How do you come up with the next idea like Mark Zuckerburg with Facebook, Elon Musk with
Tesla, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia with AirBNB, or Garrett Camp with Uber? I have been asked
many times how to come up with a great business idea. After more research I believe this is one
of the biggest barriers to young entrepreneurs. It all starts with the idea, but how do you come up
with the next great thing?
Businesses Solve Problems
A useful tool is something that solves a problem. A few years ago someone was frustrated by not
being able to join two boards, so they invented a nail and figured out something to use to drive
that nail; the birth of the hammer. The real challenge of a great idea is making it personal. It isn’t
finding just some problem to fix, it is finding the problem that you would love to fix.
Keep a “Problem Journal”
Carry a small notebook in your pocket. Every time you come across a problem write it down.
Examples are “I hate scraping my windows” or “I hate sweeping” or “I hate waiting for taxis” or “I
can’t pay rent” or “I hate hotels”. There are so many problems in the world, large and small. Just
consciously thinking of these problems as opportunities has led to great companies and products
like Roomba, Uber, and AirBNB (the latter two being billion dollar companies). This all possible
because of an idea!
Solve Everyday Problems
About ten years ago, before I had the guts to go for it in entrepreneurship, I had a great idea. I
lived in Wisconsin. They call it the frozen tundra for a reason. It was the middle of the winter and it
just dumped about 8 inches of snow. As I was trying to warm up the car enough to de-ice the
windshield so I could scrape it, I thought “wouldn’t it be awesome have something that you could
just lay over the windshield before it snows that you could just pull off when you are ready to leave
in the morning and never have to freeze your hands off as you scrape a window again?” But I
never acted. This is a real problem and I thought of a real solution, but never tried to build a
prototype to test the idea, something that would have cost me less than $50 to do. I have recently
seen products on the market that do this exact thing. $50 and no follow through cost me
potentially the opportunity of building that great idea into a very successful business.
Take your ideas from your journal and read through them. Which one drives you crazy? How can
you fix it? If no great idea comes to you, go to the next one. Make drawings and follow through on
testing your idea by building a prototype and using it yourself. Make changes to improve your
solution. The point is solve YOUR problem first, then work on solving it for others. If it’s a common
problem your potential customer base is huge and people will easily identify with your offering.
This is how the unicorn businesses of Uber and AirBNB came to be.
Find a Problem You’re Passionate About
Business is not easy. You need to enjoy your work and feel passionate about the problem you are
fixing so you can sell your idea to others. I mean sell in the literal sense and the figurative. You
have to build passion for your idea in other people, get their buy-in the problem and solution.
So, what problem to you hate to face every day? What drives you bonkers? (Yeah, I’m bringing
back bonkers.) This passion is the key to the rest of the development. You have to have
something that will drive you through in the tough days of building the business. Yes, there will be
tough days, but so many more great ones if you love your idea!
Create A Problem
Some of the greatest startups come from problems people didn’t even know they had. It’s
innovation. Many entrepreneurs fail to come up with a great idea, because they don’t even really
consider what is possible. To know what is possible, one must learn and expand their context. I
am primarily a real estate guy and I can solve a lot of problems because I have studied a ton. I
know the perceived limits and I love to push them. That is what a great start up does. You have to
push the limits of something you love.
Innovate and Challenge the Status Quo
Some great examples of my point are Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Tesla. What do all of these
companies have in common? Innovation and being one of the originals in their market. They
created a problem and solved it. Before Apple and Microsoft, people were just fine working they
way they did. The status quo was comfortable, but once these men that were crazy enough to
conceive of a world with a working computer sitting on every desk in every office in the world.
This computing power was not just limited to large corporations any more. Now a small business
can compete with large ones. Look how this one idea changed the world!
LEARN, LEARN, LEARN
You have to be committed to the idea enough that you are hungry to learn everything about it.
This is the most important part of the puzzle. Doing a lot of research and learning to expand your
context is like building the edge of the puzzle first: it gives you the basis to build everything else.
You have to learn the market. What retailers would carry your product (if physical) or how you will
get it in the hands of as many people as you can so you can solve the problem for them? Who is
your ideal customer? Who are your competitors? How much would you pay to solve that problem?
Go out and ask people. Start with friends and family, but then get out to malls or areas where your
ideal customers would hang out. Read books, magazines, and online articles like this one to
continually improve your knowledge. I will write another article on this another day.
The most useful startup idea is one
2.that solves a problem that drives you bonkers
3.that you can produce on a large scale.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Just remember,
people want their problems solved. Do that and you will have a great business!