Don’t think about startup ideas. Instead, look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself. What else? Find out now.
At some point, you might be asking yourself: “What idea should I go after?”
Steve Jobs believed in putting a dent in the universe as the only option to decide whether to do something or not. He simply saw no other reason for living than leaving a great legacy behind…
As you and I may not be like Steve Jobs, let’s explore realistic options how to get ideas and to start something because the success of every journey starts small — with a single step.
Your first impulse might be to think of things that would be cool and are not there yet. How about an app that allows people to give recommendations to other people concerning what pieces of furniture would fit well in their apartments.
Has anyone ever done that? Or, has somebody already thought of … STOP!
It’s a bad approach!
Do you know what the problem with this is?
Bluntly put, though your idea might be the coolest thing since Pulp Fiction, it is unlikely that people will pay for it (or even just use it) — if it doesn’t satisfy an actual need they have or solve a big enough problem in order for them to change older behavioral patterns to adapt your solution.
Peter Thiel believes that your solution must be at least ten times better than the previous way of doing things:
Companies must strive for the 10x better because merely incremental improvements often end up meaning no improvement at all for the end user. — Peter Thiel, Zero to One
Yes, you might have some friends who love to use cool things only because they are cool and other people aren’t using them. However, you cannot grow a business based on this 0,001% share of total Hipsters in our population!
And believe me, the rest is much too concerned with figuring out how to do all this day-to-day crap like moving from point a to b, finding a job and getting someone to care for that awesome new way of self-expression you’ve just built.
Face it. That’s reality.
Most of us are already overwhelmed and need less, not more!
So, we are left with one of the most important questions of each entrepreneurial journey: “How to get startup ideas?”
Let’s explore them.
It’s not about ideas, but problems
Even if an idea that comes to your mind sounds useful, chances are EXTREMELY big that it won’t be useful enough actually to get people engaged.
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.” — Paul Graham
It sounds obvious to say you should only work on problems that exist. And yet by far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has. […]
Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas. That m.o. is doubly dangerous: it doesn’t merely yield few good ideas; it yields bad ideas that sound plausible enough to fool you into working on them. […]
The danger of an idea like this is that when you run it by your friends […], they don’t say “I would never use this.” They say “Yeah, maybe I could see using something like that.” Even when the startup launches, it will sound plausible to a lot of people. They don’t want to use it themselves, at least not right now, but they could imagine other people wanting it. Sum that reaction across the entire population, and you have zero users.
And zero users = zero growth = zero billion dollars exits = zero fame and zero films and zero books about you.
Let’s try to avoid this. What can you do?
The answer is already contained in Paul’s thoughts in a pretty obvious way:
Let’s look at an example
For example, let’s think about how researching something was like before there was the Internet. You had subject indexes in books, you had encyclopedias consisting of 30 volumes, you had books which only contained lists of books that had been written about a subject or even about another book…. Eeeeeew shit, right?
When the Internet came along, things weren’t getting better at first. Yes, there was suddenly a more convenient way to access information (which worked without hauling books), but how were people supposed to know where the information they were searching for could be found?
Yes, what I’m asking you for is to imagine the Internet without Google.
That would be a pain in the ass, wouldn’t it?
Well, that’s the reason why Google is a zillion dollar company now. They have solved a problem that everyone of us had faced and is facing several times every day: How to find the information one needs right now. Google is the best at finding the most relevant information.
Moreover, they found an amazing way to monetize people’s searches (aka buying signals through ads on top and next to the search results). Truly inspiring!
Did Larry Page and Sergey Brin become so successful because they were the first guys who thought of building an Internet search engine? No, they weren’t.
Others have tried to build solutions to that problem before. Though these have succumbed to oblivion. Let me briefly point out that you can learn a further lesson from that, though I’d like to speak about the details later.
Startup success is not primarily created by the ideas but mostly by how you execute the idea and lots of luck and timing!
If you go after a shitty idea and do great work, you will still most likely fail. But if you have a brilliant idea and do shitty work, you will fail, too! If you solve a meaningful problem the right way and execute extremely well, you might win.
FOUR Ways for finding problems to solve
Ok, back to the actual question! You’ve been told that you should look for problems and not for “ideas”. However, that doesn’t bring us so much further. You’ll still ask yourself how you can find problems?
Let’s look at four ways to look for problems…
#1: Become an expert
This is what Paul Graham calls “the organical approach“. According to him, it is the most time-consuming, but also the most promising road to creating a successful startup.
His advice is quite simple: Become an expert on some leading-edge technology and you will see the most common problems and opportunities without much effort. You will simply “notice” them instead of having to “think them out”.
For you, the future you see isn’t as abnormal than for most people. That’s where you want to be. At a leading-edge of technological and societal change.
Does that mean that you have to become one of these guys who are researching and blogging about a topic? Not necessarily! According to Paul Graham:
Being at the leading edge of a field doesn’t mean you have to be one of the people pushing it forward. You can also be at the leading edge as a user. It was not so much because he was a programmer that Facebook seemed a good idea to Mark Zuckerberg as because he used computers so much. If you’d asked most 40 year olds in 2004 whether they’d like to publish their lives semi-publicly on the Internet, they’d have been horrified at the idea. But Mark already lived online; to him it seemed natural.
You don’t need a Ph.D., ten self-published books or a blog with millions of readers to be considered an expert. You simply need to know more than the people you serve!
But let’s be honest!
Becoming an expert for something always requires tons of work. That’s why you should follow something you like. How can you know what stuff to do or interests to follow?
Depending on the nature of your interests, it might also allow you to become an expert without all the work involved ever feeling like work.
Everyone of us is most likely on their way to becoming an expert in something without even realizing it. Look at your interests. What do you like to do on Sundays? For which topic do you create massive excel files or compile piles of data because you are simply interested in it?
That’s where you might want to start exploring, and digging to discover your field of expertise.
BUT don’t push too hard if your passion can’t be turned into a startup at this moment. Your opportunity might be just around the corner. Be patient. Stay open. Prepare yourself and be ready to grab an opportunity when it presents itself.
#2: What bugs you?
Why has Uber become so successful? Because it is annoying to wait 20 minutes for a taxi.
And be assured: There is still so much to do to make our world better. There are problems that aren’t only known to experts but bug each and everyone one of us from time to time or daily.
For example, think about your current life. Is everything running super smoothly? Are all the software you are using a great fit? Probably not.
How often do you say to yourself “I hate this shit? If only there was…”?
Acting on such thoughts and creating the thing that’s missing separates the entrepreneurs from all other people! And finding something that bugs not only you but many people separates scalable problems from crappy ones.
Where were you? How did you solve it at this very moment? Do you see other people struggling with it?
By regularly practicing this, you’ll develop an entrepreneurial MINDSET. Richard Branson notes everything down as he writes in his book “The Virgin Way”. His handwritten notes have been valuable in management, negotiation, and even legal situations — he’s submitted his notebooks as evidence in lawsuits once.
#3: Find someone who found a problem
But why should you by all means try to find a problem yourself?
There are many people out there who want to solve a problem they have, and some of them are probably better experts in their field than you are in yours. Or just generally smarter than you. That’s fine.
Why shouldn’t you join them?
Search around and you will probably find someone whose skills you could supplement. If you are a programmer, you will stumble upon business guys who want to build some software or app. If you are a business guy, there is an engineer or scientist who can build a product but has no real idea how to market it.
Remember: It should not feel like work. Because it’s so important to choose the right partner, I wrote a beginner’s guide here — including six questions that guide you to decide whom to “marry”.
Shortly put, take your time and choose wisely. It’s so much more important to find the right co-founder than the right idea. Because startup ideas change over time. Expressed in fancy lean startup language, you will pivot at least once. Changing the founding team means bigger mental and emotional challenges than pivoting!
And, let me tell you something else: You will need co-founders anyway. It’s possible to build a lifestyle business on your own, as a so-called “solo-preneur“, but building a fast-growing startup is way too complex (and too much work) for one person. So try to find other people and figure out together what problem could be solved. (Read in StartupGeist: What makes startups successful? It’s a founding team of 2 or 3! Ideally, a hustler (sales/marketing), product guy (design) and a hacker (coder, developer) as these three roles are most important.
#4: Join a Startup Launchpad (e.g. Startup Weekend)
If you’re either having trouble with finding a meaningful problem or a team, you might consider joining one of the numerous startup launchpads that are out there.
There are many great events that aim to connect you with other people and help you discovering meaningful problems.
Go to meetup.com or eventbrite.com and search in the next startup hub for startup events. Visit them and connect with people. Ask startup founders how they found the problem they are trying to solve and WHY they work on it. Try to understand their underlying motivation and drive to get inspired yourself.
Even if you don’t find co-founders or an actual problem to tackle, the feedback you’ll get and experiences you’ll make will be invaluable!
Remember: If you are the smartest person in the room, change the room.
What is a meaningful problem?
“The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they’re something the founders themselves want, that they can build and that few others realize are worth doing.” — Paul Graham
Whenever I get asked what I think about an idea, I answer: “Who is your target customer?” Because how can I judge an idea if I’m not their ideal customer? I can’t.
Intellectually, I’d like to give an answer and appear “smart”, but founders shouldn’t listen to me if I’m not their ideal customer/user.
Most mentors and advisors aren’t aware of how influential their opinions are to first-time startup founders and entrepreneurs. I wish that more of these experts would be aware of this.
Naval Ravikant, co-founder of Angellist and one of Silicon Valley’s most respected angel investors, coined the term ‘advisor paradox’. It describes the often contradicting advice from mentors and advisors that confuse entrepreneurs.
I saw founders changing the name of their startup or pivoting their business model. They did so without market proof that is based on hard numbers. They simply did so based on a wannabe experts opinion! Do yourself a favor and don’t listen to everyone and trust everyone. Even experts can be wrong!
Hence, Navak advises us:
Don’t follow advice. Instead, learn from your advisor and apply the lessons to your company.
Your advisor isn’t you: he doesn’t have your goals, history, or strengths and weaknesses. He doesn’t know your company like you do.
Even good advisors may guide you with conventional wisdom. And startups are about applying unconventional wisdom.
Where to look for meaningful problems?
When Peter Thiel first spoke at YC’s startup class, he used a Venn diagram to describe where to look for meaningful problems. He drew two intersecting circles; one labeled “seems like a bad idea” and the other “is a good idea.” The intersection is the sweet spot for startups.
The counterintuitive thing is that the best ideas look initially like bad ideas.
Historically good ideas that seemed like bad ideas at the time include:
- The telephone— “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876
- The radio– “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
- The automobile—“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad”–Advice from a president of the Michigan Savings Bank to Henry Ford’s lawyer Horace Rackham.
- The airplane– “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.
- TV—“Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it”–C. P. Scott, BBC History of Television
- The computer– “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
- The Personal computer– “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
- iPhone—“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share”–Steve Ballmer, USA Today, April 30, 2007
More recent examples that reinvent whole industries — such as hotel, taxi, news, or communication, but looked as nebulous ideas at the start — are:
- Airbnb—renting out a spare room
- Uber — “Private taxi using personal vehicle?”
- Twitter — “What can you say in 140 characters?”
- Skype — “Hey, it’s cool but the picture keeps freezing”
- Flickr — “Why would people want to make their photos public?”
- Facebook — “Why would I want to put my personal life online?”
Chris Dixon advises entrepreneurs to ask:
What do you believe that few other people believe?
If you found an answer, go and start something around solving the issue at hand. Here are his ingredients to discovering a meaningful problem:
- Know the tools better than anyone else
- Know the problems better than anyone else
- Draw from your life experience / background
Concluding, characteristics of meaningful problems are that…
- They are often dismissed as toys (by powerful people). Clayton Christensen calls this the Innovator’s Dilemma.
- They often originate as hobbies or side projects. (read Sam Altman’s belief why you should frame your efforts as projects, and not as a company).
- They often unbundle the functions done by others.
How to decide which problem to solve?
In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel argues that a startup must find a good answer about their technology, timing, market, team, distribution, defensibility, and uniqueness to be successful.
He outlines these seven questions:
- The Engineering Question: Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
- The Timing Question: Is now the right time to start your particular business?
- The Monopoly Question: Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
- The People Question: Do you have the right team?
- The Distribution Question: Do you have a way not just to create but deliver your product?
- The Durability Question: Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
- The Secret Question: Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?
If you nail all seven, you’ll master fortune and succeed. Even getting five or six correct might work. — Peter Thiel
That’s what Ash Maurya realized. Ever since he knows that the real obstacles are emotional, not logical. Hence, consider how much more time you have to live. The only sure thing about life is that we all are going to die. That’s scary, but also the beauty of life as it might force us to focus on the right things.
Here is a little help to Reverse-Engineering Your Life [pdf link]. It’s an interesting resource to look at. If you don’t have time now, I urge you to pencil down this exercise to do on your next Sunday or holidays. It’s an extremely helpful exercise. Plan ahead and remind yourself already now by blocking time on your calendar.
What about next Sunday, at 6 pm?
#EntrepreneurHack: Remember the following tips
- Offer solutions that are at least ten times better to problems out there.Focus on problems you can solve. Don’t create ideas.Solving a big, ever-growing problem and monetizing it smartly.
- It should not feel like work.
- Be patient. Don’t rush. Carefully choose the right partner to work with.
- Constantly get out of the building. Surround yourself with smart people.
- A meaningful problem initially looks like a bad idea to some people AND like a good idea to others. Try to be at this intersection!
- Realize that life is too short to work on something nobody wants (or not enough people want).
- Whenever confronted with a decision, think how much more time you have to live. Realize that life is NOT endless. Make every day count!
- Peter Thiel: Zero to One
- Richard Branson: The Virgin Way
- Timothy Ferriss: 4-Hour Workweek
- Clayton Christensen: Innovator’s Dilemma
- Paul Graham: How to get Startup Ideas
- Sam Altman: Projects versus Companies
- Naval Ravikant via Venture Hacks on Advisors (Hint: Advisor Paradox)
- Ash Maurya: The Achilles Heel of Customer Development
- Chris Dixon: Good ideas that seem like bad ideas
- Mark Driscoll and Jon Phelps: Reverse-Engineering Your Life
- You’ve Got 30,000 Days To Live
- Website: Bad Startup Idea
- Bill Gross: The Single Biggest Reason Why Startups Succeed
- StartupGeist on Startup Failure
- StartupGeist on Startup Success
- StartupGeist on Choosing the right co-founder