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The beginner’s guide to coming up with billion dollar ideas

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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.

The problem is so important that it's the headline in their "about" page.
The problem is so important that it’s the headline in their “about” page.

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.

Craiglists in their early days

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 WELLMindVox 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.

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How to Make Users Love Your Product

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While designing a website is very much about the interface and how to “guide” your users to do what you’d like them to do or click on, a lot of it is actually creating an “experience”.

In this generation, we’ve moved from just having a usable and functional product, to a product that is not only user-friendly, but a product that connects with you – a product that you feel defines you, or you have feelings for.

Also, people don’t always do what you want them to do. Asking is not always enough to get people to do what you want them to do. How do you get them to complete their profile? or how do you get them to complete the sale on the order check-out page?


Below are a few tricks that can transform your website to an “Experience”:

1. Pictures of People: Put pictures of people on your website, and don’t just use any random looking stock images (that’ll actually make it worse). And studies show that not only pictures of people on your website convert better, but if those people in the pictures are looking towards the button or the Call-to-Action link/button you want them to click on, then that would convert even better. Read here: http://uxdesign.smashingmagazine.com/2009/09/24/10-useful-usability-findings-and-guidelines/

Baby conversion before

Compare this with the image below:

Baby conversion after
Where the baby is looking gets a lot more eyeballs than the one that’s just making eye contact with you. Turns out that e-EyeContact is overrated.

2. Mascots: Companies like Mailchimp have done very well by using a mascot that makes it really easy to remember them by, and hard to forget. Mailchimp uses well, a monkey. Twitter uses a whale. Hootsuite uses an owl. The list goes on. See more here: http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/21-excellent-examples-of-animal-as-web-mascots/

Mailchimp Monkey StartitUp


3. Gamification/Sense of Completion/Collecting Things: Human beings love to complete, collecting, and be rewarded. When you think about the structure of your website, you can think about creating gamifying elements like giving users badges when they achieve something.

You can also implement elements like rankinglevels (e.g. New Member, Senior Member, Guru Member, etc.) , positions, etc.

Case Study: Linkedin had a lot of trouble in the beginning to make people fill out more than just their name in their profiles. Then, they decided to come out with a profile completion bar that makes them want to fill out more. Obviously, they were wildly successful. They were able to get most people to fill out more information about themselves.

Linkedin Progress bar

Case Study 2: Nike’s Nike+ app on iOS and Android is an app that helps you track your running habit and progress. To make things “fun”, they also gave you an avatar or a doll that you can customize to look like yourself. The cool thing is that if you didn’t exercise enough, your avatar (which represents you), would get fat and that would make you want to exercise again just to keep your virtual self in shape.

Nike+ Mini

The take-away here is that you want to create an environment that encourages your users to take the actions you want them to take, because simply asking is not enough. In fact, as a manager who’s managed tens of people, the best way is not to micro-manage or “instruct” them to do what you want them to do (you can’t anyways), but to hack people’s behavior by cultivating an amazing culture, putting in an efficient structure, delivering clear communication, and creating mutually beneficial incentives to make your staff happy, prioritized, and productive – without much of your intervention.

Case Study (Mind-blowing – I can’t find the video for this one, but I’ve photoshopped an image to demonstrate): I watched this video in Tokyo once about how a Japanese boss mind-controlled all of his employees with little square stickers.

So, the story was that the stuff in the office were not being organized and put back after use. So, the boss was quite a neat freak and wanted things in order.

He first simply asked the employees (nicely) to put things back. Didn’t work. He then put in a policy of reward and punishment. Didn’t work either. In the end, what he did was he stuck on every office tool or object a white sticker with a red arrow on it pointing to its counterpart, which would be stuck on the precise location where the item should be returned after use (like below). When the object is returned to its original location, the arrow would point perfectly to the arrow on the table or on whatever piece of furniture.

The employees all responded that in the beginning they didn’t mind it much, but as time passed, it actually frustrated them that the arrows weren’t lining up. Sooner or later it became a habit and everyone was playing the “arrow matching” game in the office.

Japanese Sticker Hack


4. Mystery/Surprises: Kinder’s Surprise (Chocolate Candy) makes you want to buy a chocolate because you don’t know what you’re going to get. Actually, many websites do this. Other than mysterious, you can also be unpredictable. People like surprises.

Case Study on Mystery: HowAboutWe is a dating website where you’d post a date idea and whoever is interested can contact you to join you on that date (so dating based on mutual interests). However, while you are free to create a profile and post your date ideas, you cannot read any of the messages sent to you if you don’t become a paid member. So, they make it a mystery about who could potentially be your other half. It’d drive a single person insane if he/she couldn’t find out what they’re missing out on. Naturally, Howaboutwe is doing great, because their mystery element is off the charts.

Howaboutwe Mystery

Case Study on Mystery: HotWheels tested out having a Mystery car toy against just showing what the car is. Obviously, the mystery car sold significantly better than when they had shown the car. Even kids couldn’t handle the suspense.

hotwheel study

Cast Study on Surprise: For those of you who played Diablo 3, you noticed that Diablo 3 was a lot less addtive than it’s predecessor. Most people probably didn’t notice why, but the reason was because Diablo 3 was dropping too many rare and unique items whereas Diablo 2 didn’t drop as many. In Diablo 3, it became easy to predict when you will get a very good item, and in Diablo 2, it was actually quite hard to plan the same acquisition. Therefore, in Diablo 2, you could go on for months or even years because 1. It was hard to get great items (if you got one you’re special), and 2. You feel like if you stopped now, the next kill will drop a rare item – so you keep chasing after that carrot. Read here to find out why Diablo 3 wasn’t addictive.


5. Availability/Ego (Social Status): This is quite a well-known tactic, but also one of the best. However, what this really is, is actually just another way to stroke one’s ego. Everybody wants to be first or one of the few owners. It defines who they are. Making your service or product limited in quantity makes it seem a lot more precious and rewarding.

In fact, an experiment studied 2 groups of people that paid different prices on a product and found that while both groups bought the same product, the group that paid for the higher price enjoyed a higher level of satisfaction. Therefore, price is also an important element that creates a sense of “ego” for your customers.

Case Study: Hermes bags are perhaps the most expensive bags in the world. One usually costs over USD$10,000, and that’s if you can get on the waitlist. So, the truth is that Hermes is not a bags’ company. They are a confidence feel-good I’m-the-shit product company. They create bags that make ordinary women into superwomen. A woman is only as precious as her bag. Right?..Right?

Hermes bag scarce
If I didn’t tell you there’s only 10 of these in the world, and you’d have to be a superstar to hold one of these, would you still want it so badly?

6. Be Human (and Humorous): As mentioned, a key thing to do for your website or product is to make it seem like a “human”. If you’ve seen the Bicentennial Man by Robin Williams, you will see that in the film while most robots are seen as robots because they have no humanly emotions, the robot played by Robin Williams was different (humanly) and had emotions. Apparently, being human is so hot. In the movie, he was not only able to make 1 woman, but 2 women fall deeply in love with him.

And, whatever made him so loveable in the movie was his humor. If you can make people smile, laugh, or cry, then they will come back. They will not only come back, but bring their friends.

Bicentennial Man

Case Study: Apple is a master of emotional design and marketing. For example, the way you know if your Macbook is awake is be seeing if it’s still breathing (the breathing light at the front of the laptop). The Macbook is also a beautiful looking creature that makes people feel closely connected to them, and not just a machine that connects to the internet and serves your documents.

The Macbook makes people feel so emotionally connected, to the point that Mac users are much more likely to overlook or forgive a system malfunction than when a PC user encounters a similar malfunction.

So with that example, you can see that there’s a lot of things that are not just about designing an usable product, but also creating something that has a human touch to it. The trick here is to remind users that they are interacting with a living and perhaps humanly product. Not just a machine spitting out music, words, or images.

Macbook Breathing Light

Case Study: Google on default has a lot of dorky/cute features that make it actually quite a “humanly” search engine. It has a lot of hidden features like being able to make the interface into Startrek Klingon language. They also spend a load of time to make us laugh by creating great April fools pranks.

This is my favorite: 8-bit Google Maps

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