How to come up with a great business idea

The pandemic caused many awful things to occur, but one of the positive ones has been the incredible surge in new business startups. More businesses have been launched during the pandemic than at any time in the past decade. And many existing companies have been able to grow more rapidly than expected. Why do you think that is? It’s more than just the fact that the masses are becoming more comfortable (by necessity) with technology, or that countless new opportunities have emerged due to lockdowns. It’s also because so many people lost their jobs, or saw a shift in their job responsibilities, and realized that if not now, when? Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs decided that they are going to use this strange time to make big changes in their lives and sometimes, that involved career pivots or starting side hustles.

If you’re someone who wants to start a business, either full-time or a side hustle, the biggest challenge is often figuring out what that business should be? How does one come up with a great business idea? People start in a whole bunch of ways; have a look at some of them below.

  1. Start with something that you can do on the side if you want lees risk. A young woman I know had a fine arts background but her job was in sales. She needed a creative outlet so she started painting needlepoint canvasses for herself and a few crafty friends and posted them on Instagram to see if she could sell to others. The response was so good that she set up an Etsy site. In less than a year, she was able to set up her own website and hire someone to help her with fulfilment and work at it full-time. She’s making more than she was making at her very good sales job, but she did it in increments, in a very low-risk way.
  2. Start with something you, yourself, have tried unsuccessfully to My first business with my business partner of 26 years was a print and, eventually, online children’s resource directory. We had been looking for business ideas and decided to focus on the kids’ market as that was one we knew well (we both had several young children). We’d come up with an idea and then try to find out if it existed and after several unsuccessful attempts to source the info (pre-internet), we realized that if we couldn’t find that information, likely others couldn’t either. We parleyed our own need to find information into a business that provided info for all. It helped us, it helped our target audience, and it helped all the businesses in that vertical as they were able to directly reach parents looking for specific products/services.
  3. Start with a product or service that you can build off of. Is there a product that you like, but maybe could give it a twist for a new market or even the same audience? For example, I love to cycle and my husband and kids are serious cyclists and triathletes. But I had a bad fall & injury a year or two ago, and now I’m a bit afraid to get back on the horse (or cycle). I played around with getting a 3-wheel bike to give me a bit more stability, but they all look like they were made for 80-year olds, they can’t really go fast and they’re heavy and clunky and upright. How cool would it be to make a racing-type road bike that just had 3 wheels in the back? I’d buy it in a second so I could go out with my family at their pace, but just have a bit more stability and ease getting on and off.
  4. Start with the customer! They are your gold mine. Think of all the groups you are part of (parents, tennis players, chess players, dog-lovers, gardeners, etc) and start talking to the people in those groups about all the frustrations they have with things that their group uses. Find out which items have been rigged to fit specific needs in a sub-optimal way and then figure out if (how) you can do it better. Make sure it is a need to have, not a nice to have as you want the product to be one that people would spend money on. Even though you are a part of that group, you’ll discover frustrations & problems that you’ve never even thought of once you begin asking and listening. Then go-ahead and build a minimum viable product (MVP) quickly and inexpensively so you can test it with your group. You have a ready-made target audience and a perfect method to see if your product has legs before you have to spend a lot of money. Get your “group” to help you make it better and iterate ‘til you have something that you can sell more widely. When you start with the customer, you aren’t likely to build a product that has no audience and therefore, no sales.
  5. Start with something that people need in specific locations. Have you ever been to an event or a venue or a school and people are always saying…”I need X – is there anywhere nearby to get it?” Whether it is food or drink, or phone chargers or hand sanitizer or something bigger, you can often step in to fill a need in a place that they need it.

While we talk about focussing on the customer in #4, it is important to focus on the customer in all of them. Anytime you have a new business idea, you need to make sure it is something that the customer wants, needs and values. You can create the most incredible, cheapest, most beautiful, most …. whatever product or service, but if the customer isn’t willing to pay and doesn’t want it, your business will have an audience of one – and that is you. Focus on the customer first, and you know that you are serving up something that has a real chance of success.

So, whether we are in lock-down or in recovery, there are lots of opportunities out there; problems to solve. Just take the time to brainstorm with yourself, or with a friend, and see which ones have legs. You’ll see how easy it is to come up with a great idea for a startup. Start small but just start!

“Every problem is a gift—without problems we would not grow.” – Anthony Robbins

Which problem will be YOUR gift?

Elisa Palter

About the Author

Elisa Palter

Elisa has co-founded and successfully exited 2 small businesses, written business cases for Harvard Business School, and was part of the team that founded a prestigious Liberal Arts College overseas. She assists select NFP organizations with their messaging and strategy, and coaches women who are looking to become entrepreneurs. Elisa is passionate about entrepreneurship and its ability to empower individuals, particularly women.

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