Coming up with an idea for a new business isn’t hard.
Or it shouldn’t be.
But a lot of people struggle to come up with the “right” idea. This is partly because entrepreneurs tend to overvalue business ideas and undervalue the effort it takes to turn them into successful companies. We want to find the right idea—the million dollar idea—that is certain to succeed.
But ideas don’t succeed by themselves. Hard-working entrepreneurs succeed. At least some of the time.
Million-dollar ideas are just ideas that someone has worked hard enough on to succeed. Sometimes they get lucky and the idea becomes a billion-dollar business.
Having said that, if you’re still looking for an idea to start a business with, here’s the most comprehensive list you’ll find anywhere. This isn’t a list of ideas for businesses that you can start today (like florist, cookie maker, or gutter cleaner). Those aren’t particularly valuable, in our opinion.
Rather, this is a list of ways to find the right idea for you—the places to look for startup inspiration. So check them out and get inspired:
1. Search Google for “Business Ideas”.
Okay, this is pretty obvious. This approach to finding an idea for your startup is hit and miss. With a lot more misses than hits. You’ll find plenty of lists of ideas like: “55 Business Ideas You Can Start Today” and “101 Small Business Ideas”. The problem is that most of these ideas require specialized knowledge (bookkeeper, direct mail marketing service, and genealogist for instance) or have dubious prospects for turning a profit (candlemaker, cake decorator, and chimney sweep). Yes, all of those “business ideas” are included on the various lists Google turned up. They simply don’t apply to you. We even found a list that suggested “Lady Gaga Impersonator” as a viable business idea. Suffice it to say, this isn’t the most effective way to find an idea you’ll succeed with, but if you want to try it, here’s a list of 999 where you can start.
2. Turn Your Skills into Your Business
This one is easy. Turn your skills and time into money by creating a business around them. Do you know how to create and program websites? Are you famous among your friends for being able to troubleshoot their computer problems? Can you write or design or create something others need or want? Do you have a collection of recipes you love to make? Do you have specialized skills using email, or PHP, or drupal, or preparing tax returns, or book keeping? If you have a skill that others are willing to pay for, you can turn it into a business.
3. Turn Your Knowledge into a Business
Do you know something valuable that others don’t know, but need? Then you might be able to turn that knowledge into a consulting business or create and sell content online (ebooks and educational courses). That’s what high school teacher, Rob Percival, did. He created several online web development course and an accompanying web hosting business. And made more than $3 million in less than a year. What do you know that you could teach others? Answer that and you have the beginnings of your startup.
Incidentally, we offer an online course that covers everything you need to know about logo design. It’s free. If interested, click the link.
4. Watch for Good Ideas that Others Are Working On.
There are several services that collect the latest entrepreneurial thinking and business ideas and let the world know about them. Springwise is one. CoolBusinessIdeas and IdeasWatch are similar. You can sign up for regular emails or follow their RSS feeds. While you’ll find lots of solid ideas to start a business here, someone is already working on them, which means you’ll have competition if you decide tackle the same thing. But it’s also a good indication that there’s a market for the ideas you find there.
5. Watch for Good Ideas that Others Aren’t Working On Yet
Y Combinator has published several lists of ideas they wish entrepreneurs would tackle. Here is their latest one. Similarly, Requests for Startups is a regular email that focuses on what a particular investor is interested in funding and wants to see someone start working on. Most of these are very big ideas that a single founder is unlikely to take on. Here are a couple of other lists of ideas people say they want (some better than others): IdeaWishList, Lone Prairie, Wise Sloth.
6. Check out ProductHunt.
ProductHunt is a massive collection of existing products, apps, and software recommended by people to solve various problems. They’ll send you a daily email of new ideas every day. There are some great ideas here, but many could be improved upon. It’s those “could be better” ideas that you might consider turning into your own startup.
7. Get Ideas from the Future Before They Happen
Trend hunters are experts at evaluating and sometimes even predicting emerging trends before they become popular. Watching as trends develop and focusing your startup on meeting the needs they will soon create can be a great way to start a successful business. Check out Trendhunter and Faith Popcorn for ideas about what’s coming in the future.
8. Find a Co-founder with an Idea
Often you can find someone else who has a great idea, but doesn’t have all the skills to make it happen. If you have skills that compliment theirs and are willing to work on someone else’s idea, this can be a good option for founding a startup. Or you might find a startup idea that you can execute better than the person who came up with it. (Ideas aren’t copyright-able. If you can do it better, go for it.) Check out Founder2be, CoFounderLab, or FounderDating to find people working on new ideas.
9. Attend a Hack-a-thon
Hack-a-thons are meetups for people with programming, product development, and marketing skills or ideas that might become viable businesses. The purpose is to concept and build a basic product in a day or two (often working through the night). Most end with a presentation of each team’s product. Some result in real businesses. When you go, you’ll see lots of ideas that with a bit of tweaking, could be great businesses. You might even help create one.
10. Check Your Local University’s Tech Transfer Program
University researchers often invent new technologies that can be turned into viable businesses. But they don’t always have the business know-how to make those ideas successful. So, many universities have created tech transfer programs which license inventions and technologies to entrepreneurs and companies that can take the ideas to market. You’ll be partnered with the university and the inventor, but you’ll have access to patented technologies.
11. Consult the Yellow Pages or Wikipedia’s List of Occupations
You don’t need to re-invent the wheel or come up with something no one has ever done before in order to start a successful business. In fact, doing something that others have already proven works is a good way to give yourself a chance at success. Browsing the yellow pages or a list of occupations may spark an idea or open your eyes to existing businesses that you hadn’t considered before. If you live in a small town, are there businesses in larger cities that simply haven’t arrived in your area yet, but would be viable?
12. Review “Buy a Business” Sites
There are several websites designed to help people buy and sell their businesses: BizBuySell, BusinessMart, and Flippa are among the most popular. We’re not suggesting that you purchase one of these (though this may be the right way for some people to get into a business), rather visit these sites to get ideas you might use to start a business. One caution: many of these businesses are for sale because they haven’t been successful enough to earn a profit. So if you find your idea here, make sure you can make it work.
13. Listen to Others
If you don’t have your own ideas for something to fix, listen to other people talk about their problems. Talk to customers and front line employees where you work today. What problems do they have that your current company isn’t meeting? Have your partner or spouse do the same where they work. What do they say takes too long, is too expensive, or doesn’t work like it should? What do they wish they had?
14. Reverse Assumptions and Think of an Old Business in a New Way
This is a great way to invent entirely new products and discover new customer needs. The inventor of the ATM asked, what would a bank look like if it didn’t have tellers? How would we do that? Jon Coon, co-founder of 1-800-CONTACTS, asked why people had to buy their contact lenses from their doctor (and pay a big mark up for the privilege). Think about the businesses you’re familiar with. Is there a different way to do things? How can technology improve the way they operate? Can you take an existing business online and create something better?
15. Turn Your Hobby or Passion into a Business.
If you have a hobby or pastime that others do for money, you could turn it into a business. Do you collect baseball cards, make t-shirts, or blow glass? Can you sell what you create or teach others how to do the same thing? Then your passion may be a potential business. But be careful, once you start making money doing what you love, you may find you don’t love it the same way. You might lose your hobby in order to start a business.
16. Read a Book
We’re big fans of reading, but to find great business ideas, you can’t read just any book. Start with The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideass and Make Them Happen, which promises to show you how to how to find the best ideas for you. Then check out The Business Idea Factory: A World-Class System for Creating Successful Business Ideas. These books, and others like them, will help you develop a habit of identifying new ideas that you could use to start a business.
The Very Best Way to Discover a Great Business Idea:
17. Find a Problem that Needs Solving.
Does something bug you? Not work right? Is there something you wish you had? Find a process that is broken, a food that doesn’t taste right, a market that isn’t being met, or something that works today, but could work better with a few tweaks. If you need a new product, there’s a good chance others will need it too.
Startup guru, Paul Graham, says it this way: “If you find something broken that you can fix for a lot of people, you’ve found a gold mine. As with an actual gold mine, you still have to work hard to get the gold out of it. But at least you know where the seam is, and that’s the hard part.”
There is a long list of successful entrepreneurs who have followed this path to success. A few examples:
Cliff Bar was invented by Gary Erickson after a 170 mile bike ride during which he ate five Powerbars. He was at the point of bonking and desperately needed energy, but he couldn’t choke down the processed goop of a sixth bar. His idea: a better tasting energy bar made from natural ingredients. Today Clif Bar is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Morgan Lynch was a marketing manager who needed a logo designed for a new insurance product he was launching. But after working several weeks with a design agency, then several more weeks with freelancers and still not getting a logo he loved, he started his own online design firm—which eventually evolved into Logomaker.
Tivo was invented by Mike Ramsay and Jim Barton in part to fix what was wrong with how video recorders work. Their invention allowed to change the way they watched tv—shifting viewing from when broadcasters aired content to when customers wanted to watch it. And allowed them to skip annoying commercials. You probably have a DVR connected to your television thanks to their foresight.
Many of the best new businesses are the result of fixing a problem.
Of course, as we mentioned above, coming up with the idea is actually the easy part. There are thousands of good ideas for businesses (and millions of bad ones). The real questions are:
Can you make money doing it?
Are you the right person to take on this idea?
Will anyone buy it?
Do you have another resource for finding great business ideas? Let us know in the comments!
Photo Credits: Sean MacEntee, A Bennett, nhisman, C Potter.