It is widely accepted in the entrepreneurial community that execution trumps idea. After all, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. This explains why investors like to see an experienced team at the helm and some semblance of traction before investing in a business and why almost no one is willing to sign an non-disclosure agreement before a first conversation with an aspiring entrepreneur. But, while a good idea does not a successful startup make, it is still the necessary starting point for your work as an entrepreneur. All this talk about execution isn’t very helpful without an idea upon which to execute. Here are some of my favourite techniques for idea generation, to help you hasten the search for your next bright idea and move on to the execution.
This technique often arises organically: you’ll be out in the world, going about your business, when it occurs to you how your experience could be improved. While organic ideas are often some of the best, you can come close to replicating the organic experience a little deliberate problem spotting.
In this case, it is truly the critic who counts, so feel free to let it rip: list out all of your complaints, everything that bugs you, every product or service that’s not quite doing it right. Don’t stop there, get others involved and ask them about their problems. Talk to friends, do a little focus group, or conduct an online survey. Do a little “problem watching”: it’s like people watching but with an eye to what’s going wrong with each person’s day. When Cecelia Myers and I founded CakeStyle, we were largely motivated by our own problems as career-focused women with little time to shop.
The key to problem spotting is to capture a long list of problems before you start considering possible solutions. Most problems can be solved in many different ways so don’t let yourself get too stuck on one solution.
This is an old favourite with a twist. Get a group of people in a room, preferably with a big whiteboard, and let the ideas flow. Be sure to pick a moderator and read up on the basic Rules of Brainstorming. For brainstorms, I generally like groups of three at a minimum, up to 10 at a maximum. With fewer than three, there aren’t enough differing perspectives in the room to come to an interesting outcome and with more than 10, the loudest participants will dominate the discussion.
The brainstorm should be focused on a specific topic, which could be anything from a type of business model, to an industry, a target customer, or a new technology. The group should do a little pre-reading and pre-thinking before the brainstorm begins. Adding a constraint, like a specific focus, to your brainstorm leads to a more productive, creative outcome.
Getting critical in a brainstorm often kills the creative momentum, so resist the urge. Again, the goal here is to generate a big list of many ideas, not to debate the merits of one idea or determine whether another idea is feasible.
In his classic book, Thriving on Chaos, Tom Peters introduces the concept of “creative swiping”. Creative swiping involves taking another company’s ideas and applying them to a new geography, market or context, and tweaking the execution to make it your own: the X for Y analogy. In Peters’ blunt words, a creative swiper is a “sophisticated copycat”. No judgment intended, an idea needn’t be creative and can certainly be derivative, yet still form the basis of an extremely profitable, successful business.
When Etsy first started, it was dubbed “eBay for crafts”, and when Airbnb launched it was “Craigslist for vacation rentals”. As venture capitalist Andrew Parker noted in The Spawn of Craigslist, many startups have originated from Craigslist’s excellent yet flawed platform. In founding doggyloot, my co-founders and I set out to create a “Groupon for dogs” but ultimately pivoted into a “Fab.com for dogs”.
The Samwer brothers of Rocket Internet have gained notoriety and great wealth by swiping ideas from other countries and launching them in Europe, but their arguable lack of “tweaking”, where the original idea is adapted to its target audience, has led tocriticism and litigation.
Have you ever explained your brilliant startup idea to another person, only to have them completely misunderstand the idea? This final idea generation technique leverages those frustrating conversations. At the core of idea recycling is misunderstanding, so you will need at least one other person.
One participant produces a list of brief descriptions of ideas. Create this list by looking at existing businesses and boiling down their core “idea” into a short phrase or sentence. For a quick list, look at the Fortune 500, venture capital portfolios, and startups coming out of accelerators. As an example, eBay’s description might be “online garage sales”. Be sure not to include the company name in the final list. When the second participant reads through the list, the ideas essentially become new because the reader will invariably “misunderstand” them just enough.
Another way to generate the list for recycling is to use the ideas you’ve created with the techniques described above. A class at Hyper Island created The Idea Swap, which takes a similar approach and allows you to take an idea you aren’t using and “swap” it for another one.
I hope these techniques help you find your next big idea. In the spirit of swapping, if you have other favourite techniques for idea generation, feel free to share them in the comments.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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