How to come up with startup ideas that are worth your time

Michael D
Startup Grind
Published in
6 min readApr 11, 2017


“Execution is worth more than the idea.”

This is a Silicon Valley adage that’s been repeated millions of times. And there’s a valid reason why people repeat it so often.

New entrepreneurs often cling zealously to their ideas. In the most extreme cases, they’ll ask you to sign an NDA before telling you what it is. Any “startup expert” would jump at the chance to inform them their idea is worth nothing.

But this response is being taken too far. Sure, an idea remains just an idea if it’s not realized. But in the hands of capable people, it morphs into a compelling mission.

Venture capitalists often look for mission-driven founders. What does this mean? It means they want to fund entrepreneurs who are passionate about their ideas. This passion will enable them to overcome tremendous hurdles and make others around them care about their mission.

“So how do you come up with good startup ideas?”

If that’s what you’re wondering in your head, take a step back. Trying to pluck good ideas out of thin air is a wasted effort. Instead, you want to look for problems first.

A better question is: How do you find problems worth solving?

1. Turn off autopilot and be aware of what’s going on around you.

Inefficiencies in the world and problems you and your friends face daily are potential opportunities. Most people hit these obstacles, groan internally, and move on. They don’t think about why these obstacles exist and whether they can be solved.

Becoming aware is much easier said than done because it requires a fundamental change in being. The way I remember to do this is reminding myself as often as possible. I put “be aware” on my to-do list, calendar, and post-it notes. I also use Papier to remind myself every time I open a new tab.

But if your schedule is filled to capacity every single day, you won’t have the time or energy to reflect on the world. Always set aside some empty space in your day for you to think about what’s happening around you.

2. Replay your day in your head and think about what problems you faced.

Turning off autopilot will help you generate great ideas over time, but what if you want to come up with new ideas right now?

One way is to hack the first approach by replaying your day in your head. Think of what you did and the problems you faced as you went about your life. Some of these problems may be valuable business pursuits.

Try to revisit unique events. For example, the problems you face while traveling in a foreign country or attending a concert will be very different from those you face in your regular 9–5.

3. Read sci-fi books and watch sci-fi movies.

Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have often credited sci-fi for inspiring them to tackle ambitious ideas. The best sci-fi books and movies capture audacious visions of the future. Some of these visions are a little crazy in their scope, but the current tech world needs some of that lunacy.

These days, Silicon Valley is obsessed with small, frivolous things that will make a quick buck. For every company like SpaceX and Magic Leap, there are dozens working on trivial things.

I’m not saying things like social networking and messaging aren’t important. If nobody worked on them, we wouldn’t have Facebook and WhatsApp, which connect billions of people.

But wouldn’t it be amazing if more people dedicated themselves to scarier problems instead of walking paths tread millions of times before? Read and watch sci-fi, then build yourself a future beyond your wildest dreams.

4. Branch out and try new things.

Inspiration strikes at the intersection of different things. Whether it’s taking up a new hobby or traveling to another continent, you expose yourself to more problems and more possible solutions.

Scott Kaufman, a psychology researcher, has stated that “the drive for exploration, in its many forms, may be the single most important personal factor predicting creative achievement.”

If you take a look at successful startups today, you’ll find that many of them deal with fields that aren’t tech-based. For example, Stitch Fix solves problems in fashion, ClassPass in fitness, Soylent in food — I can go on and on.

A one-trick pony will never be able to make novel connections that lead to new solutions. So go out there and try new things!

Trying new things is intrinsically linked to the first approach of turning off autopilot. Deviating from your regular routine jolts your mind out of its default setting. And when your mind is actively making connections, finding problems worth solving is a breeze.

5. Talk to people around you… but not too much.

Talking to people doesn’t mean conducting formal interviews or brainstorming sessions. Just be a curious and empathetic friend. Get to know more people on a personal level, learn about their passions, and understand what problems they face in their lives.

The more people you talk to, the greater the pool of shared experience and expertise you’ll have access to, which will stimulate your mind to make new connections.

Plus, the ultimate goal is to make a product that solves problems for people. Going out there and understanding how different people live their lives is instrumental to realizing that goal.

But you should also give yourself alone time to think. Researchers have proven that when you tune out the outside world, your brain improves at making novel connections.

6. Take care of yourself.

To succeed at anything in life, you need to be in good physical and mental condition. Coming up with startup problems is no different. Creativity is built on a healthy body and a healthy mind, so don’t mistreat yourself.

This is a popular piece of advice, but many entrepreneurs don’t following it. It has something to do with the cult of overwork, where entrepreneurs pride themselves on how many hours they spend on their venture.

It’s a twisted way of thinking, but it’s easy to succumb to — especially if many people around you are doing the same thing. Resist the peer pressure. when you’re trying to find and solve problems, quality of time spent matters way more than quantity. Don’t neglect eating well and exercising.

Final thoughts

There’s no right way to come up with startup ideas. You might find something worth solving in the shower or at the end of an intense brainstorming session. You can’t predict when inspiration will strike, but you can do things to help you generate good ideas.

A lot of online startup advice nowadays will tell you not to rush into a startup because the best idea is one that occurs naturally. But this isn’t an excuse for you to be lazy. Be proactive in looking for problems and ideas.

Discovering an initial idea is like unearthing a strain of gold. If you’re a miner, would you pat yourself on the back and then move on? No! You want to find out how deep that strain goes. So take your mental pickaxe and keep digging until you collect all the gold.

Keep going long enough, you just might find a diamond.