Generating business ideas isn't magic. Generating ideas reliably requires a mindset shift and a couple of habits.
There is, in fact, a whole literature on this topic, which I have a hypothesis that not enough folks in my circles are aware of because it uses the word "founder"
In brief: Stop thinking about generating business or product ideas. Focus on finding people who would be good customers, and talk to them regularly about their problems.
This is a "learning in public" kind of article. It's an attempt to synthesize common advice from sources I've been reading. I haven't yet used any of the ideas I've generated with this method, and I expect to update this once I do. I have gone from being a person who didn't think I could start a business because I don't have any ideas, to being a person who has more ideas than I can use. If you're interested in making that shift yourself, read on.
Who do you want to help?
First, the mindset shift: You're not looking for business ideas. You're looking for a set of people to help.
These are people...
- With problems they know about
- Who spend money to solve their problems
- Whose attention you can reliably get
- Who you're energized by talking to
- Who know about and talk to each other
If you can find those people, and talk to them regularly, they will give you ideas all the time. Especially if you can write a bit of code.
Problems they know about
If they don't know they have a problem, you're not going to be able to convince them otherwise. Leave that to big companies with big marketing budgets.
What you're looking for here is a subset of people who you can ask questions like, "What's the most irritating software you have to use for work?" and get answers that make you think, "Heck, I could do better than that."
Who spend money to solve their problems
This requires first that they have money, and second that they're willing to spend it on this particular problem. The conventional wisdom here is "businesses are better than consumers," because they have more money and they're more willing to spend it, but there's at least a little bit of nuance here.
One, some business are also pathologically bad at spending money on things. See: All of enterprise sales. You're not, in fact, looking for a "business," you're looking for a specific person who can spend money on behalf of that business. The more internal policy hoops that person has to jump through to give you money, the worse that business will be as a customer.
Two, software engineers (and possibly other categories of professional, but this is the one I'm familiar with) have a lot of money. At the time that I'm writing this, levels.fyi reports that new grad software engineers at Google can command a total compensation of nearly $200k. They will spend money on professional development (and often have budgets dedicated for that specifically), expensive hobbies, and asset acquisition.
One of my partner's main hobbies is browsing and funding Kickstarters. He is a fantastic person to be targeting as a small business.
Whose attention you can reliably get
There are a bunch of ways that you can get people's attention. These include, but are not limited to:
- Organic search traffic
- Internet ads
- Talking to them in person
- Searching for [business] and cold e-mailing
- Twitter (and other social media)
- Special interest forums
You probably already have some kind of audience. Who's in it? What problems do they have, that they know about, that they might spend money to solve?
You probably also have something that you can write about a lot, or talk about a lot. If you don't have any ideas, you could do worse than finding a way to write or speak publicly and regularly, and pay attention to what seems to resonate with people, and whose attention you're getting.
A special kind of audience-getter here is what Patrick McKenzie calls a "friendcatcher." You're reading one right now. If this article is relevant to your interests and you'd like to subscribe to my newsletter, you can get more articles like this once every week or so by hitting "Subscribe."
Who you're energized by talking to
The standard advice here goes something like, "You're going to have to talk to these people a lot to be successful, so you'd better enjoy talking to them."
I got hung up on this one for a couple of weeks, after I realized that I was actually pretty drained by talking to the folks I started this newsletter to talk to. I realized that I've spent a lot of the last few years having conversations and working on problems that don't energize me, and became terrified of repeating that mistake. A lot of the advice I'd been reading said something like, "Okay, figure out who you want to sell to and then [business things]." I was stuck on step zero.
Then I realized that, since I'd already used the newsletter (and my Twitter presence) to validate one potential niche, I could just keep doing that. I think of every article that I write now as an experiment designed to answer two questions: "Do I enjoy writing about this?" and "Are people interested in it?" This required loosening up my topic list a bit, which is contrary to a lot of the advice you'll see about building an audience (specialize! make a lot of the same thing!) but my goal isn't to build as big an audience as possible, it's to find the right audience.
Who know about and talk to each other
This criteria is specifically from Start Small, Stay Small, which makes the point that "vertical" niches, niches defined by participation in an industry, are easier to market to than "horizontal" niches, niches defined by a workflow or an activity that crosses multiple industries, because people within industries share a lot of the same problems and talk to each other about solutions to those problems.
Consider, Keyboardio, the manufacturers of the keyboard this newsletter is written on. Their website has a "code" tab, and they describe their keyboards as "fully programmable." The way they're positioning the keyboard makes it particularly interesting to software engineers, which is pretty clever, because software engineers tend to work in large groups, and like to show off their keyboards to each other. So if you can sell a keyboard that's very effective at preventing wrist pain – a common, serious problem that impacts their livelihood – to one software engineer, that engineer will probably sell a few more keyboards for you.
Talk to people
The habits you need to develop are:
- Talk to people
- Do things in public that attract people who want to talk to you
The term I've seen people use for the second habit is "build a marketing platform." This website is part of mine, but so is Twitter, and so is my membership in a handful of private Slacks. I prefer writing for this website above the other two because it's not trying to warp my brain with dopamine hacks, and because work I do here doesn't disappear into the ether. It sticks around, picking up backlinks and search hits.
If you're talking to the right people, and you're genuinely interested in them, they'll tell you about their problems, their frustrations, their daily annoyances. The builder in you will immediately go, "Oh, hey, I could fix that by..."
You already have the "solve problems" habit. The goal is to hook that up to a source of valuable, tractable problems.
The next problem
Once I solved the "I have no ideas" probably I immediately started running into more problems. How do I tell if these ideas are good? Which of them should I work on? Am I talking to the "right" people? Do I really want to spend the next 2 years of my life working on this? And my favorite: Oh wow I am uncomfortable with the idea of asking people for money.
Be prepared to start having to have serious conversations with yourself about your goals, and your sources of internal friction.
This is largely synthesized from a couple of conference talks and a book.
Do you hate venture capitalists and all they have wrought? Did you know there's an entire conference dedicated to people building non-venture backed software businesses? I didn't. They have a ton of recorded talks up on YouTube. There's a little bit of "different planet syndrome" here – I don't know about you but I almost physically recoil when I read the word "founder" – but if you look past that what you'll see is a bunch of people trying to get themselves a little more freedom and self-determination, and I can jam with that.
Covers a bunch of stuff about how to get started running your own small software business outside of "how to find an audience?" plus a couple of other mindset shifts you probably want to make.
I spent a bunch of time when I first started this site researching how to find founder/market fit. This is the most actionable resource on the topic I've been able to find.
A friendcatcher is a free thing that helps people you want to be friends with find you. This article is a friend catcher, and so is basically anything a website offers you in exchange for your e-mail address. To learn more about how to write them, read this friendcatcher about friendcatchers.
It's what it says on the tin: A developer's guide to launching a startup. The basics of keyword research, how to build a sales website, and how to put a product together, even when you don't have time to write the code yourself.
I'll probably update this in the future, so subscribe if you'd like to know when that happens. You'll also get more essays, and a heads up about any other projects I'm working on.
And if you've gotten all the way down here, hey friend! I'm probably very interested in talking to you. I'm looking for more people in this early "how... do... business?" stage as peers, and of course I'd love to hear about your problems, especially but not limited to your work problems. Send me an e-mail.