Begin with problems—not solutions.
The Entrepreneur Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question “How do you come up with a new startup idea?” is written by David Slayden, executive director of BDW.
A startup’s journey from initial idea to successful execution is more often than not a long and circuitous path. And when something happens that moves a startup from business idea to successful business reality—when a startup ceases to be a startup and finds a repeatable and scalable business model (to paraphrase serial entrepreneur Steve Blank)—it usually occurs after repeated trial and error of building a product, service, or solution that solves a problem.
Most people who found a startup are not struck by a great idea out of thin air. In fact, for every ah-ha moment that forms the basis of a company’s origin story, 1,000 other people had to sit down and do the hard work of brainstorming and refining the ideas that led to their success. Startups are iterative. They are agile. And successful startup founders understand that ideas take time to find their legs as well as their path. The journey begins with an insight and continues with the tenacity to keep trying to make something that you believe in actually work.
For those working to come up with an idea for the next killer startup, begin by removing the word “startup” from your process. Sure, founding a company might be your goal, but don’t get ahead of yourself. The seed of a great idea will grow into something that can eventually form the purpose for your startup. You can worry about whether the idea is viable, scalable, and repeatable in the next steps. And get rid of the concept of “coming up” with something. It’s a limiting way to state the challenge. Instead, think about where good ideas come from, and work from there.
If you’re starting from nothing, begin with problems—not solutions. In my work, I approach ideas from the user’s point of view. In user-centered design, we ask what actionable insight we can bring to life that will drive change and make life better for people experiencing a problem. This is different than revising ideas (and business models) that already exist. Some startups are based around this method of building a better mousetrap, and that’s fine, but truly original ideas come from a different process. And this process—iterative, experimental, and agile—is driven by a design mind that works its way toward finding solutions.
Here are some guidelines for getting to the place where new and actionable ideas come from, and in a way that puts the user first:
Does it solve a problem?
A good product, service, or idea should always loop back to the question, “Does this solve a problem?” Paul Graham, cofounder of Y Combinator, provides the following advice when vetting ideas: “…You can either build something a large number of people want a small amount [of], or something a small number of people want a large amount [of].”
The solution to the problem is an actionable insight that will drive change and make life better for the small number of people who will adopt and support (pay for) your solution.
Is it easy to use?
Is the solution to the problem one that’s simple enough for people to want to use it and feel like it’s un-cluttering their lives? Beyond the classic 80/20 rule, consider this: If your idea is an immediate bullet to the brain of a hardcore group of people on the frontline, it has a good chance of scaling and being adopted by a larger group of people who are not on the frontline, but who trust the insight of people out in front, like leaders, innovators, and visionaries.
Does it have legs?
Can the idea grow and spread with new technologies and a landscape that’s permanently in beta? Once you’ve made sure you’re solving a problem and making it easy to use, the idea has to have legs to stand on, meaning it must have a long-lasting impact across mediums, channels, and cultures.
By making sure your idea passes these three tests, you ensure it has the potential to become a successful startup. There will always be obstacles that you face as you structure the business model, but it must start with a solid core. And at the core of that solid core is a single question: What is your intent? The best insights begin with empathy.