The 7 Secrets to Choosing Your Startup Idea
How do you come up with great startup ideas? It is often excruciatingly hard. It is a time of self-doubt and introspection, and often you are concerned that people aren’t giving you honest or constructive feedback.
The truth is, unless you have had practice, your idea probably does suck and people really aren’t giving you honest feedback.
But that’s ok. Don’t worry. Here are 7 tips that I learned the hard way (by ignoring them). Just promise me that you will try not to learn them the hard way too…
Secret #1: The Founding Story is as Important as the Idea
What’s your story? Why are you doing what you do? Why are you trying to fix this problem in the first place?
I have come up with countless terrible startup ideas, and the leading cause of terrible ideas was when I was trying to be opportunistic. When you ignore what you are good at and try to follow something trendy or some shiny idea just because it is trendy, your idea is bound to fail. Not because it isn’t a good idea, necessarily. It is just not a good idea for you.
Why are you uniquely special in being able to solve this problem? How has your whole life lead up to this moment? Is this what you have been preparing for, either knowingly or un-knowingly? What skill have you picked up while working for others that you became known for at your company? Can you turn that into a product or a service?
BONUS: VC’s love to hear your founding story. Don’t take my word for it, listen to Dave Hersh from Andreessen Horowitz.
Secret #2: Killer Startup Ideas Solve Hair-On-Fire Problems
Do people know they have the problem you are trying to solve? If not, you have just made The #1 Fatal Flaw in Most Startup Ideas.
Why? Because if they don’t know they have the problem, they are not going to be looking for your solution. If they are not pulling their hair out, it doesn’t matter if they could save more money doing it your way. Don’t make a vitamin, make a pain-killer.
Secret #3: Fear of Failure Kills More Ideas Than Poor Execution
Are you scared of great success? Most people are if they are honest with themselves. Don’t think you are capable of doing something amazing? You’re not alone.
The stories you tell yourself about yourself can be the most limiting factor when it comes to creating great startup ideas.
Do you think you could never start a car company? Never worked in the car-making business before? Don’t have the know-how or expertise or network? Clearly Elon Musk didn’t tell himself those stories after leaving PayPal.
To come up with great startup ideas, you must ignore the excuses that your brain comes up with for why you can’t do something amazing. The excuses might be valid, but you must ignore them nonetheless.
How big of a problem are you trying to solve for others? How much value are you adding to someone’s life? Often we think of what we alone are capable. We think only of our limitations and boundaries.
Are you trying to stay within your known boundaries? Does not knowing how to do a hardware startup make you only focus on software startups? Remember that a startup requires a team of people smarter than you and more knowledgeable than you. Dream big and surround yourself with people who can help.
Secret #4: Give More Than You Get
Generosity begets generosity. The more you give to others, the more life will bring to you in return. The corollary is just as true: stinginess follows stinginess.
People never know how much work you put into your startup. This can sometimes translate to you over-pricing or under-marketing your ideas. Although you should never leave money on the table, pricing products and services is a market exercise, not based on what you think it is worth.
All things being equal, pick ideas that have more opportunities to give. Be generous and do the most good, and people will take notice.
Secret #5: Ask For Honest Feedback
Getting honest feedback from people is tricky because usually people are trained to be polite.
For example, you might ask: “What do you think of a startup that sells gorillas to eskimos?”
And a friend might say: “Huh, sounds cool.”
You are asking the question in the wrong way. You have to give people permission to be honest.
For example: “Please be open and honest with me. Can you honestly see me selling gorillas to eskimos?”
Friend: “Hell no, never in a million years.”
It is often a good idea when soliciting feedback about startup ideas to ask if people can imagine you running the company you are thinking of. That’s because a startup idea might be great, but not a good fit for you (see Secret #1).
Secret #6: Killer Startup Ideas Are Built to Change
The only thing worse than picking a bad startup idea is sticking to a bad startup idea. No matter how good your founding story is, no matter how passionate you are about your idea, you must be willing to look at results regularly and objectively and ask if things are going according to plan.
Once you decide on a startup idea, set objective and quantifiable results that you want to achieve in 1-3 months. Then every 1-3 months, review your progress and ask yourself the tough question: are things on track or is it time to try something different?
Secret #7: Stick to One Ideal Customer
When dreaming big, one of the easiest mistakes you can make is coming up with marketplace or two-sided businesses.
For example: I will create a search engine that finds stuff better than Google and gives advertisers better targeting than Facebook.
The problem with that idea is that you are trying to serve two Ideal Customers: searchers and advertisers. Although you should dream big, serving two customers at once is simply not possible for most startups. You are not the exception.
There is an easy solution: pick just one side of the two-sided business and focus on it exclusively. For example: ignore the advertisers completely, just focus on making a better search engine. You can always add advertiser features later, but you need to focus on being great at only one thing to start with.
About the Author
Lucas Carlson is a hands-on consultant, author and entrepreneur. He helps founders discover opportunities for growth, both for their companies and for themselves. He was the CEO and founder of AppFog, a popular startup acquired in 2013 after signing up over 100,000 developers and raising nearly $10M in venture funding from top angels and VCs.