This was originally shared by Dan Lewis on Quora with over 4.5k upvotes.
It’s definitely worth your super precious time if you are still looking for that killer idea to start a business.
“This approach will help you think of a solid startup idea.
It is broken into 5 steps to facilitate progress through a system that in total should take about 30-40 hours to complete over a week or two, if you do it all.
Add rigor and discipline to your brainstorming and idea evaluation process:
- Build lists of potential customer types and business or pricing models.
- Evaluate the opportunities where these lists overlap.
- Then, exit your ivory tower and evaluate the top ideas with real potential users, customers, or suppliers.
- This will improve your likelihood of success and waste less time down the road, even if you pivot from your original idea.
Preface: There certainly are simpler answers like, “pick an area that is trending”, “look for a large market that hasn’t changed in 10 years”, or “convert your hobby into a business”. Unfortunately those aren’t particularly helpful, and since this question comes up often in discussions, I wanted to get my thoughts down in a more comprehensive way. I’m sure Quora will have some good feedback for me :)
Also, while this answer covers the ideation part of the journey, keep in mind that implementing the idea is the hard part.
Three primary paths to a new business idea
1. The spontaneous idea: It hits you when you’re in the shower, driving in your car, talking with friends, or doodling during a meeting. The dots suddenly connect in a new way and you have an epiphany…your sudden insight is surprising and exciting, and the value of this new idea seems obvious. You can’t believe nobody else has thought of it before!
So you go online and poke around…and…most of the time it turns out that someone has thought of it before. But, you still might be able to do it better…so you keep thinking about it and a day passes, and you start to realize some problems.
You share it with a few trusted friends and get feedback about a lot of things you hadn’t thought of yet (e.g., nobody pays for it, it’s a tiny market, etc.). It could turn out to be a great idea, but you don’t know, you have a good job, and it is uncharted territory…so you let the dream slowly die away. Cheer up, that was probably the right decision.
2. The insider idea: Maybe you’ve spent the last 7 years building enterprise software for airlines and you’ve noticed some voids in the product stack or issues with how your company brings it to market. You point these deficiencies out to your bosses, but there are other company priorities and nothing changes.
Or, say your company pays vendors a lot of money to do some work, but nobody ever seems happy with the results….and you see a way to do it better for less. Or, maybe you witnessed your company kill an amazing new product or feature not because testing didn’t show user interest, but for political or organizational reasons.
You see an opportunity to do it on your own, so you start moonlighting on a solution. You gather more specific information, talk to trusted co-workers and industry contacts, and determine the viability of solving the problem. The good thing is, you’re already knowledgeable and well positioned/networked in the business space…so good luck to you!
3. The deliberate idea: In this case, you aren’t starting with a business idea. Instead, you’re starting with a desire to create a new business and become an entrepreneur. You may be ready to quit your job and go for it whole-hog, or just start it on the side of your desk…but you’re looking for the right business idea to pursue (which could be a business related to your work environment or industry, as in #2).
While the first two paths may happen unintentionally, the third is for people who know they want to start a company, but don’t yet have their idea.
If you fall into the third group, then this answer is for you.
#3 The Deliberate Idea
Ideation is fun and freeing, but it is the easy part of the process. Execution of your idea separates the wheat from the chaff and is where most people fail. That said, coming up with the right idea will improve your odds of successful execution. This system will help you do that well.
Step 1 – Decide what is your primaryfor starting this (1 hour)
For example, do you want a:
- Fun or hobby based business (e.g., making bracelets to sell on )
- Part-time lifestyle business that could become full time (e.g., running a wine-investment club)
- Full-time startup hoping for acquisition exit in 3-5 years (e.g., It’s like for fish, get it?)
- Large, cash-flow positive business (e.g., B2B furniture import and delivery business)
- Path to industry credibility and networking over financial gain (e.g., scriptwriting peer-training exchange for aspiring comedy writers)
Create a new spreadsheet and write down your goal in the first tab. It may seem like overkill now, but if you take a break from this project you’ll want to be able to have it as a frame of reference when picking it back up.
Step 2 – Frame the problem (2 hours)
If you try to just write down a list of ideas from scratch, you’ll probably be underwhelmed with the results. You’ll likely hit a block after a handful of ideas, and what you come up with will be based on your predispositions…i.e., if you are a gamer, you’ll have ideas for games. If you work in cloud computing, you’ll have ideas for new approaches, etc. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is limiting.
Instead, make a deliberate effort to facilitate your own brainstorming.
In the spreadsheet you created in step 1, create a new sheet and type out a list of 15-20 different categories of customer/audience types in the first column. Don’t start with the usual demographic descriptions like, “18-35 year olds in urban environments making over $100k per year”. Instead, use descriptive phrases that represent specific groups of consumers and/or businesses with unique challenges and needs. These tend to be easier to conceptualize so they are more useful and helpful for generating ideas.
Start with some that relate to your personal interests, hobbies, experience or professional network, but don’t limit yourself to them. Some examples include retail insurance agents, cyclical dieters, ex-pats in Asia, news junkies, people that eat out 3+ times per week, new college grads, stay-at-home mothers, winemakers, startup founders raising money, youth sports teams, companies at trade shows, wedding planners, gamers, health nuts, software development agencies, etc. If you’re having trouble coming up with enough, broaden to specific industries, e.g., public transportation, dating, real estate, etc. If you’re going after a specific geography, call it out (e.g., ex-pats in Asia).
Next, along the first row of your spreadsheet, type the business or pricing models (i.e., the type of business) that you could apply to these customers/audiences. There’s no exact right or wrong approach, and I’m using the term “business model” very liberally here. Not all models will apply to each group and some overlap is okay. Remember, you’re doing this to help you brainstorm and compare new business ideas, not to become an expert on business models.
For example, subscriptions, product bundling, risk management/insurance, auctions, resale/classifieds, peer-to-peer exchanges, outsourcing non-core functions, freemium, advertising-supported content, new product development, after-sale care, daily deals (discounted pre-sale), collaborative consumption (think AirBnB), rapid evaluation/matching (e.g., Tinder), sales channel innovation, lead generation and referrals, marketplace, brokerage, BI/CI solutions, community, etc. (more here:)