How to Come Up With a Business Idea in 5 Steps

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businessideaIn the last article in our series of how to start a successful business, we discussed how to determine if starting a business is right for you.  If the answer to that question was “yes”, then the next step in the process is how to come up with a business idea, the topic of today’s article.  Here is a handy checklist you can use as you go through the article.

Step 1: Get Your “Idea Muscle” in shape.

There are many people that want to start their own business, but draw a blank when it comes to deciding what business they want to start.  People having this issue often feel that some people are born with the ability to come up with good ideas and some are not.

I used to think the same thing, but then I read How to Have Great Ideas, an article by one of my favorite bloggers James Altucher.  In the article James explains that the ability to come up with ideas is like a muscle, and just like any muscle, it atrophies when it is not used.

With the above in mind, Step 1 of how to come up with a business idea is about getting your idea muscle back into shape.  To do this James recommends coming up with a list of 10 new ideas each day.  As you go through this step keep in mind the following:

  • Your daily lists do not have to be about starting a business.  They can be about anything, like 10 places to go on vacation or 10 ideas for new comic book heros.  They can also vary from day to day.  The main thing is that you start “working out” your idea muscle.
  • There is no set period of time.  How long this step takes is going to depend on how much your idea muscle has atrophied.  You will know when you are ready to move on to the next step when coming up with the list each day is easy.

Step 2: Start making lists of problems that need solving.

Now that you have gotten your idea muscle in shape, its time to start coming up with lists that will help you narrow in on your business idea.  However, as legendary venture capitalist Paul Graham notes in his article How to Come Up With Startup Ideas:

The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.

By starting with lists of problems that need solving, instead of a list of potential business ideas, you avoid coming up with a business idea that solves a problem no one has.

As Graham also points out in the above article:

…by far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.

Its important to note here that the term “problem” is being used in a very general sense.  For the purposes of this exercise not being able to find a cool bandana for your dog to wear, is just as legitimate a problem as not having food to eat.

Also, don’t worry about whether or not you think you can solve the problem, we’ll get to that in the next step.

Here are 5 ideas on how to come up with your lists of problems that need solving:

  1. Be present.  If you are currently just going through the motions of your day to day then you need to turn your mind back on and start thinking about what is going on around you. Step 1 should also help with this.
  2. Make note of the things that bug you as you go through your day to day.
  3. Listen to people who complain instead of tuning them out.
  4. Ask people what bugs them.
  5. Talk to your current customers.  If you deal with customers in your current job apply steps 3 and 4 here as well.  If you don’t, ask people you know who do what their customers complain about.

Step 3: Come up with lists of solutions to those problems.

You should now have plenty of problems listed, so the next step is to start going through and coming up with solutions to those problems.

If you have 1 or more people whose opinions you respect, then it may be good to bring them into the room with you for this step.   Collaboration often helps the brainstorming process.

Don’t let the problems you can’t think of a solution to slow you down, when you hit a wall with a particular problem just move on to the next.  Also, like with any brainstorming session, there are no bad ideas just throw everything you think of out and filter out the good ones later.

Step 4: Come up with your list of business ideas.

Now that you have your list of problems and solutions to those problems its time to identify which sets of problems and solutions are potential businesses.

For example, let’s say that one problem that you came up with is having dry air in your apartment during the winter.  If the solution that you came up with is to put a pot of water by the heater, that’s probably not a business idea.  However, if your solution was to build a better humidifier, then that is a business idea.

Step 5: Filter by what you are passionate about.

Starting a successful business takes a lot of drive and persistence, and is likely to take at least a few years.  This is why people who choose to start businesses that they are not passionate about, generally give up after hitting the stumbling blocks and challenges that come with getting any new business off the ground.

It certainly also helps if the idea that you choose is either directly or indirectly related to the industry you currently work in.  However, while I know successful founders who started businesses outside of the industry they were working in before they left their jobs, I don’t know any successful founders that seemed board with their business while they were building it.  With this in mind, passion trumps experience.

That’s our article for today.  If you have any questions or comments please leave them in the comments section below.  Also be sure to read the next article in this series, where we discuss how to test your new business idea to see if there is demand.

Also: You should consider creating a business plan which will help provide the framework for researching and articulating your idea. We recommend: LivePlan

More articles on how to come up with a successful business idea:  

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