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How to figure out what ideas to work on

Over the last few months me and my co-founders have been spending a lot of time finding and validating ideas. Truth is there is no easy way to find good ideas, and it is likely that this will continue to be an ambiguous problem. Since I and my team love to structure things here is how we have approached the problem of determining what kind of ideas we should be working on.

We have found that there are no secrets to idea generation but your network is a tremendous resource that can help you navigate the waters. In his recent book Reid Hoffman talks about the three things you need for a start up to succeed. The first is your assets, which include both intellectual and liquid assets. The second are your passions and aspirations that keep you motivated. The third is the big wave, or the market. This is a great framework that makes idea generation tailored to you and your team.

Live in the future and build what seems interesting.

Paul Graham in his essay on ‘idea generation’ also talks about the challenges with this topic. The most important thing Paul mentions in his essay is determining what would be the unmet need not in the world today, but a world few years from now. He says, “ Live in the future and build what seems interesting.”

Lastly, Peter Theil also talks about very important question in his book that he asks as an interview question, “ Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on?” I liked this question so much that I have been asking a modified version of this question in my interview questions posed to candidates applying to Facebook. It is such a good way to bring out the entrepreneur in someone.

The combination of what Paul and Peter are saying goes something like this: what does not exist in the world today that should exist in a big way a few years from now and most people are not pursuing already.

This makes the idea generation process both easy and difficult. The easiest parts are figuring out what you have a competitive advantage in i.e. your assets and what are you inherently passionate about. If you’re ever wondering what you’re passionate about you can ask yourself the question, “ if economics were not a factor what would you do every single day of your life without ever getting bored?”. Or in other words, “what is a job you would do for free?”

The hard part of the puzzle is to figure out what doesn’t exist in the world and nobody is working on. I have some good news and bad news to share about this. The good news is that there is a solution to figuring out where the market is going but the bad news is that it takes a lot of hard work. The hard part of the work is just getting focused, tapping into your network and being on many many many phone calls, coffee chats and lunches. Most people we tend to know in our professional networks have an expertise in their field or industry. You can ask them the question of where their industry is headed, what doesn’t exist there today that would be great to have, what are some new technologies that might change the landscape in their fields. Once your have gathered this data from a large number of people you generally can synthesize insights about about that market.

The hard part of the work is what me and my co-founders had been up to for the last few months. We have uncovered several interesting trends in the world that we would not have normally known. Unfortunately, we are not passionate or competitively poised to tackle many of those big waves. If you ever get on path to glean out market insights my promise to you is that after 60 to 80 hours of networking with people (20–30mins each) you will have uncovered some interesting insights about the world and possibly some ideas for you to work on.

After all this fun if it turns out that your idea is a consumer app or service you need to go one step further. Consumer ideas that look really attractive still have to pass the virility test. The book “Contagious” by Jonah Berger is an excellent read and it outlines seven characteristics that result in high virility.

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I love to build things | Startup | ex-Facebook | ex-PayPal | More @ about.ehasan.com

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