How to Find an Idea for Your Startup, Even If You Don’t Know Where to Start

This post is part of a collaborative blogging effort at Startup Edition. This week’s edition is about what inspired you to start your startup.

If you’re like me, the startup Gods didn’t bless you with a magical idea that was “love at first site.” Maybe you came up with an idea or two in the shower. Or maybe a buddy had a decent idea that you modified to make your own.

In fact, I didn’t have any aspirations of becoming an entrepreneur until a fateful internship my junior year of college with a megacorp. So I never even thought once about what kind of startup or company I’d like to run someday.

It was only after that internship that I learned corporate America wasn’t for me and I started exploring non-traditional career paths. I started developing real ideas about what I wanted to do with my life’s energy. Ideas I could build a team around.

If you don’t have ideas on what startup you’d like to build or the type of company you’d want to create, I definitely get it.

And if ideas don’t come naturally for you but you know you do want to start something someday what do you do? Here’s how I learned how to develop and analyze ideas, a process that eventually lead to starting Zapier.

Building Your Idea Muscle

Coming up with good ideas is a skill. It’s not something you’ll be good at if you’ve never practiced coming up with good ideas. Just like you won’t be good at playing the piano the first time you sit down at one. And just like you need to practice to get good at the piano, the best way to get good at coming up with ideas is to come up with a lot of ideas.

Here’s a few ways to practice coming up with ideas:

  1. Generate 10 ideas every morning: Fellow blogger, James Altucher, does this by coming up with a list of 10 ideas every morning. In 30 days you’ll have 300 ideas. Most will be terrible. Some will be decent. Even fewer will be really good. But it’s a starting point.

  2. Hang out with people who have lots of ideas: Both my co-founders Bryan and Mike generate an insane amount of ideas. Before we started Zapier, Bryan and I would have lunch many days at our day gig. Nearly every conversation was about startup ideas. Some big. Some small. Some easy. Some hard.

  3. Practice being observant: Every time you do something (anything at all) pay attention to what sucks. But also pay attention to good things too. Over time you’ll start to identify things that you really like in one industry, but really suck in another. You’ll start to find ideas that could make great companies.

  4. Go search for them: Go visit online forums. Google anything under the sun. Explore other products sites. What are people complaining about for those products? How can you build a business out of other people’s problems?

The idea for Zapier was a combination of all these methods. Bryan, Mike and I use a lot of web products and had built a few ourselves before starting Zapier. One thing we independently noticed was that people complain about integrations on almost every SaaS forum [tips 3 & 4]. Because we generated ideas with each other, we realized this was a common problem all of us had independently noticed [2]. And because we generated a ton of ideas, we had a hint that this was one of the better ones that we had.

Identifying Good Ideas

Just because you can generate ideas, doesn’t mean you can differentiate the good ones from the bad. In fact, that problem is why Eric Ries has been able to generate a million dollar publishing opportunity for teaching people how to identify good ideas and bad ideas. [Sidenote: checkout The Lean Startup. It’s an excellent book on this topic by Eric].

So how exactly can you figure out which ideas you’ve uncovered are actually good ideas?

  1. Be curious: Ask a lot of questions. Figure out how things work. Understand what people like and what they don’t like.

  2. Try things: Experiment with everything. You’ll find things you like and things you don’t like.

  3. Read a lot: Plenty of entrepreneurs have come before us. A lot of them have been kind enough to share their experiences in books, interviews, blog posts, biographies and more. Learn from them.

  4. Spend time with successful people from all walks of life. Spend time with other great entrepreneurs. But don’t limit yourself to just entrepreneurs. Also spend time with good operators, marketers, musicians, athletes, artists, mechanics, etc. Just make sure they are successful. They’ve all learned a thing or two about a specific area of expertise. Each will have a slightly different way of thinking about things. You can use this to identify good ideas from bad.

These four things will give you a leg up on figuring out ideas that are good. As soon as I realized that working in corporate America wasn’t going to be the right thing for me, I had a mild crisis.

Everything I had been planning for in life might have been leading me in the wrong direction. What the heck should I do now?

These are the four things I did. I started talking to a lot of people who were doing odd career paths. I started working in marketing at a small startup in Columbia, MO. I loaded up my Google Reader with blogs from all areas of life. I started attending local meetups for startups, developers, design, everything under the sun. I started learning to code with the help of my now co-founder, Bryan, and I even picked up my saxophone after a few months off and started playing jazz again.

By doing all those things I got exposed to a ton of different ideas, opinions, people, and ways of life. As a result, I still can’t identify a good idea right off the bat, but I’m much better at identifying the ones that stink.

Are You The Right Person?

Just because you’ve found what could be a good idea doesn’t mean you’re the right person for the job. I’d love to be doing what Elon Musk is doing with SpaceX. I read every book in my elementary school library about space growing up, but I don’t know the slightest thing about the challenges it takes to grow and build a company like SpaceX.

If you come up with a good idea, it still has to be something you can execute on for it to be a good idea. For an idea to be a good fit for you, you’ll need to have a pretty good starting point for:

  • How to market the idea
  • Who the end customers are
  • How to build it
  • How to scale it

You don’t have to have all the answers today. But you need to know where to start or where to find someone who can help you with these things.

With Zapier, we’d all built SaaS services before and we knew how to sell long tail products. Not only did we know Zapier was a good idea, but we knew it was something we could build and sell. The exact implementation details were pretty murky, but we didn’t spend years mucking around trying to figure this stuff out.

Do You Like The Idea?

You have a good idea and you might have the skillset to build a company around that idea. But if you don’t like the idea and if you aren’t excited about it, the company still won’t go anywhere.

You need to be excited about the idea. You need to want to work on it almost every day. You need to be certain that ten years from now you’ll still want to get up and work on building whatever widget or product you chose to build.

My co-founders and I all get excited about SaaS. I am particularly jazzed about building systems and processes to get things done more efficiently (that’s part of the reason I majored in Industrial Engineering in college in the first place, even though I haven’t done much with the degree to date). What better thing for me to work on than a SaaS product that does exactly those two things?

Nailing the Trifecta

If you are able to find a good idea, make sure it fits your skill set and that it’s something you get excited about, you’ll have found something worth spending time on.

It’s likely not something you’ll find overnight. I knew I wanted to start a real company (not my piddly freelancing LLCs) two years before I started Zapier.

But once you find a good idea, don’t be afraid to go for it. You’ll learn so much along the way. For me, even if Zapier fails (which seems unlikely at this point), I’ll have accomplished something most people never do: starting.

Thanks to StartupEdition for including me in this collaborative blogging experiment. Check out everyone’s answers to What inspired you to startup your startup?

P.S for Help

Need some extra motivation to start generating ideas? These Zaps can help.


Posted on May 14th, 2013

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