First off, startup ideas themselves are next to worthless. Paul Graham wrote an incredible essay about the face value of startup ideas that takes an economically analytical approach by stating, “Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there’s no market for startup ideas suggests there’s no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.” Execution is the main value inherent in a startup, not the idea itself. Ideas change with the market’s feedback. Pivots happen when opportunities are recognized and executed upon.
With that premise established, ideas still serve a purpose. They provide starting points that act as platforms for future pivots of nascent ideas. The process of idea generation is itself a task with great benefit, regardless of the result. The thought processes and brain power used to invent something where previously there was nothing, are great exercises for one’s brain. These methods and exercises will help to train one’s brain in coming up with creative solutions to the endless queue of near-impossible problems that startups inevitably produce.
Before getting started, get yourself a dedicated idea slate. It could be a moleskin notebook, a $0.78 pocket notebook, or even a note on your iPhone. Once you have your idea slate, use it. Whenever you have an idea for a startup, write it down. By not writing ideas down, they will continue to infect every future idea you have. By writing it down, you get it out of your head and it frees up the neurons to focus on the next idea. Write down every idea you have, no matter how bad or implausible you think it is. Ideas have a way of coming full circle and some missing piece of information from your seed idea may present itself six months down the road.
If possible, try to write your ideas as questions instead of assertions.[1. Instead of, “I’m going to build a great photo-sharing app” consider saying “How could I build a great photo-sharing app?”] This accomplishes a couple of things. First, it prevents the immediate response that 99.9% of people have when they hear an entrepreneur say they’re starting a business: “It won’t work.” Instead, a question elicits the audience and yourself to truly think through the intricate details of your idea. It entices your audience to help you think of ways to make it work.
Lastly, don’t ever let yourself use the phrase, “If it was really that good of an idea, someone would have thought of it already.” That statement is bullshit and it cripples the person who believes it. I can’t remember where I read this[2. I think it was from Napoleon Hill’s Think & Grow Rich – free on iBooks.], but “Nothing in the world is being done as good as it can be.” At risk of sounding like a high school guidance counselor, people can be anybody they want if they believe in themselves.
Idea Generation Methods
With the right mindset and forum for saving ideas in hand, test out some of the following methods of idea generation:
1. Watch a random TED talk.
2. Watch a random Mixergy interview.
3. Read Business Model Generation.[3. The ‘Design’ section especially has some incredible exercises on….business model generation.]
4. Flip to a random page in your idea slate and write, “It sucks when…” on the top and then fill it up with everything that annoys you. Many of those annoyances could be turned into products or services.
5. Look through the customer service sections of websites and find out what people are complaining about.
6. Look at the ideas that the YCombinator wants to fund.
7. Ask yourself, “What type of business would you want to run if there was absolutely no chance of failure?”
8. Look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t suck.
9. Paul Graham once said, “One of my tricks for generating startup ideas is to imagine the ways in which we’ll seem backward to future generations.”
10. Ask random people that you meet what the biggest annoyances in their lives and jobs are.[4. I especially enjoy doing this at the hair salon – they must have the same boring conversation with every single client so they’re usually happy to mix things up.]
11. Look for new opportunities out of the new changes that are taking place (Twitter, HackerNews, Quora, Google+, Mixergy, TED , iTunesU are good sources for inspiration).
12. Glance through the different Craigslist categories. It surprisingly might spark an idea for a startup.[5. The “Gigs” section may be especially insightful as many people are immediately looking for solutions.]
13. Ask yourself, “What’s never been done by anyone?”
14. Take something apart and put it back together.
15. Look at where your industries and markets of interest are going.[6. Mark Suster says, “Don’t skate to where the puck is, because it will be gone by the time you get there. Skate to where the puck is going.”]
16. Look at the most commonly searched phrases on Google and Amazon.
17. Stay up to date on your fields of interest as this will continuously spark new ideas.
18. Think of ways to do things that are completely different than how we do them now – don’t worry about how – just figure out how to make them better.
19. Explore the world around you. Change your surroundings. Visit new companies. Take a trip. Experience new things.
20. Watch the Kevin Rose foundation series.
21. Inventory your skills, interests and resources to determine what you’re most qualified to do. (Also, ask others what your skills and interests are – you may be surprised by their responses.)[7. This is similar to a concept known as effectuation that I plan to cover more deeply in the future.]
22. Look through your bank statement to see where your money is going. (Could you be doing any of those tasks better? Cheaper?)
23. Try out some scientifically proven psychological creativity techniques.
I’m sure that I have missed many methods of idea generation, but these are the ones that I have personally found productive.
Follow me on Twitter @startuprob.
UPDATE: This list wouldn’t be complete without The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, it’s incredible for fostering the activities that lead to innovative creativity.