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Every great business started with an idea. But how do founders come up with all their great ideas? Chances are, they don’t just luck out. It’s more likely they keep their minds open to opportunities, notice what’s going on around them, and keep track of all the ideas that float through their minds.
In this guide, we’re going to look at how you can become an idea-generating machine—how to keep your mind open and flexible, where to find good business ideas, and what to do when you think you might have found the perfect one.
Why Being Able to Generate Ideas is So Important
Here’s the thing: We let our inner critic get in the way a lot of the time. We come up with an idea for a business and immediately dismiss it as impossible, too difficult, or just plain stupid.
It’s true that not all your ideas are going to be instant blockbusters. Most of them will never amount to anything. And that’s fine.
The point is to just get into the habit of generating ideas without stopping to censor yourself. The more you do this, the easier it will be to find new ideas, spark connections, and notice opportunities.
Ideas are a little like rabbits—you get a few of them together, and they start to multiply quickly. And the more you have, the more likely it is that at least one of them will be a hit.
Someone has to come up with the Next Great Idea. Why not you?
Quick Tips to Improve Your Idea Generation Today
Believe it or not, coming up with ideas isn’t usually the hard part. The ability to figure out which ideas are really good and follow through on them is the real challenge.
Idea management software can make the idea generation process much easier and, let’s face it, more fun. It can also give you an edge when it comes to follow-through by enabling you to share your ideas, get feedback, and create professional presentations.
We like Mind Meister, mind-mapping software that helps you visualize ideas and make connections. Its mobile app allows you to capture ideas when you’re out and about. You can also take notes, turn your ideas into projects, and share everything with others for brainstorming and feedback.
And when you have an idea you think you can run with? Use MindMeister’s built-in presentation mode to turn your mind maps into professional, dynamic slideshows.
Ready to start coming up with ideas? Here are some quick tips to help get your idea juices flowing.
Tip #1 – It’s okay to think small
Your ideas don’t have to be “big.” You don’t have to invent the next Facebook or Amazon to be successful. In fact, putting pressure on yourself to come up with a billion-dollar (or even million-dollar) idea can be self-defeating. The bigger the concept, the more opportunities you have to overthink or second guess yourself.
“Little” ideas can be worth just as much as big ones, sometimes more. Remember, starting small doesn’t mean staying small. Amazon started as an online bookstore, and Facebook was initially restricted to students at Harvard. Both of them grew over time, eventually becoming the behemoths they are today.
Tip #2 – Hang out with the right crowd
Have you ever shared an idea with a friend who promptly told you all the reasons it could never work? Yeah—avoid people like that. Even if they mean well and are only trying to spare you from mistakes and disappointment, a constant stream of negativity from people close to us is a guaranteed creativity-killer.
That doesn’t mean surrounding yourself with people who tell you that all your ideas are brilliant and that you’ll be a success no matter what you do. They may be easier on the ego, but ultimately, they aren’t any more helpful than the nay-sayers.
Hanging out with the right crowd means finding motivated people who will challenge you, encourage you, give you honest feedback, share their experiences, bounce ideas around, and act as mentors.
Don’t know any movers and shakers in real life? Find your tribe online, look for local meet-up groups, or invest in a mastermind.
Tip #3 – Get out of the house
It’s really hard to generate ideas in a vacuum. If you want to become an idea-generating machine, put yourself in positions where you’re exposed to new things. You can do this by learning new skills, going to new places, and meeting new people.
Getting out of your comfort zone gives you a chance to look for opportunities and connections and sets you up for serendipity. Who knows? Maybe you’ll meet your future business partner at the same cooking class that sparks an idea for a portable solar oven.
Tip #4 – Practice idea generation every day
Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx and, at one point, the youngest self-made female billionaire in the US, keeps a journal of ideas that’s 99 pages, single-spaced, and getting longer every day. It’s not that she’s going to act on every single one of them, but out of those hundreds of ideas, she’ll probably find a few that turn into successful businesses.
Whether you keep a physical journal or use a tool like Mind Meister, get used to thinking about and writing out ideas every day.
Don’t just wait around for a light bulb to appear over your head. Spend a few minutes every morning writing down a minimum of five business ideas, and try for 10. Just jot down whatever comes to mind, whether that’s custom-made chocolate bars, flying taxis, or edible socks.
Don’t worry about being practical or even realistic, and try not to judge yourself. Keep it fun and lighthearted. The idea is to simply give your mind permission to be creative and get your idea-generating juices flowing.
Long-Term Strategies for Generating Business Ideas
Once you’ve primed yourself for idea generation by getting out of your comfort zone, meeting new people, and writing as many ideas down as you can, it’s time to start thinking about viability. The following strategies can help you find products and services that people will pay for.
Strategy #1 – Start with what you love
Just because you love doing something doesn’t mean that you should do it for a living. That said, being passionate about a hobby, cause, or product can give you a definite edge.
For one thing, if you love it, there’s a good chance that other people are passionate about it as well. For another, you’re probably already pretty knowledgeable about it and understand the community around it—and that is a huge advantage over people who are just looking for the next get-rich-quick scheme.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re passionate about good wine. There is a multitude of ways you could put that passion to work. You could open a wine shop, give tours of local wineries, conduct wine-tasting classes, review wines in a blog, create an app that lets people keep track of their wine collections, or create short YouTube documentaries about the histories of different wines. However you approach it, your enthusiasm for the subject and the connection you feel to your fellow wine-lovers will help you do it well.
How can you translate your passion into a business?
Strategy #2 – Solve a problem
There is no shortage of problems in the world. Make a list.
What are people talking about? What are people complaining about? What local and global trends are costing people time, money, or energy? What are the bottlenecks that your industry has to deal with? What are the annoyances and frustrations, big or small, in your own life?
Chances are, if they bug you, they annoy other people, too.
Don’t dismiss problems like cancer or global warming as being “too big.” You may not have a cure for leukemia, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t come up with a product that makes life easier for sick people or a service that helps their families.
So don’t let the petty annoyances of life get you down. Instead, start thinking about ways you could fix them.
Strategy #3 – Make life easier
For decades, people used telephones that were plugged into walls. Their mobility was limited, but the phone worked well, so no one complained. Then someone invented the cordless phone that allowed users to walk all over their house while on a call. Then came hands-free phones, and car phones, and finally mobile phones.
Sometimes, people don’t even realize they have a problem. They’ve done things a certain way for a long time, and everything works fine. But just because they’re not complaining doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
The original stuck-to-the-wall phone worked fine, but people saw opportunities to improve on it, and now we can’t live without our cell phones. If you can find a way to improve on an existing concept to make life easier for the people who use it, you have the makings of a great business idea.
Strategy #4 – Save money
Seriously, who doesn’t like saving money? But how do you get people to pay money to save money?
Here’s an example: traditional banks often charge fees for having a low balance, using an ATM, or overdrawing checking accounts. People saw a market, and now dozens of online banks promise a fee-free banking experience.
Look at the areas in your life where you’re spending money and not getting value in return, and brainstorm ways to change them.
Strategy #5 – Save time
Saving time is a close second to saving money—or possibly it’s the other way around, depending on your audience. The humble microwave has been a staple in kitchens for 40 years because it saves home cooks so much time. Likewise, people pay to have their houses cleaned or their cars detailed because they don’t want to spend their precious time doing those tasks themselves.
What are the time-wasters in your life or your industry? Find a way to streamline them, and it’s a good bet that someone will pay for the service.
Strategy #6 – Help people improve
A cynic might say this means appealing to people’s vanity, greed, or insecurity, but a more positive—and ultimately more helpful—way of looking at it is: how can you help people become better people?
Can you help them be healthier? Smarter? More confident? How about helping them get ahead in their careers or find a soulmate? Maybe you can help them throw great dinner parties, have a better relationship with their children, or be better drivers.
There is an endless supply of people who want to be better versions of themselves. Your job is to figure out how you can help them do that.
Strategy #7 – Look for the money
Ideas for saving money, saving time, and self-improvement are smart steps in the right direction, but they’re not a guarantee of a viable business. Once you’ve got a list of ideas, check each one against this question: are there enough people willing to pay enough money to make this worthwhile?
Sometimes the answer is an obvious no, in which case, fine. Just move on to the next one. But if an idea really calls to you, don’t dismiss it just because you “know” that no one would be willing to pay. Ask around. Do some market research. Send out surveys, interview your target market, and find out how other similar products are faring in the market.
If you’ve got a solid idea and are pretty sure you could make a profit with it, it might be time to take the leap and create a minimum viable product (MVP). The goal here is to create a product or service as quickly and inexpensively as possible and test it out in the real world.
Don’t sweat it if you don’t nail it perfectly the first time. Chances are, you’ll have to iterate and tweak before you’re ready to launch—or you might even realize that this idea isn’t for you and go back to square one.
But that is fine! Because you are an idea-generating machine and will always have more.
Want to get a little creative boost? Maybe the following guides will spark some ideas: