Generating Startup Ideas (Startup Challenge – Part 1)

Last week I announced that I would be taking on the Startup Challenge:

Try to take a start-up idea as far as you can without building a thing.

So I’m kicking off my efforts by launching into a startup ideas brainstorming session.

An idea generating process

Successful startups (and good designs) all start out as a “big idea”. While thinking of startup ideas seems easy in theory, it is difficult in practice. How do you generate an idea? And how can you tell when you’ve found a good one?

Previously, I reviewed some of the literature on generating ideas, and found that….

  • good ideas come from experience,
  • ideas can be generated by following a process (or template),  and
  • initial ideas can be made better with research.

In this post I’ll take on the second item on that list: the process. After some research, I created this simple process as a way to generate and explore different startup ideas. It looks something like this:

  1. Think about an audience you want to cater your new business to
  2. Generate a list of problems that audience faces
  3. Brainstorm possible solutions
  4. Repeat steps 1 thru 3 until you have a large collection of ideas to evaluate

Full disclosure: This process is untested. It is a template I created for myself after reading a lot of articles on brainstorming and startups. So I can’t make any claims, like, “this process is guaranteed to generate million dollar business ideas!” However, I can say that following some sort of process is going to generate more ideas than if you just sat around waiting for them to fall into your head.

Step 1 – Audiences

To kick start our startup idea brainstorming session, we are going to focus on audiences we care about.

Start by creating a short list of audiences, or target markets, you are interested in. Give the audience a name as well as a brief description. Try to stay away from broad generalities, like “millennials” or “men in their 50’s”. Instead, try to think of audiences that have a number of unique, distinguishable characteristics.

Here are some of the audiences I came up with in my own brainstorming exercise:

  • men and women in their mid-60s who have recently retired
  • young moms who recently gave birth to an infant
  • entrepreneurs who do not live in one of the big hubs (ie. Silicon Valley or New York)

Step 2 – Problems

Then, we are going to think of problems this particular audience faces. Try to be exhaustive and list as many problems as possible.

You’ve probably picked audiences that you are familiar with in some way, but it is still useful to do some additional research. Check-out discussions on different online communities your audience frequents, and read some articles in periodicals they are likely to read.

For example, for my first audience, “men and women in their mid-60s who have recently retired.” I decided to check out AARP. After browsing those articles I came across their Disrupt Aging initiative, which is ripe with information on the problems people face when it comes to retirement and aging.

Step 3 – Solutions

Once you have a list of problems, review each of them and try to think of a potential solution. It is okay to have multiple solution ideas for one problem, or to have the same solution apply to multiple problems. And if you can’t think of a solution for a particular problem, that’s okay too. Just leave it blank for now, you may come back to it later.

Remember, try not to self edit and discard “dumb” ideas before you even write them down. The golden rule of brainstorming is that there is no such thing as a bad idea. And you never know, those dumb ideas might actually turn into something worthwhile. (I mean, someone thought of the Pet Rock, right?)

Step 4 – Repeat

And lastly, rinse and repeat.

Whenever you feel like you’ve run out of ideas for one audience, move on to the next one. You can move back and forth between your different audiences to help keep your brain fresh and the ideas spinning. You might also want to put your notebook down for a few days, and pick it up again when you have an thought about more research you can do.

Startup Ideas Workbook

If you are like me, then you like to keep your brainstorming notes organized and digital. To help with that I created this spreadsheet to keep everything nice and tidy. (This workbook will also come in handy in the future, when we branch out to do more discovery research.)

More links for your reading pleasure

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