We think of and are surrounded by brilliant business ideas every day.
The trick is to notice them.
That’s right—notice. You don’t need to be exceptionally creative, innovative, or original (though it’s great if you are) to find good, viable business ideas.
You just have to pay attention to what’s going on around you.
Once you get into the habit of looking for business ideas, you’ll find it hard to stop. Soon, you’ll find the idea that’s right for you.
The Easy Parts of Finding Business Ideas
The good news is that there are business ideas all around us. Find a problem to solve and enough people willing to pay you to solve it for them, and you have a business idea. And the “problem” doesn’t have to be huge and overwhelming. If you can make an experience faster, cheaper, more pleasant, or more efficient, chances are there’s a business opportunity there.
Once you get going with the exercises below, we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the way experiences, conversations, activities, and skillsets combine to spark ideas. In a few of the stages, we ask you to make various lists. You can write these down on cards or in a notebook, or keep track of them in a mind-mapping app like Miro.
Miro lets you put ideas on the same page, move them around, look for connections, take notes, and share your concepts with friends and colleagues. It offers a number of different templates for brainstorming, mind-mapping, ideation, and, when you’re ready for it, workflow, storyboarding, and analysis.
It’s a great way to store ideas as they come up, then move them around and play with them later to see what kind of connections you can make.
And trust us—finding business ideas is all about making connections.
The Difficult Parts of Finding Business Ideas
Arguably the hardest part of finding ideas is that we tend to get in our own way. We get a flash of inspiration and immediately shut it down as too stupid, too complicated, or “it’s already been done.”
Yes, any given idea might be dumb, difficult, or impossible, and the vast majority of your ideas will not be million-dollar material. But that doesn’t mean you should dismiss them. If you give it a chance and think it through more, you may discover that your idea isn’t as complicated or stupid as you thought. And even the most ridiculous ideas may carry the seeds of something better and provide you inspiration.
And don’t let the fact that it’s already been done stop you. You can always take an existing idea and put your own twist on it or improve it. Supermarkets have been around for over a century, for example, but that didn’t stop Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s from being wildly successful.
When it comes to generating ideas, volume counts. Yes, the majority of your ideas won’t take off and make you millions, but that’s fine. The more ideas you come up with, the more likely you are to find at least one or two that are both feasible and fun. So as you move into the idea-generating stage, commit to staying open to all the ideas you get, no matter how kooky or off the wall.
Step 1: Start with What Lights You Up
The adage “know thyself” applies here. Following through with an idea will be exponentially harder if you’re not at least a little excited about it on a personal level. Spend some time studying your passions and you’ll have a better shot at coming up with ideas that really work.
Let’s make some lists.
What are you good at?
Perhaps you’re a passionate wordsmith, a numbers nerd, or an organizational whiz kid. Perhaps you love talking to strangers or creating presentations or delivering speeches. Or maybe you’re the person everyone calls when their computer stops working.
Understanding and appreciating your abilities can help point you in the direction of interesting business ideas that (bonus) you’ll actually enjoy. Remember to keep an open mind. Being great with numbers doesn’t necessarily mean you should open your own accounting business (though it might). It could lend itself to businesses like tutoring, or it could mean that when you get your business off the ground, you should be the “numbers” person.
If a brilliant idea doesn’t jump out at you immediately, that’s fine. We’re still at Stage One, after all. For now, just start keeping a list of things you love doing.
What do you do for fun?
Now, just because you’re passionate about a particular hobby, sport, or pastime doesn’t mean you should necessarily try to make a living out of it. There’s nothing wrong with doing something simply because you enjoy it, and not all hobbies and interests will work well (or be as much fun) if you try to turn them into moneymakers.
That said, beginning with something you do for fun can give you a big advantage. It’s definitely easier and more fun to geek out on the nitty-gritty details of something you’re sincerely passionate about it. And you may already have a community of like-minded enthusiasts out there that you can tap into for ideas and feedback.
Whether it’s knitting, ice sculpting, brewing your own kombucha, or playing in a Saturday soccer league, it’s fair game. Make a list of your favorite hobbies and pastimes.
What topics excite you?
Think about the topics you just can’t get enough of. Maybe you nerd out on Alexander the Great or can’t get enough of 19th-century British literature. Maybe you could talk all day about microbrewing or Italian sportscars or astrophysics. Or maybe you’re passionate about social justice or environmental issues.
Your favorite topics may not lead directly to viable business ideas, but paying attention to them can give you insight into what you love and why you love it, keep your mind active, and spark completely new ideas.
And you never know—they might lead directly to a successful idea. Look no further than Dan Carlin, a former radio show host who combined his love of history and wargaming with his gift for storytelling and created the highly acclaimed “Hardcore History” podcast series.
You’re probably getting the hang of this now. Make a list of topics that fascinate you.
Step 2: Look for Problems to Solve
Every successful business solves a problem of some kind. For ideas, begin looking around for problems (there are plenty to choose from) and think about ways you could solve them.
What frustrates you in your own life?
After experiencing sexual harassment at her job and vicious abuse on Twitter, Whitney Wolfe decided that women needed more control, especially online. She created an online dating app that puts women in control by making them the ones to initiate conversations.
Now Bumble is one of the most successful dating apps out there, and Wolfe is the youngest self-made female billionaire in the United States.
What frustrations do you face regularly? Chances are if you’re frustrated by something, so are other people. List out the problems you face, from petty annoyances to enormous obstacles.
What do people complain about?
Let’s face it: people love to complain. There’s a limit to how much you can do about the weather or the state of the economy, but if you keep your ears open to what people complain about, you could hit on some interesting business ideas.
Parents complain about the need for before-school childcare. Colleagues complain about how no one can agree on what the office temperature should be. Your roommate complains about not getting the raise she deserved. Every one of these situations has the seeds of a business idea in it.
Every time you hear someone complain about something, make a note of it.
What social, economic, or environmental problems does the world face?
Affordable housing. Access to healthcare. Climate change. Racial inequality.
There are a lot of problems in the world, and they all represent opportunities for the right person with the right ideas. Tesla is a great example. Elon Musk understood that we can’t continue to rely on fossil fuels and created the first all-electric car to use lithium-ion battery cells. He’s also invested heavily in solar power.
Make a list of “big” issues. Pay special attention to the ones that get you fired up.
Step 3: Give yourself new experiences
You may come up with a million-dollar idea while you’re sitting on your couch watching the latest episode of Ted Lasso. But you’re a lot more likely to come up with innovative ideas—on your couch or anywhere else—if you’re consistently creating new experiences for yourself.
This step is less about lists and more about creating new perspectives.
Do new things
If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at beekeeping or hip hop dancing or chainsaw sculpture, why not give it a shot? Don’t worry about whether you’ll be able to turn it into a career selling honey or teaching dance. Just try it because it’s new and different. It’ll challenge you, boost your confidence, expose you to new ideas and new skills—and maybe spark some business ideas as well.
Go new places
And by new places, I mean new, unfamiliar places. If you have the opportunity to expose yourself to a new culture or language, go for it. But if you don’t, look for ways to experience the unfamiliar in your own backyard.
Go to museum exhibits and gallery openings for artists you’ve never heard of. Go to a festival for a genre of music you know nothing about. If you’re a city dweller, go camping in the country. If you’re a suburbanite, sign up for a tour of street art in the nearest big city. Exposing yourself to new places helps fill the creative well and makes it more likely that you’ll come up with some truly innovative ideas.
Meet new people
If you’re an extrovert, you probably do this already. If you’re an introvert, it may be a little harder, but try anyway. It’ll pay off.
Strike up conversations with strangers on trains and in stores. Go to local meet-ups for people who share your interests. Join Toastmasters. If you take a class or a workshop in the Doing New Things step, make it a point to speak to at least one new person at every session. Not sure what to talk about? Tell them you’re looking for problems to solve à la Stage 2 and see what they share.
The more people you meet and talk to, the more ideas you’ll be able to come up with.
Step 4: Build Good Idea Habits
Hopefully, you’re now exposing yourself to new ideas, people, and activities, and you’ve got lists of things you enjoy and are good at. Now it’s time to start training your brain to become an idea-generating machine.
It might sound a little counter-intuitive. Meditation, after all, is the art of not thinking, which sounds like it would be the opposite of coming up with business ideas.
But remember earlier when we talked about the importance of getting out of your own way? Meditation helps you do this by clearing your mind of distractions—including all those pesky reasons why X, Y, or Z won’t work or isn’t possible. You’ll have a better chance of accessing inspiration if you regularly clear and calm your mind.
It doesn’t need to be a huge commitment. Even five minutes a day is enough to access a new perspective and give your ideas space to grow.
Make daily idea lists
Every day, set a time for 3-5 minutes and write down as many business ideas as you can think of. Challenge yourself to write a longer list each time. They don’t have to be practical or even physically possible. The important thing here is to get into the habit of getting as many ideas down as possible.
This is another method of getting out of your own way. When you’re focused on getting your ideas down, you won’t be thinking about all the reasons they won’t work. Plus you’ll be building the idea habit.
Step 5: Put it all together
Okay, now it’s time to start connecting everything, literally. You can use your mind-mapping software, or pen and paper. You may want to write each idea on a separate card or get a big piece of poster board and scribble all over it. There’s no right or wrong as long as you put all your ideas where you can see them.
Mix and match
Back to those lists of things we love to do and think about that we started in Stage 1. Add them to your mind-mapping software or just write them out where you can see them. Then write down all the problems you came up with in Stage 2.
Then add in anything that’s caught your attention since you started trying new things and meeting new people. A snippet of conversation. A sense of excitement. A moment of frustration.
By getting it all out in front of you, you may start to see connections that you didn’t before.
Brainstorm with others
Let’s put your friends to work. Maybe you can even call in some of those fascinating people you met in Step 3. In-person is great, but if that’s not feasible, a platform like Zoom is a good substitute. Try to get at least 3 or 4 other people involved.
Share your lists, explain that you’re looking for business ideas, and ask everyone to start tossing ideas around. The only rule? You’re not allowed to say no to anything. Write everything down and add it to your ever-growing list of ideas.