They say ideas are cheap, but that's not what I've found. Not great ideas, anyway. If you're full of them, then more power to you. But for the rest of us, I've put together some info that I gathered from research, past experience, and fellow indie hackers.
Let go of common misconceptions about startup ideas
Before you dream up the next big thing, it's important to let go of some common misconceptions.
- Misconception: You need a unique idea. Reality: Few ideas are truly unique. We're all standing on the shoulders of giants. Let go of your need to create something never before seen.
- Misconception: You need a sexy idea. Reality: Most good ideas are very un-sexy. Get out of your ego and make something useful.
- Misconception: You need an idea that could be the next big thing. Reality: They don't all have to be unicorns. There are plenty of makers out there with small businesses that are killing it.
In the same vein, Jason Friedman of YC shared four reasons that would-be entrepreneurs pass on good ideas:
- Fear: An idea is too hard to start. Reality: Fortune favors the bold. If others think it's too hard, that leaves a gap for you. Just look at Stripe.
- Fear: An idea is too boring. Reality: Boring things can be useful. And profitable. But I would add a caveat here. It doesn't matter if it's boring to everyone else. But it does matter if it's boring to you. You'll be putting a lot of time into the idea, so make sure you enjoy it.
- Fear: An idea is too ambitious long-term. Reality: Same deal as the first fear. Dare greatly, then take care of it one step at a time.
- Fear: An idea has too many competitors. Reality: Competition is good. It means people want the product.
Practical techniques for generating great startup ideas
Being able to generate glorious business ideas is a lot like being able to run really far or play a great game of chess. Practice and consistency are key to really excelling, even if you're a natural. Create a practice that strengthens your inner idea generator, and show up every day. “Honor your muse,” as author Elizabeth Gilbert puts it — let inspiration know where and when you’re available for it.
Here are some daily practices that will get things moving:
- Get bored. That's right. Leave time in your schedule to go on autopilot. Do the dishes, fold the laundry, drive — and don't turn on a podcast while you're at it. Your brain will go into what's called "default mode". You'll access your subconscious this way and your brain can make new connections. Daydreaming is good for you!
- Meditate. It clears your mind, takes your ego out of the equation, and makes you more receptive to new ideas. Doing this before brainstorming is helpful, but making a regular practice of it is even better.
- Exercise. This one is pretty similar to meditation, actually. It gets you out of the way so that ideas can flow in. Furthermore, thought often follows physiology. So if you’re feeling antsy, stiff, or stuck in your body, your ideas may have a similar vibe. Get your body moving and your creativity will follow. I've personally had a lot of good ideas while jogging.
- Shower. Hopefully this is already a ~daily practice for you. Some of the best ideas come in the shower, probably because it's a time when muscle memory takes over and your mind can take a break. Make your showers an intentional space for your mind to wander.
- Do some stream-of-consciousness writing. Just sit down every day, set a timer, consider your goal, start writing, and see what comes out. The key is not to stop, even if all you're writing is "I don't know what to write."
- Get a journal and write down every idea that you have. @SethK recommends writing down 10 ideas per day, even if they're terrible. Read them again in a week or a month or a year with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
- Contribute to communities in your industry. People are always talking about their problems, and you might be able to solve them. Check out Indie Hackers, reddit, Facebook groups, Slack, and so on.
More practices that won't necessarily be done regularly (but are a good idea nonetheless):
- Spitball with someone. I mentioned this before but it can be really helpful to bounce ideas off of someone else. I've had some of my best ideas in deep conversations with my wife.
- Analyze existing businesses and think about how you could pivot them to make them better. Eventually, you'll train yourself to find opportunities. @andreboso does this with his Zero to Marketing case studies, and I'd be willing to bet that he's seeing opportunities everywhere by now.
- Make a habit of asking yourself how things could be better in any given situation so that you learn to see the problems that need fixing. Caveat: It's probably best not to go too deeply into this mentality — when you always look at what's wrong, it can be hard to see what's right.
- Ask friends about their problems. You might get some ideas, and holding space for a friend is just a good thing to do anyway :)
- Get inspired by following people who are building in public.
- Subscribe to newsletters that provide you with ideas and market gaps. Good options include @Kevcon80's softwareideas.io, @dru_riley's trends.vc, Gaps, and trends.co.
- Team up. Not everyone is an idea person. If you team up with a visionary, you can combine their vision and your ability to get it done.
- Work at a startup or at the forefront of your field. Many great ideas have come from these places.
And then, of course, there's brainstorming. 👇
How to brainstorm tech startup ideas
The best ideas come organically, but brainstorming is still a valuable tool. When brainstorming to generate ideas, you should:
- Decide whether you'll go it alone or bring someone else along for the journey. This may vary from time to time. Sometimes, a person needs solitude so that they can hear themselves think. Sometimes, bouncing ideas off of someone with a different perspective can lend clarity.
- Find the right location. You're trying to feel inspired, so where does that happen for you? For some, it's sitting on a log in nature. For others, it's in the hustle and bustle of a coffee shop in the city. It just has to be somewhere that makes you feel good. Peaceful. Optimistic. And it should be a place where you're unlikely to be interrupted.
- Take a moment to relax your mind and let go of any stresses. Meditation can be a good way to start. Be present with what you're about to do, regardless of what else is going on in your life. Set a timer if that allows you to focus without looking at the clock. It could be as much as an hour or as little as five minutes.
- Set your intentions for the brainstorming session. That may seem a little woo-woo, and maybe it is. But intention is how we direct action, so I find it helpful to be explicit about my goal(s). When I say to "set your intentions," I mean for the session itself. But this is also a good time to identify your "why," if you haven't already. Why do you want to start a business? You need to know this going in. If you want to save the world, your ideas will be very different from if you want to make a quick buck.
- Start thinking about problems. What frustrates you? Problems should always come before solutions when it comes to good business ideas. Let your mind wander a bit and jot down every issue that comes to mind.
- Then explore the problems and find solutions. Allow any idea that comes to mind. This is not the time for judgement. Just write it down — you can be discerning later. Ask yourself (or your partner) questions to draw out your thoughts and ideas.
If you're drawing a blank, try these prompts:
- Think about the future. What is changing? Trends, technologies, platforms, niches — what's next? Then ask yourself how you can build for that.
- Think about what bugs you in your work (and life). What would make things easier?
- Think about your skills. What are you good at? What is your unfair advantage? How could that be applied to new fields?
- Think about people who makes you envious. What are they doing? How can you do something similar?
- Think about what you loved as a kid. Why did you love it? What did you want to be? What does that mean to you now?
- Think about what would be exciting to work on for the next 10 years, even if it wasn't very successful.
- Think about what industries are broken and ripe for disruption.
- Think about how you can combine two ideas to make them better. Sometimes 1+1=3.
- Think about businesses that you've seen in other countries. Is there a business doing something abroad that would be popular where you live?
- If you've worked as a freelancer, think about how to make your service irrelevant.
- And check out lots of other idea prompts in this article
If all else fails, stop brainstorming. Don't even consider a startup idea for a while. Sometimes it's like forgetting what you were going to say — you'll often find it when you stop looking.
The wildcard: How to get inspired
The obvious wildcard here is inspiration. Uninspired ideas can work, but in my experience, they take more effort. Inspired ideas seem to take on a life of their own — instead of pushing a boulder up a hill, you end up running alongside it, giving it nudges in the right direction.
So, how do you find that deep well of inspiration that resides within? A lot of smart people have been trying to crack that nut for a long time. The short (and uninspired) answer is that it's different for everyone — you'll have to find your own muse.
How? Next time you have a good idea, note what you're doing. Then keep an eye on that activity and see if having ideas becomes a trend. Or, if ideas aren't coming to you at all, do something you love. People tend to be more inspired when they're happy, after all. Traveling is great hack because it makes a lot of people happy while also providing a change of scenery.
Once you've found your muse, optimize your life for it. Do more of what inspires you.
Evaluate your idea — is it great?
You don't necessarily want to go with the first idea you have. And you don't want to wait forever until the perfect idea comes along either. It's all about finding a balance. So once you've got a solid idea or two, it's time to evaluate them and decide whether they're worth pursuing.
Friedman suggests rating the following criteria on a scale of 1-10:
- Could the idea be big? The easiest way to figure this out is to look at competitors and see how they're doing. Another caveat here. Big ideas are great, but I wouldn't use this as the deciding factor. Small ideas are cool too.
- Is there founder/market fit? In other words, are you an expert in the field?
- Do you have personal experience with the problem that you're trying to solve?
- Are you bringing something new to the table?
Bonus points if you're scratching your own itch or doing something that only recently became possible. And, of course, you should make sure the idea is feasible given your resources (time, money, etc.). If it isn't, that's not a deal breaker, but you'll have to get creative.
I find it helpful to let an idea sit for a while — both the good ones and the bad. Jot the whole thing down, including every little detail that popped into your mind. Then set a reminder to reevaluate it in a couple of weeks. Let it incubate. A week or two later, take another look. Is it a good idea now? Did new ideas or improvements come to you?
Then all you've got to do is make a decision. Easy, right? 😅
What to do after coming up with a great idea?
The final step is actual validation in the market. That's beyond the scope of this post so I'll leave it at this: Do it as soon as possible. Like, before-you-even-start-building soon. And then keep validating.