Do you want to start a business but can’t find any idea?
That’s ok. Ideas are everywhere.
Finding them is more about changing your mindset and opening your eyes than being talented or smart.
Think about it. What’s a business, really? It’s a group of people that develop a solution to a problem.
Moving from A to B is a problem. Solution: car, train, subway, plane, Lime, Uber…thousands of companies are in the business of helping people move from A to B.
Being hungry is a problem. Solution: supermarkets, restaurants, pizza delivery, Takeaway.com…millions of companies are in the business of “solving hunger”.
If you want to find ideas, you have to find problems to solve. And problems to solve are everywhere.
We explore below 12 ways to find an idea to start a business.
#1: Focus on other people
Businesses solve problems. Whenever you hear someone complaining about a problem they have, about an inconvenience, or about something “they wish existed” but doesn’t…your “idea bell” should ring.
Jack Dorsey started Square after his friend (and co-founder) Jim McKelvey struggled to sell items because he couldn’t accept credit cards.
Problem-> solution -> +$100 billion company.
#2: Focus on yourself
Whenever something annoys or inconveniences you, take out your notepad and write down the problem and how you would solve it.
Reed Hastings started Netflix after he had to pay Blockbuster’s late fees, which annoyed him.
Mike Salguero started Butcher Box after he took delivery of grass-fed meat and found it so amazing that he wanted other people to enjoy it too.
Nick Woodman started GoPro because he couldn’t find any sports camera.
Richard Branson started Virgin Airline because he didn’t like British Airways.
“There is no point starting a company if not out of frustration”, he said.
There are millions of other companies that started the same way.
What annoys you? What would you improve?
#3: Explore online communities and marketplaces
Reddit, Facebook communities, and forums have members buying products and services and discussing them.
These communities are gold mines for ideas because they are gold mines for problems and complaints.
Go and find out what customers grumble about and if you notice any trend, there is potential for an idea.
Another way to find complaints is to look at the 1, 2, and 3-star reviews on Amazon (or any other marketplace). These reviews outline what consumers don’t like about the product, hence giving you a chance to sell them an upgrade.
#4: Consume media content that gives you ideas
There are podcasts, blogs, and newsletters that make business ideas their bread and butter.
My First Million, for example, is a podcast that discusses new or untried business ideas.
3 Things is a Substack newsletter that gives you three new business ideas per week.
Trends.vc is another newsletter outlining current business trends.
And finally, ideasai is an artificial intelligence that generates business ideas automatically.
There are millions of other mediums giving business ideas for free.
#5: Blatlantly copy
Rocket Internet is a German VC that blatantly copies US startups. From eBay to Facebook, they have copied everything and managed to make money because it worked, or because they sold to their US counterparts.
Today, the company is worth billions.
While it may cause some ethical issues to some, don’t forget that business is about solving problems — and that everyone copies anyway.
Facebook copied everything its competitors did, from Snapchat’s stories to TikTok’s videos.
Xiaomi copies Apple’s design which itself copied IBM and Xerox. iDeal copied PayPal, and Revolut probably copied Wise. Google copied Microsoft’s Office, and Microsoft copied Google’s search engine.
Aldi copied pretty much all the food you can find in “brand” supermarkets, without the branding (and hence cheaper).
As long as you can solve your customers’ problems and do it ethically, don’t fuss too much about copying.
#6: Invent something brand new
That may be the hardest of all of these proposals.
Not everyone can come up with the iPhone, the computer chip, or the blockchain.
#7 Use an idea-generating matrix
When I observed the type of startups that were burgeoning in the Silicon Valley, it appeared some of them only applied a successful recipe to another sector.
As such, I created for myself a matrix that I can apply to current businesses to create new ones.
XaaS: for anything as a service: Butcher Box is meat as a service. Rent the runway was clothing as a service. And Swapfiets is bike as a service. What else can you do?
In a box: HelloFresh is supermarket in a box. Diapers.com was simply diapers in a box. What else can you fit there?
Platformisation and aggregators: it’s about building a platform that connects those that sell/create to those that buy/consume. This is how online traveling agencies started in the early 2000s, followed by flight search engines like Skyscanner or Kayak. Youtube connects video creators with video consumers. Behance and Dribble connect designers to their clients.
As new services and products come to the market, you can build a platform that compares their prices live, bridge buyers and sellers, or connect creators and consumers.
Second hand: In Belgium, Backmarket was established as a second-hand phones e-shop. Vinted enables you to easily sell your used clothes online. What products do people usually buy new, and that they could buy second-hand instead?
Using or preventing waste: Too good to go was built to help food shops and restaurants distribute good food that would be thrown away otherwise. I know other startups use used frying oil that they convert into gas.
What resources do you see are wasted and that could be used for something else, or redistributed? It doesn’t have to be tangible. It can also be empty space in a truck, storage on a computer, your car….
(De)centralize: WeWork de-decentralized the office space market to centralize it. DeFi decentralizes finance and banking. Netflix centralized digital entertainment. And Spotify is currently doing the same for voice entertainment. Oyo centralized hotel rooms on one platform.
What is centralized that could be decentralized? What is decentralized that could be centralized?
Beef up/slash value, prices, and branding: Tesla is the Apple of cars. Primark is the Walmart of clothes.
What products only exist on the high-end and that you could sell for a cheaper price by offering minimum value? What products only exist on the low-end that you could brand, improve the quality of, and sell for a higher price?
Make is sustainable: what products do you buy and throw away often that you could make sustainable? In my case, it would be freezing bags, socks, plastic bottles, and kitchen paper.
Make it healthy: We have yet to find healthy versions of McDonald’s (less sugar and seed oils), ice cream (less sugar), Coca-Cola (less sugar), beer (less sugar and alcohol), and dozens of other foods billions of people consume every day.
#8: Improve something that already exists
The easiest way to find an idea by far.
Spanx improved body shapers. Allbirds improved…shoes. And there are millions of other examples of companies that started by merely improving another company’s product (Stripe improved online payment).
What don’t you like about a product? What is too complicated? What misses?
#9: Attack monopolies
Companies that have monopolies are the easiest to beat because they are usually slow at responding to competitors they normally don’t have and slow to innovate — as they don’t have any competition.
Duckduckgo was launched against Google’s monopoly in search engines by proposing an advantage Google doesn’t have: privacy. They were early, but today, they are winning.
One of the best businesses in Brussels is the Asian supermarket in the center of the city. The shop looks ugly, it has a marketing budget equal to zero, it doesn’t even have a name, and yet it is awesome because it is the only big Asian supermarket in the city.
What they do is simply import products that normally don’t exist in Belgium.
Likewise, you could travel to France and come back with wine, to Portugal and come with pasteis de nata, to Colombia and come back with empanadas, to Australia and come back with Vegemite…. Possibilities are limitless.
The day I run out of business ideas, I will simply export Belgian beers.
#11: Google “shortage of”
In the midst of 2020, my brother asked me if I wanted to make money. I said yes. He said to buy a bunch of MRI machines. He had read that patients could wait up to 11 months before finding a free spot to get an appointment.
As a matter of fact, he had read this in the newspaper.
If you google “shortage of”, you will find out what lacks in society, which means you won’t have to make too much effort to find customers when you will be selling them what is lacking.
A similar strategy consists of googling “year xxxx top challenges” and create a company selling solutions to these challenges.
The best business idea is not to start a business but to buy an already-existing one and grow it. Starbucks is an example, McDonald’s is another. But the best remains Berkshire Hathaway.
Warren Buffett never created any businesses. He searched for good companies, bought them, and slowly grew them before harvesting the fruits of his work.
If you have a bit of capital and spot a business you think could scale beyond its current capacity, then buying it could be the best solution.
At least you know that whatever idea was behind this business is an idea that works.
Business ideas are free. And the reason why they’re free is that they are worthless.
A business does not succeed because of its idea. It succeeds because the team behind it executes flawlessly.
A brilliant idea poorly executed will likely fail (eBay in China, Webvan in the US). A dumb idea brilliantly executed will likely succeed (diamonds, bottled water).