Finding Startup Ideas: A Quick Guide

I talk to many people who like the idea of being an entrepreneur, but in the end choose another path because they “haven’t found the idea.”

Just to preface this, nobody sits at home and has the ingenious idea for the next billion-dollar company, and then starts that company the very next day. That’s not the way it works. You decide you want to be an entrepreneur, and then you keep your eyes and ears open for the next opportunity.

You’ve probably heard the old adage: “You need to find a problem to fix, not build an awesome solution that doesn’t solve anything”. This is very true and should be the first test that your potential venture idea should pass. “Does anyone need this and is willing to pay for it, or would it just be nice to have?”

Building on that, you have tools like design thinking that are definitely helpful for concept ideation. But let me give you five different approaches that might just lead you to your very own startup idea that could become the next unicorn!

Learn From The Pros!

Most Startups fail because they don’t solve a problem.

To be fair, if you’re somewhere under 30, maybe just graduated college, you probably won’t have the expertise to identify the problems facing any given industry. You can choose the consumer market, but that tends to be quite difficult.

One way to find a relevant industry problem is as simple as asking people. Pick an industry of your liking, ideally one you can see yourself working in for a long time, and try to identify someone in that industry with senior-level expertise.

Let me introduce you to Jane Richards: Jane is 57, VP of important business unit in industry-leading company, and happens to be a friend of your mothers. Jane has three kids, likes her job, is making a decent chunk of money, and knows her industry inside-out.

She knows exactly what needs to be fixed and how to fix these problems in her industry, but she won’t leave her job, assume a ton of risk, and sign up for long hours and crowded weekends to build a startup. She would, however, pay a startup that does exactly that; a fair amount of money to fix her problem.

Find your own personal Jane Richards.

Maybe through your family’s network, maybe through cold emailing, whatever it is — people usually want to help. Sit down and ask them about the three main issues they face on a daily basis. Write those down. Then ask for referrals to three of her colleagues that are in similar positions as her. Do this as many times as possible.

In the end, you should have at least 20 lists with the three biggest executive problems in the industry. Now look for trends — is there a problem mentioned by everyone? Work with one of your interviewees and tailor a solution exactly to their needs.

Congrats, you’ve got your first customer.

Solve Your Own Problem.

Similarly, solving your own problem can be a beautiful way to find something worth building a company around. There are 9 billion people on the planet — nothing you’re feeling, doing, or experiencing is unique. Chances are if something’s bugging you, the same problem is bugging someone else as well.

Now, if you get in the habit of building yourself little fixes, and solving problems with little programs or tools, you’re building products.

The problem was big enough for you to take the time and build something to fix it — don’t you think someone would pay money to have their problem solved immediately? And if not — your problem is still solved!

This has been the basis for so many companies (e.g. Holded, Sakara, or ColdTurkey) but keep in mind, you’re probably going to end up in a consumer market, not always the ideal position to be in.

Turn an Excel Spreadsheet Into A SaaS Company

An outrageous amount of companies nowadays still have that one Excel sheet that is the backbone of the company. There are literally millions of these, and if you’ve ever worked for an SMB you might have been lucky (or unlucky) enough to have stumbled across one or maybe even had to work with it. Usually, this is one shared excel that multiple people work on, and astonishingly a gargantuan amount of these have excruciating, if not life-threatening errors (e.g.. in healthcare companies)

Once you’ve found that Excel Sheet in a relevant market, you are about three steps away from running a successful SaaS company.

  1. People use excel as a way to keep records. Your first step is to turn that record-keeping into an integrated part of their workflow through your SaaS app.
  2. Usually, multiple people base their work on this spreadsheet backbone. Enable multiple users to see progress and define & coordinate tasks with different levels of access.
  3. Excel makes you input data manually from external systems or data sources. That’s where mistakes happen: build integrations with these tools and automate this tedious work.

Now you’ve got a decent value proposition: An app running a workflow with multiple people importing and syncing data while ensuring quality and reducing errors! Awesome!

But we can and should build on that:

Here’s your premium version: You now have all the data and access to the changes happening. Design beautiful dashboards with useful insights, show risks, and display optimization potential.

Now, if you have all the data and the workflows, you know when decisions are made on what basis. If you can draw these conclusions with the data, do you really need an operator, or could you maybe build automation on top?

And there you go, you’ve built the next pipedrive/basecamp/ or whatever you want to name your excel upgrade!

Copy What Works

This seems pretty simple, but a proven method to get into entrepreneurship is to look at what’s working in a different market and try that yourself. This usually has the benefit of not having to look for product-market fit as long, having a nice template of what your finished product can look like, and not needing to invest so much in prototyping.

A beautiful example is Alando & the Samwer Brothers / Rocket Internet. They saw ebay working in the US, cloned it in Germany, and 100 days after it went online they sold it to ebay (who already wanted to enter the European market) for a scrappy 43 million dollars. With this cash, they started many other new companies. All three of them are billionaires and some of the most influential people in Europe.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for everyone, and sometimes products don’t translate in different cultures, or different regions have different requisites and preferences. So be sure to validate whatever you’re cloning and make sure there are no underlying assumptions that don’t hold in your market.

See Something Cool, Make It Bigger

The one thing European Entrepreneurs always are criticized for is that they don’t aim big enough.

While naturally, that doesn’t hold true all the time, whenever it does, you can take advantage of it. See something cool that you like, but that’s very specific? Be inspired by that idea and do it 10 times bigger. For example, you see 10 different companies in a fractured market each publishing an app that struggles to make any money? Combine and aggregate them, and charge one fee to access all their content. Nobody is going to have four newspaper subscriptions for 10€ each, but many would pay 20€ and have access to 10 newspapers (disclaimer, unfortunately this hasn’t worked the first time someone tried). This is, very simplified, the underlying idea of NetFlix, Spotify, and even Amazon: aggregating movies, music, and online shops.

Keep your eyes and ears open — if you have an idea, write it down and revisit it a bit later. Once you have a decent list, you can always go through it and see what makes the most sense. Remember — just because someone else failed with an idea doesn’t mean you can’t be successful with it. Facebook wasn’t the first social media and Instagram wasn’t the first place to share photos. So even if one type of execution has failed, your version of the idea hasn’t yet. Study what went wrong, and avoid their mistakes! Good Luck!



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