At the birth of any business is an idea. For most people coming up with the idea is the hardest part of starting a business. When you have your idea the path forwards becomes an almost automatic flow through a business plan to the fine details of implementation.
Image credit: © Copyright 2014 Donald McLeman
Look at your interests, that’s where you’ll find it
There will always be money-making opportunities that anyone can latch onto but passion behind an idea will give you the momentum to drive it forward. Probably.
The first question to ask yourself may have an obvious answer – is there anything you’re passionate about? People who have one long-term passion may define themselves along the lines of ‘golf-mad’, ‘born to dance’ or ‘a cricketing genius’. If you’re lucky enough to have one core interest, then this is where to begin the exploration for your new business idea.
What if you don’t have an over-riding passion?
What if you don’t have any passion? This doesn’t stop you from developing a great business idea, it just means you have more to search through to begin with.
Examine what you like and dislike about your work life, and remember to look back at previous roles too. Very often our work life has deviated from our core interests – opportunities are presented to us along the way and the choices we make are influenced by finances and practicalities. So for a clearer understanding of your real interests, what do you most enjoy doing when you’re not working?
List the skills you could bring to a business
Each of us develops a unique skillset borne from our interests and experiences, both in our personal and our working lives. The word ‘skills’ is often seen in a limited light as knowledge backed up by certificates or acquired through training. But skills can be defined in a much broader sense as anything you know how to do well. So what are you good at?
Examine all your past activities to discover skills that you may have forgotten or taken for granted. You may find one extraordinary skill or perhaps a unique combination of more common skills that together can add a new perspective to a familiar business idea – for instance you may have skills in photography and book-keeping which together could serve a specialist niche dealing in finance for photography businesses.
To arrive at a better understanding of your skills it may be useful to consider what it is about you that colleagues most appreciate. Perhaps you’re the one they always turn to when their computer breaks down? Do people ask you for advice on a particular subject?
Also consider the qualities about you that people most like or dislike – perhaps a level head in a crisis, a willingness to persevere or up-to-date knowledge?
Don’t let a single gap in your skillset block off a whole business idea – it would make sense to complement your own skills with those of a partner or employee, e.g. if you have the skills to manufacture a product you may benefit from a partner who’s good at selling it.
Look for a problem that people are facing now
The aim is to come up with a business concept that is relevant to the needs of real customers. Human needs themselves don’t change across the centuries – what changes is the society around us, the technology and the environment. It’s this constant evolution that creates new markets waiting to be discovered by your business idea.
You’re not looking for an idea that’s revolutionary for its own sake – a good business idea is simply a better match for what the customer wants. Most new businesses are based on existing ideas with only a tweak or improvement. If you came up with a business idea so unique that no customer has ever felt a need for it you would only be creating a promotional conundrum.
The questions to ask yourself are ‘How can this existing service be improved?’ or ‘What would make this product more attractive to the people who use it?’
Begin by asking the question
‘What products or services could make life better for me personally?’ Broaden out the question by listening to the frustrations of the people around you. You may find that what at first seems a personal dissatisfaction strikes a chord for the rest of society too.
A good source of problems waiting to be solved is the local and national press; you’ll find real-life problems with people seeking answers. For more targeted problems keep up-to-date with issues aired in business publications and trade organisations.
Find the pain
This concept of searching for a need as the basis of a business idea has been described as ‘find the pain’. John Candy recommends directly asking users what aspect of their activity causes them pain or frustration. This will necessarily get to the nub of their most serious difficulty which is prime ground for an effective solution.
The ability to generate a response
Your business idea has to have an impact that produces a response otherwise your product will remain on a wish-list or be ignored altogether. Consider whether there is enough interest to make your audience respond to the need for change. For instance I may dream of a washing machine that irons my clothes but even if such a thing existed the risk of maintenance headaches would encourage me to seek a different solution in the form of a maid.
A practical angle to consider is how much would you need to charge for your offering to make it viable and would your target customers be able to afford it?
Look for a niche that isn’t being served
Rather than search for a unique idea some businesses look for an existing market that’s big enough to accommodate another supplier. For a competitive edge you need to search for a niche within that market where you could offer a Unique Selling Proposition.
At this stage try to define the core of your idea that would attract people to your website – whether or not there’s competition there must be a reason for people to seek you out. The basic question to ask is ‘What’s in it for them?’ The significance of the idea to you is irrelevant here (whether it’s a lifelong dream or your greatest passion) you must focus on what it means to them. Describe their need in terms of the big questions: Why? Who? What? When? Where? In effect what you’re defining here is your Unique Selling Proposition but highlighting how it stands out from the customer’s point of view.
As an initial step use Google Search to identify a potential niche. Simply enter a search term and Google will produce a drop-down list of auto-complete suggestions based on what people have been searching for.
A more structured approach is to create a free account with Google Adwords then use the Adwords Keyword Tool to list the keywords used in searches for your subject. The tool enables you to drill down with each search to identify a niche that receives a significant amount of search traffic yet has a low level of competition. You can find more details in How to Research a Profitable Niche Market.
These explorations are closely tied to the question of How do I monetise my website? A point worth remembering is that many online businesses launch without a detailed monetisation plan in place, consider for example the giants Twitter and Facebook.
Build the future into your business idea
It’s all too easy to find a short-term fad with instant returns rather than look at the long-term picture. In order to achieve longevity, study where forecasts are heading for broad demographics as well as existing product markets. For example, there’s little point engineering product features that rely on manual interaction (such as one-time use settings) when forecasts show that what people will value in a product is the ability to simplify their lifestyle, not microscopic control.
Keep an eye on the future to see where your business idea could be heading. You’ll find many reports across specialist media that attempt to forecast trends. It’s important to study these in terms of how they could affect your plans.
To begin with take a look at this wide selection of infographics on www.raconteur.net. Select a tab for information on a particular sector or click ‘Everything’ for the broadest view.
Give your business idea room to grow
Ideally a business idea should be broad enough to allow for its evolution – the market is certain to change over time and your product will have to be able to change with it. And who knows how technology will transform our lives? If you define your activity in the broadest of terms then you can allow for future changes, e.g. instead of making vacuum cleaners you are ‘responding to the consumer’s need for a clean environment’, and that may one day be satisfied by an app (which would still carry your brand name).
It’s not necessary to know in advance how your business will evolve – don’t wait, start now and let the evolution happen. Consider a company such as Google for example: when it began trading it had no plans to create Google+, social media as a ‘human right’ didn’t exist. Expect your idea to evolve along with your business – the key is to be responsive to the market you’re serving.
Image credit:Boston Public Library
Scalability and automation
The growth of any business is determined by the potential for scalability and automation. A business that relies on your own personal input will always be limited by the number of hours in your day. Examine your business idea for scope in which the activities could be performed by other people or mechanised. So in practical terms, could your business support several territories, could it be franchised, are there possibilities for expanding vertically to include current suppliers and end-retailers?
At this stage you don’t need a detailed plan of action but examine the potential for scaling up to grow in ways that are time- and cost-effective. What this could enable is the creation of a business that could generate profit exponentially for the effort that you put in.
So start your search for an idea in the things you know best, your interests and skills. Find out what people need and what they’re not getting. Then back it up with an understanding of what the future might bring.
A key component of coming up with a successful idea is to keep your thinking fresh. Take a look at our Creative thinking category for advice on how to get more out of your ideas. Begin by reading 5 places to look for your Eureka moment. For specific advice on expanding the scope of an idea look at How to grow your worst idea into a Great Idea. And perhaps the most useful tool to integrate is SCAMPER.
Finally, one of the best ways to determine whether a business idea will succeed is discussing it with people you know. Talk to co-workers and colleagues or run ideas by your family and friends. See it as an adventure to find the idea that customers will want to thank you for.