How programmers find their startup ideas

You know how to code, craft products and launch them. But you’re out of ideas! Here is how programmers find startup ideas.

Stefan Pettersson
Jul 16, 2019 · 5 min read

As a programmer, you are fortunate to be in a position where you literally can create a product or service out of nothing and go to market. It doesn’t matter if your goal is to find a spare time project, the SaaS product of a bootstrapped startup or the next big thing that will have VCs lined up outside your door — you need that idea that will get you started.

It doesn’t matter if I talk to people currently at university or seasoned senior developers in the industry — most of them have the itch to scratch — to create a product of some sort.

What they usually have in common is that they don’t have an idea.

Criteria of an idea

If your challenge in the first place is to come up with an idea, don’t make it more complicated than necessary. Do not spend time crunching numbers to find the addressable market, analyze the competition to no end, or dismiss every thought because it won’t be the next unicorn in 18 months.

Executing an idea is a journey; what you end up with will rarely be what you thought when you started. Slack is a great example — it started as an in-game chat in a massively multiplayer game, not a company communication platform.

Ideas do not appear out of thin air because you want them to — you must expose yourself to where they are in order to find them.

There are two things that are more important than anything else to have a successful idea:

There’s nothing without execution

The most important part is the execution. Most struggle finding ideas, but those who do typically lack execution. Your main priority should be to create something, to get it out there. An idea that you do nothing with has no value.

To increase the probability of succeeding, start with something you know how to create (you will no matter what have to learn and develop your skills on the way). Unless your goal is to learn new technologies, pick technologies that you are comfortable with and cause you the least amount of friction.

You want to focus on creating value and iterate quickly. You don’t want to spend all your time figuring out how that new build toolchain is configured to perfection, or how you’re really supposed to use that latest esoteric, non-opinionated architecture of that shiny framework to implement something you’ve already done hundreds of times. Focus on getting things done, going from A to B with the least resistance. You can always rewrite it later.

Perfection is a moving target, and will only make sure you get stuck looking for it, rather than moving on to realize the real value is created elsewhere.

Creating value

Whatever you start doing, it should add value to the user. What the value is could be a lot of different things. Ideally, the result of whatever you do should bring value to yourself — then you know! Be vary of building only based on assumptions and speculation.

Make sure your idea is bringing value by doing only one thing. You should address a problem that at least 80% in your intended audience feel is significant. A product that is a patchwork of solutions to issues no one thinks are significant will not succeed.

Focusing on the core of the value you are providing does also help you get something done. The earlier someone, or you yourself, can start using what you build — the earlier you can spend time on the things you know are needed, rather than the things you think may be needed.

How to find that idea

Great ideas rarely appear in isolation. Ideas come from the intersection of your skills to build something, and where those skills may be applied to create value.

If you lack ideas, then you should get out there, in the rest of the world exploring other domains than your own. If the only thing you know is how to code, you may potentially target other programmers, but that’s it.

As a teenager, you did work summers in your uncle’s retail store. You took care of deliveries, checked off a list of things ordered and made sure it was on the shelves. What you actually did was getting insights into the logistic chain of a retail business. You also made it possible for you to now apply your knowledge about technology and software to identify new opportunities in that domain.

Be curious, talk to friends in other industries, dig deep to understand different businesses, engage in communities, be interested. If you are employed, you have all the access you need — how does marketing work at your company? How is the sales process? In what way are you creating business value by programming? Actually, learn about your business, and you’ll become a better software developer.

The larger the intersection is of your problem-solving skills and your knowledge of problems to solve — the greater probability to identify opportunities.

Closing thoughts

Executing an idea is a journey of exploration and learning. Along the way, you will discover new, critical information that will make you go down new paths to learn more. You will iterate your vision, even your idea and most certainly how to get there.

Most likely it will be during this journey you’ll find your next great idea.

Stefan is CTO and co-founder of Relatable. Relatable is a marketing tech company specialized in executing influencer marketing at large-scale for global brands.

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