Everything I Learned about Generating Startup Ideas in my first 10 years as a founder

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This article is a compilation of everything that I learned about how to generate product ideas. It’s my my way of learning and it’s not a finished work I will update it as I learn more in my journey to great great products.

Everything starts with an idea. The silicon valley lore says that ideas don’t have value; execution is where real value resides. This focus on the execution is essential to avoid the trap of being just an “idea person” and never actually get things done. However, not all ideas are the same; some ideas have more value than others. I think the best whay to describe the importance of ideas is to think about ideas as multipliers on execution. If we follow this line of thought having a great idea is essential considering that you will execute on it.

The romantic image that the creative gifted have a great moment of inspiration where a genial idea arises naturally. We can argue that there are creative geniuses that seem to have divine inspiration and usually only have great finished ideas, but there are great counterexamples of this thesis. Geniuses like Thomas Edson, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci where prolific note-takers, going through the many pages of notes you can see countless ideas and how they never stopped coming up with new things. Not all ideas they had were great, most were not that good, but they kept recording and thinking.

I believe that all of us have creative powers. However, only a few exercise those powers. Of course, we can see that some people are more creative than others. I am not arguing that everybody has the same level of creativity but that everybody has some level of creativity. There is no such thing as a “not creative” person. You can create, you can have ideas. Enough with the motivational speech let’s dig into some actual ways to have new startup ideas:

1. Inspiration from your personal experience

The first primary source of inspiration is your own daily experience. Using your personal experience as inspiration can seem counterproductive because your own experience could be unique to you. However, most product ideas fail because they don’t appeal to anybody at a level that makes the product relevant. By using your own experience, you can guarantee that at least one person (you) find that product useful, and this is a strong first step to have other people finding it useful.

What are the things that you often do but you don’t like to do? What would you eliminate from your life? An example of this type of reasoning is that maybe you don’t like to go grocery shopping and think that you could have someone to buy things for you and deliver at your home, there are successful apps today that do precisely that.

Another way of thinking about this is going for things you want but can’t do for some reason. An example of this could be, you want to invest your money but is too hard to figure out how to do it, an app that makes it simple to invest would help you (again, many apps do precisely this).

Observing your daily experience, you can find as well as products and services that already exist but sucks. One good example of this would be that Taxi services are awful in many cities and having a better way of calling a cab and a better overall ride experience is a great opportunity. Another good example is that out of that implementing payments used to suck for developers and then Stripe came along and made it a bliss.

2. Inspiration from your work

Companies are complex and need to solve many problems to be successful. You can use your work experience as a guide to come up with B2B ideas.

Think about your day to day job, what tasks you do that you don’t like? Maybe you hate to fill your reimbursement forms or keeping track of file version between you and your colleges ends up being a nightmare. Explore what are the things that you dread doing and try to come up with a way of either not doing it at all or a way of decreasing the time necessary to do it.

What things your company do but are not related to the core business of the company or even to your department? For example, is it important for the company having developers setting up landing pages for the marketing team or those developers would be more useful working on the core product? You could build an app to make it easier for the marketing thing to create the landing pages without requiring developers ( again, there are successful companies are doing just that).

3. The risky business of listening to other people’s problems

If you listen carefully, you will notice that people complain about stuff all the time. Those complaints can be a good source of inspiration for product ideas. Complaints can seem like a signal that an opportunity for improvement exists. Considering that this is not a problem you have, it’s better to be cautious and investigate if there is a real opportunity.

The first problem this strategy presents is that the people complaining about a particular situation don’t have enough motivation to solve the problem. If it’s a small problem or if other issues are more critical, then the problem originating the complaining is not worth enough to be fixed. You want to focus on the biggest payoff problem possible so that you can maximize the chance of making a product people want.

One good question to ask when you encounter complaints that you suspect could be opportunities ask the people who complain about it a straightforward question: “Have you searched for a solution?” If the person not even bothered to do a google search for possible solutions or asked someone, then it’s likely that it’s not a priority now.

4. Looking for universal desires and needs

Not all products solve specific problems; some products focus on basic needs and desires. What is the difference? I think problems are not present in everybody lives and problems can be fixed. Desires and needs are present in all human beings and can’t be fixed, just satiated. Another difference is that there are almost infinite ways to satisfy ( temporarily at least ) human desires and needs.

Think about a dating app like Tinder. Finding a romantic partner or even a one night stand is part of the human desire for love and companionship. This is not a specific problem but a need shared among human beings. People want to have fun as well so video games, YouTube, Netflix they are all filling the entertainment need. This is not a problem that can be fixed because you can be entertained for now, but the need will arrive again in the future.

Some compelling needs that are worth exploring: Love, Friendship, Self Expression, Belonging, Fun, Sex, Food, Growth. An excellent way to explore this strategy is to look at the Maslow Pyramid and think about ways your product could interact with each part of it.

5. What is possible now?

A common trap when we talk about building products is to create a product just to showcase a technology that you are in love with. This happens particularly with developers and creates the famous situation of “a solution in the search for a problem”. However, I think that looking at new technologies can be a useful source of new ideas.

To avoid the “solutions in the search for a problem trap” one exciting way would be to explore what is possible now that was not in the past and even more important, what kind of problems were not possible to be solved before that we can solve now? A lot of the recent innovations in consumer internet are only possible because of the GPS capable smartphones. Ideas like cab railing apps would be hard to pull off if there was not a deep penetration of smartphones, GPS, maps and mobile internet. Without a critical mass of people having broadband, we would never have successful video streaming services like Netflix and friends.

Another way of using this strategy is to look at changes in society as well. Sometimes things that use to be a taboo become a non-issue with new generations or problems that used be irrelevant to previous generations become a core issue for the new one. Observing changes in behaviour and preferences of large populations can be an excellent way of inventing new products. Think, for example, about how more environmentally conscious the new generations compared with previous ones.

One of my favourite quotes about the future is:

“The future is already here it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

Look at small but passionate groups of people with interests that seems odd today but maybe are the seed of the future mainstream. Think about how the idea of eSport used to be a joke and now it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

The Idea Machine exercise

A great exercise that I learned from James Autucher in his book “Choose Yourself” is the “Idea Machine” exercise. I have been practising this for a while, and I can attest that it works quite well. The main idea is to make a list of 10 ideas every single day. Simple, right? But not that easy. Sometimes you will stare at the blank page, and nothing will seem to come to light. This happens a lot because you are trying to edit the ideas in our heads so that you only actually write the “good ones” the self-censorship we do tend to be a big block of creativity. You are allowed to put any idea on this list, even the dumbest ones, and it doesn’t matter, most of them will be pure garbage. The point is not come up with only brilliant ideas but to come with many ideas so that your mind unlearns to filter. What is the point of doing this if most ideas will be wrong? Well, some of them will not be garbage, and by the sheer volume of output, you will end up getting good ones from time to time.

Conclusion

Thinking about great product ideas is not an easy task. It’s essential to think that the ideas that seem obvious probably are not that good because if they were any good, probably it would already be executed by someone else. If you are going to spend years of your life working on a product is worthwhile to think deep about what idea you are going to execute.

If you are new to this world, I highly recommend you to read Paul Graham’s essay on generating Startup Ideas.

Contradictorium

This session is an effort that I make to be more intellectually honest. Here I try to list how everything that I just told you could be wrong.

Most of what I described here comes from the assumption that people who have great product ideas don’t have any innate special qualities that are not possible to emulate. This is a big assumption, it’s possible that some people are just blessed wit a profound product geniality and simply can naturally see what others don’t. If this is true then most efforts in developing a better skill to generate product ideas would be at most a small increment on your changes to come up with good product idea and potentially a huge waste of time. I however, remain at this point with the believe that it’s possible to actively increase your chances to come up with good ideas and this believe is liable to change due to future evidence that I may encounter.

What are your take on getting product ideas? Do you think that is possible to become better at it?

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