I was asked this question by many users on our platform, and I guess I owe it to discuss a bit more about how to come up with ideas that will last and make your business successful.
I think people want to think of ideas, instead I like to think of problems. Each idea is an angle at solving a problem – an idea should stem out from a problem. When companies pivot or when they change their strategy, they are basically changing their approach to the same problem they are solving. The idea may change, but the problem persists. And usually having the problem in mind is a lot more empowering than having a solution in mind. When your mental state is in solution-mode, you are in tunnel vision, but when you are in problem-mode, you are open to all the possibilities to solving the same problem. This is actually the magical mental state to be in, because when you always think of the problem you want to solve, then you will always do the right things to for your startup. When you have a great problem that you want to solve, that is a seed to grow many more ideas to solve that problem.
Google also shows you how important (#1 thing to have on your mind at all times actually) it is to have the problem in mind at all times (their mission statement). Their mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This is basically the “mission-statement” way of saying they want to solve the problem of the vast amount of unorganized data on the internet. And if you think about it, the majority of their products do exactly that. Everything that they do are not unfocused, but towards this single mission. They have many different products as many approaches to organize different types of data. They have Google Plus as the product to organize individuals’ data. They have Google maps as a way to organize geographical data. Their search engine, which is the basic product, is the ultimate product to organize all text/image/video data.
Therefore, I think in many cases, we should be looking for problems we want to solve before we look for a viable solution for that problem. However, that’s what most people do. Most people think of ideas in the form of solution before problem.
That’s why in Ash Maurya’s Running Lean, he has the problem solution as the first interview you want to conduct, out of the 2 other interviews – solution and MVP interviews. The problem is really the first thing you need to figure out – whether if it’s a real problem with a sizable population.
So, how do we come up with an idea? It’s simply 4 easy steps:
1. Just live your life, no need to constantly be in idea-generation mode.
2. Observe the frustrations you have everyday, or of the people around you.
3. When you find one, then that’s a good potential problem to solve.
4. Find interviewees and start doing the Problem interview to see if this is a problem worth solving, if there’s enough people who want this problem solved.
When the answer to step 4 is a yes, then you would have a valid problem worth pursuing. However, there’s a lot more preparation work you should do before you just go on to start building your product.
To put this into perspective, here’s the story of how Craigslist, the biggest classified listings in the US, came to be.
In 1994, Craig Newmark was working at Charles Schwab, was a newcomer to San Francisco, and was feeling a bit left out because he couldn’t find ways to connect with others. At the same time, he also observed that people were helping each other on the internet through WELL, MindVox and Usenet, so that gave him some inspirations. He soon decided that to solve his own problem and give back to the community, he would create a cc email distribution list that would send out news on local events to help people connect.
Soon, he noticed that the number of subscribers rose rapidly, and people started using the cc list for many things – like getting jobs filled, or things non-related to local events. People also gave him feedback and about what categories they wished to see in the mailing list.
The demand outgrew the ability of the mailing list, to which he then built Craigslist.org. (A side note is that Craig Newmark didn’t have much design skills, so his website looked and still looks design-less.
Craig found a real problem that he and others shared, which was that it was very hard to connect with other people to get things done. He didn’t go out and try hard to find an “idea”. He merely observed what he and others needed, and starting acting on it.
Therefore, the beginning of your startup starts with your frustration, and the passion to solve that for others as well.