I love solving problems and improving things. I’m constantly analyzing how products, processes, and industries work and thinking about ways that they can be improved. When I was younger, I used to just bitch about everything I didn’t like and then move on. But, about 10 years ago, I decided that instead of complaining I could use my natural tendency to observe problems and come up with solutions to my advantage.
At the time, I was thinking about starting a company. I didn’t quite have the financial footing to get started, so, I decided to systematically catalog problems I observed and solutions that I came up with. My thought was that I would catalog all of my ideas until I was ready to start working on one of them. Then I would leverage my catalog to decide what to work on.
I created a document for each idea and managed the document like a journal. Every time I thought about some new facet of the idea, I would write the date and add my thoughts to the document. Every time I read about a related product or service, I would do the same. Every time I found that someone had created a product that was almost exactly what I had envisioned, I would let out a sigh frustration and capture it in the document.
“I created a document for each idea and managed the document like a journal.”
About 5 years later, when the first opportunity came about to work on something, I realized that I had a big challenge ahead of me: I had cataloged over 40 different ideas and I wasn’t sure which one I wanted to work on.
I decided to cull my list but I was uncertain of what criteria I should use. I scoured the web for guidance on selecting a startup idea and found about 10 different articles. In the end, this image pretty much summed up the criteria I felt I should use to make a decision on which idea I should pursue:
I needed to decide which idea really defined my purpose. So, I did what any self-respecting software engineer would do, I came up with an algorithm to help me determine my purpose.
I created a spreadsheet and added each idea as a row. Next, I added four rows, one for each criteria: good at, love, world needs, paid for. Then, I went through each idea and it a 1–5 star rating for each criteria. Finally, I calculated an average rating based on the four ratings. (I actually used a weighted average based on what I thought the importance of the four factors were for me.)
“I went through each idea and it a 1–5 star rating for each criteria.”
But, as I reviewed the list, I was dissatisfied. I knew for certain what I loved and what I was good at, or at least what I could quickly get good at. But which business ideas would pay out, and within what timeframe? For example, some of my ideas around social networks and user-generated content sites would need to build a larger audience before I could monetize them. Also, how could I have known what the world needed without actually building the product first?
I decided that I was overanalyzing things and that I couldn’t move forward unless I went with my best guess for those criteria. I knew that rating the ideas was just a first step. For the ideas with the highest ratings, I knew I could figure out if there is market demand (i.e. what the world needs) and how I could get paid by using the Lean Startup and Customer Development methodologies I had been reading up on.
But, there was another challenge. After ranking my ideas based on my calculated rating, the top two had the same exact score. I had rated my ideas, but I hadn’t ranked them. One of my friends suggested that I break the tie using the following question: “If a magic spell was cast upon you that made certain your next business was an absolute success, which idea one would you pick?”. I felt like that was a great question to use for the tie breaker because it went back to the notion of selecting an idea based on purpose. It still wasn’t easy because It forced me to take in to consideration all four of the criteria I used for the rating.
“If a magic spell was cast upon you that made certain your next business was an absolute success, which idea one would you pick?”
In the end, I chose to work on an idea I had for a crowdfunding site called Fanlaunch which was geared towards content creators. I spent about 6 weeks doing customer interviews with film makers, authors, musicians, authors, and digital artists. After doing all of the customer interviews, I felt that it could have been a viable business. I was ready to move on to building what is known as a Minimum Viable Product, but I didn’t get to it. Around the same time, a few friends approached me to join their startup which already had some funding and some customer traction. I put Fanlaunch on the back burner and joined up with them. To be honest, I still think Fanlaunch is a great idea, but I’ve come up with many new ideas over the last few years that probably outrank it now.
And now, here I am in 2016, facing the same challenge of figuring out which startup idea to focus on. I now have about 150 ideas cataloged, including the original set of 40. That’s an average of about 1.25 ideas a month over the last 10 years. Some of the ideas are about 10 years old now, so I’ll probably have to eliminate them altogether (or perhaps spawn off newer / better ideas).
I felt like the system worked fairly well the last time around, so I’m definitely going to use it again this time. That being said, my weightings for the criteria may be a little different this time around. I’m a little more focused on making sure that the business can bring in money within a reasonable timeframe. I’m a little less concerned about doing something that I’m *personally* good at because I feel like I’m getting better at surrounding myself with people who complement my skill sets. I also feel like I have a more realistic sense of “what the world needs” now, which may not impact my weighting, but will definitely impact my ratings. What I love will still get my biggest weighting, though. If I don’t love the problem and the customers, I’m going to be miserable going through the grind of building the solution 3–5 years from now.
One thing that I’m extremely interested in doing is running this exercise, or a similar exercise, for a group of people who all have their own list of ideas. I’m currently pulling together a startup studio, which I’ll write about soon, and we’ll be doing exercises like this regularly.
If you or someone you know has gone through a similar exercise to rate/rank your ideas, I’d love to hear about it.
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