Updated: Feb 21
The origin stories of some of the biggest companies in the world are by now almost folklore. But perhaps the lesson from these giants is not ‘how to become the next Google’ but simply how to start thinking about ideas in a way that these mega-companies did when they first started.
So how do you come up with a great idea and how do you know if it’s a winner?
If you’re sitting at your kitchen table scratching your head – this article is for you. I'll guide you through the process of idea generation, and bring in tips from the pros.
Like most things in life, if you break it down into a series of steps, it suddenly becomes a lot more manageable. So here are four steps to get you started.
If you want to become a writer, the first thing to do is read a lot. If you are planning on starting a business, you need to be constantly taking in information. Here’s your starter list:
Read blogs – whether that’s big mainstream articles about the usual suspects (Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, etc.) or more niche entrepreneurs who may not be household names, everyone’s journey can help drive yours.
Listen to podcasts – from ‘How I built this’ on NPR to listening to Clubhouse discussions by business leaders, hearing stories first hand can not only inspire, but might just be the turning point in your idea generation.
Read books – yes, this takes more time, but if you do what Bill Gates does and put aside one hour per day, you can rip through a lot of books in a year. What they offer compared to podcasts and blogs is unique: an after-the-fact digested version of an entrepreneur’s story. Valuable insights all round.
Watch industry news – whether this is subscribing to industry-specific channels on YouTube or simply putting on Bloomberg TV, keeping up to date with your industry as well as your local business environment gives you a great overview of the current climate – the climate that you’re about to enter into.
And while you do all of this, take notes. Lots of notes. Which leads us to Point 2.
Think of all that absorbing as your baseline research. Now what are you going to do with it? Well, it’s time to make it work for you. Start looking for links, for ways in which ideas connect and produce new ideas. If a particular idea interests you, go off on a side street and explore it to the fullest, knowing that you can always come back to ‘base’ if it turns out to be a dead-end.
A quick way of checking if you’re on the right track – does your offering solve a customer problem in a way that is not currently being addressed? If the answer is yes, you are already on strong footing.
After a while, you can feel like you’re too trapped in your own head. Sharing your ideas with trusted (emphasis on trusted) friends and family, as well as any mentor figures in your life, is a great way of taking the ideas you have started to develop from Point 2 and really start to stress-test them.
You will get feedback you don’t like and feedback you love, the question is what do you do with it?
4. Narrow it down
You have done the raw research, you have formulated ideas from that research, and you have sought feedback from others on your ideas. Now it’s time to start narrowing it down to one or two key ideas, streamlining them, looking for holes that you need to patch. And ultimately coming out with an idea you feel is worth pursuing.
The result of this 4-step process may be the emergence of a brilliant idea, or it may simply lead you back to Point 1 and back to the drawing board.
It’s important to know that there is no ‘failure’ at this stage, and no matter how much time you take, or how many rounds of thinking, writing, sharing, plotting, that you go through, it’s all worthwhile if the end result is a great business idea.
Idea generation – lessons from the pros
So let’s now look at how some of the giants of their industry started out on their journey – and what you can use from their experience.
Google: Starting out as a research paper, and initially named BackRub (due to its reliance on back-links) it did something different: determining a website’s relevance by taking into consideration the number of pages (and their importance) that linked back to the original site. Later re-named Google, it was an original twist on the search engine.
Hargreaves Lansdown: Great idea generation and innovation can be found in even the oldest and most traditional of industries. Hargreaves Lansdown, one of the UK’s most successful investment firms, started in a spare room with GBP 500 and one phone. So no matter what your chosen business, starting small, with minimal costs, gives you the time and freedom to think outside the box.
Zoom: Zoom solved a problem – its founder was in a long-distance relationship, and this new technology meant that he didn’t always have to take a day-long train ride to see his significant other. While Zoom now has become one of the most recognizable global brands, it continues to solve the same problem – for its millions of customers.
Red Rabbit: After struggling to find healthy food options for their kids while at school, the initial idea was to set up an online food service company that parents could order from and have delivered to the school. But the lesson here is the ability to pivot. Realizing that the basis of this idea was solid, but something needed tweaking, the founders switched their model and made the schools themselves the end customer rather than the parents.
The first step in any process is to take action. So by just picking up a notepad, or reading a blog, you are already on your journey. The question is – where is it going to take you?
Cover image: Pexels