Finding ideas

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by Bethany

Q: Thanks for your article last week on pitching a product idea. As a follow up, before getting to the point of pitching a product idea, you need to have a idea in the first place. How do ideas come to you?

Wouldn’t it be nice if ideas came nicely packaged and fully formed, waltzing up to us and proclaiming “Here I am, a brilliant idea ready to change the world!” That would make it so much easier! But no, they don’t just come — you have to go out and find them.

They say “necessity is the mother of invention.” So, where can you find necessity?

To find ideas, find problems. To find problems, talk to people.

In the coming months, I’ll attend holiday parties and family get-togethers. I’ll mingle with acquaintances and relatives outside my daily routine. This is a prime time to uncover some necessity.

When meeting people from different companies or entirely different industries, one of my favorite questions to ask is “What are the hardest parts of your job?” People appreciate the opportunity to share their challenges, and enjoy the small dose of empathy.

But more interestingly, it uncovers a wealth of interesting topics that go beyond typical cocktail party pleasantries.

“I spend a few hours a day doing paperwork,” said a doctor friend.

“I have no idea whether doing book tours lead to more sales,“ said an author friend.

“My wrists always hurt. I take breaks every hour to do stretches, but I still may end up needing surgery for my RSI” said an engineer friend.

“I send out a hundred messages a month to potential candidates, and am lucky to hear back from a handful” said a recruiter.

“I’m worried I’m missing my daughter’s childhood” said a consultant on a cross-country project.

Occasional this prompts a “Is this how it has to be?” conversation. While many of these problems aren’t going to be solved by new products anytime soon, I leave these conversations with a greater appreciation for the struggles everyone faces. As much as the supercomputers in our pockets have transformed how many of us live, work, and play, there’s still a long way to go.

Expect more from the world. Opportunities are all around you.

In hallways somewhere, maybe a few years back, maybe still today, you can imagine these conversations unfolding…

“Remembering passwords is hard. But it’s not safe to use the same password for all my accounts.” There’s an opportunity.

“It’s awkward and annoying to type my credit card info on my mobile phone.” There’s an opportunity.

“I’m already running late for work, I don’t have time to wait in line for coffee or a quick bite.” There’s an opportunity.

Products that succeed solve real problems faced by real people. Whether they cause huge shifts that disrupt markets, or simply provide small conveniences, they need to be needed.

The more attention you pay to the moments of struggle in your own life and the lives of people you meet, the more aware you’ll be of the opportunities all around us.

A few questions to ask yourself as you discover a pain point:

  • How painful is this problem? Does this only happen on occasion, or is it happening many times a day? Is this just a minor annoyance or a deep source of frustration?
  • How many people are experiencing this problem? Is this a unique situation faced by a niche group, or something an entire large industry struggles with? Is this only an issue in a few places, or happening all around the world?
  • How much will your solution reduce the pain? Are people going to clamor for this? Will they motivated enough to make a habit out of using a new solution?
  • How feasible is your solution? Is it technically possible to be implemented? Would your solution add immediate value, or would an entire ecosystem shift — like the creation of a two-sided market — need to happen? Can you pursue this incrementally, in a smaller space, like a specific city or narrow vertical?

Once you’ve found that idea, tend to the spark to keep it alive. Ideas don’t emerge fully formed, and will need your TLC to fan the spark into a flame.

Thank you for your question!


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