 

It was a startup with ample funding, an experienced team, and a solid premise. But it wasn’t enough to fend off lower cost rivals, like YouTube, and competing launches from Apple, and Comcast. 

Bad timing was probably the ultimate nail in the coffin, as the coronavirus pandemic pushed their target market subscribers out of the on-the-move environments the service was designed for, and parked them in front of their home TVs.

On the opposite end of that thought, even bad ideas can work out. Who would have thought renting airbeds in your living room to strangers was a good idea? Nobody. Even the guy who thought it up, Brian Chesky (CEO of AirBnB). 

Investors hated it too, except for the one guy who funded it, Paul Graham, and he didn’t like the idea. 

But he liked the founders. 

Good =!= profitable 

It’s critical to test your ideas and take an accurate read on your market potential. Don’t underestimate the value of engaging a tough Red Team, and embrace the notion of having your ideas challenged.   

It’s an easy trap to fall into – thinking of a great idea, and wanting to jump directly into the build. But before you start working on execution, you’ll be better served to pause and put your market and the problem you’re trying to solve under a microscope.

Assess whether your idea fulfills a real-world need of consumers. Does it revolutionize the user experience? Is there an emotional need it soothes? Is the market big enough to scale up and turn it into a billion dollar business? Does it have a long lifetime horizon?

These are the questions that need answering to craft, create, fund, and launch the next world-changing idea.

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Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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