Generating Business Ideas

I’ve been trying to come up with business ideas. Some will say the idea isn’t important, and that it’s the execution that matters. But you still need an idea to start with, and preferably several so that you can choose the one that you can execute best with your current skills and knowledge.

Staring at a blank sheet of paper and hoping that good ideas pop into my head wasn’t very productive, so I came up with a more structured approach. Since I’m a software developer I’m mainly interested in software ideas. A while ago I came up with a list of the general types of problems that software is good at solving:

  • Keep track of a large number of ‘things’
  • Manage the steps required to complete a complex task
  • Disseminate information to a large number of people
  • Get information on a particular topic quickly
  • Collect information from a large number of people
  • Produce summaries, charts etc from a large amount of raw data
  • Perform a time consuming or complex task (repeatedly)
  • Collate information from several different sources
  • Record/measure a frequently occurring event
  • Convert data from one format to another (one-off/repeatedly/on-the-fly)
  • Manage shared resources used by many people/groups
  • Provide a publicly/internally accessible interface to some system
  • Keep a secure backup of some data and be able to restore it
  • Check/validate (human-created) data against some standard
  • Generate sample/typical/test data for some purpose
  • Provide entertainment
  • Record video/audio/images
  • Share information with friends
  • Create something to print out

Let’s call this List A. This list is quite vague and general and isn’t very useful on it’s own. But I also came up with another list, inspired by a section in The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris:

Which social, industry, and professional groups do you belong to, have you belonged to, or do you understand…?

So my list has on it things like:

  • software developers
  • improvisers
  • comedians
  • car owners

Let’s call this List B.

Then I took each item in List B, and for each item in List A I tried to come up with examples that were relevant to that group. So for example, combining “comedians” with “keep track of a large number of things” immediately suggested to me some kind of system to allow comedians to index all their jokes. That may or may not be a good business idea, but the point is that I’d never have come up with it if I’d just kept staring at that blank sheet of paper. My List B has 35 items on it, so this technique gives me 665 different combinations.

Some of the combinations won’t turn up anything very interesting. But if you keep working through the combinations, you should find that some of the things you come up with will spark off good ideas. Then you can highlight these or write them down on another list to be evaluated later.

I found it useful to not filter or censor up front, and just write down anything that occurred to me. I also found myself resisting some groups, with the thought that “well there won’t be anything good in that group”. But when I looked at the combinations for that group, I found some good ideas anyway.