Finding great ideas for your startup
"I just don't have any ideas." This is the #1 stumbling block for budding entrepreneurs. Here are a few techniques to get the creative juices flowing.
Copy somebody else, but fix the problems
If you have a lack of ideas, you might be mentally discarding lots of things. Ideas don't have to sound good to be successful. If you take a look at this list of ideas from 2008, none of them are original or earth shattering.
If somebody's already doing it, don't let that stop you. Instead, do it better! For years, the technical question and answer site that came up most often in searches was Experts Exchange. But it obnoxiously demands payments all the time, and is notoriously hard to read. Last year, StackOverflow popped up, with its large, user-friendly fonts and zero costs, and quickly rose to popularity.
Copy an idea and fill a niche
Ebay is a one stop shop for buying anything online. You could certainly sell gift cards on Ebay, but why go to the trouble when you can sell through Giftah, a whole site devoted to pawning unwanted gift cards. The founders of Giftah were unfazed by the many existing options, and built their site anyway.
Implement ideas from academiaThere is a clear separation between the practical world of business, and the "publish or perish" world of academia. The research journals are filled with ideas that are ripe for the plundering. Entire branches of research from decades ago were simply dropped because they were a solution without a problem, or the author achieved tenure. Start here, and you might find something useful.
This is one of the harder paths of entrepreneurship. Still, if you're smart enough to develop a complete understanding of a complex subject, and translate it into something useful and practical, you can turn obscurity into opportunity. Google did it with PageRank. More recently, Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition is a company that went this route, taking state of the art facial mining software and applying it to old episodes of Star Trek as an effective demonstration of their technology.
Solve a business problem
Are you selling to consumers? It's a great start because you're a consumer and you know what you like, and its nice to build something that your friends can use. But many startups quickly switch gears and sell their services to businesses instead. Why? Simple scaling. You have to be big to handle sales marketing support, while still finding the resources to develop your core technology. Dealing with ten thousand customers requires a lot more infrastructure than dealing with ten.
Quack.com started off with the dream running a phone portal, to let people call in and get their email, news, and other information using voice recognition. But their first paying customer was the Lycos search engine, and later on they were bought by America Online, which gave them the resources to scale. (Unfortunately things didn't work out under AOL's direction.)
Businesses expect a more complete solution. For example: Kelly sells popcorn to consumers in a mall for $3 a bag, works 8 hours a day, and after rent makes $200 a day. "Grandpa" Joe sells popcorn to business -- for $500 he'll cart his popcorn machine to your corporate event. Over three hours, he'll make cheery conversation while doling out the yellow goodness, and clean up when he leaves, and all it takes is a phone call.
To jumpstart things, use the fortune cookie trick. Take an idea that is traditionally marketed to consumers, and add "to business" after it. It doesn't take much imagination to figure out a way that a consumer business can be converted to a B2B.
Do what you knowAli "Brickbreaker" Asaria is the founder of Well.ca, Canada's online drugstore, and the son of a pharmacist. Ali noticed that the market for health and beauty products was under-served -- many other online drugstores seem focused on drugs only. He created an extensive business plan, built a web site, sought funding, and now runs a successful company.
The odds are that you will end up building something completely different from what you started with. Mike Lazaridis founded Research in Motion, the creator of BlackBerries, in 1984 to do custom hardware development. An early product was a digital barcode system for Hollywood film editing. Later, they contracted with another company to do wireless point of sale terminals. That worked out pretty well, and they were left with a bunch of radio modems laying around the office. The rest is history.
Start your engines...Ideas by themselves are of little worth. It is the hard work, personal risk, sleepness nights, plus a lot of luck and networking that has real value and can help you be successful. How many hundreds of creative minds used flash to stream video, or created tiny video streaming websites, before someone went and built YouTube? Having an idea is the easy part. The real issue is finding the spark of excitement and drive to follow through with it, even when the world is saying you will fail.
- Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days - Learn from the experts. This book has tales of successes and lots of failures from lots of entrepreneurs, including the founders of Paypal, Hotmail, and Del.icio.us. The tale of Delicious is especially unusual, because it was just one guy working in the evenings.
- Innovation and Entrepreneurship - According to a commenter, I am copying many of my ideas from Peter Drucker, and this book has many more along the same lines.
VP trees: A data structure for finding stuff fastLet's say you have millions of pictures of faces tagged with names. Given a new photo, how do you find the name of person that the photo most resembles?
In the cases I mentioned, each record has hundreds or thousands of elements: the pixels in a photo, or patterns in a sound snippet, or web usage data. These records can be regarded as points in high dimensional space. When you look at a points in space, they tend to form clusters, and you can infer a lot by looking at ones nearby.