Ask one of the Zellots today, and they will invariably tell you that finding a great idea for a startup is probably one of the bigger challenges. There is the fundamental question of what exactly a good idea is, never mind a great one. Is it one that VCs will invest in? is it one that makes money? is it one a great business can be built around? All valid questions…and then the matter of finding that idea.
I would argue that there is a fundamental flaw underlying that fundamental question…and that is, the notion that an idea can be detached from the problem it is trying to solve. As I see it in the context of venture creation, it is less about the percieved value of the idea and more about addressing a real need…(ideally that someone would be willing to pay for). Ideas will invariably change, pivot and be fine tuned to unrecognisable form as the underlying assumptions of those ideas are tested and validated…(or not)…and then implemented and retested. The real birth of an idea is not a Eureka moment, but a process. When Ron Gura of Zell 9 started the Gifts Project the idea was group gifting initiated by the receiver of the gift (think: “I want an iPhone5 for my birthday, who wants to chip in?”), after getting something out there, Ron and team realised users were not so comfortable asking for gifts, but the more relevant need was to get groups together for someone else’s gift? (eBay thought so too, and acquired the company a year and a half ago).
Understanding (and then addressing) a real market lacuna, consumer pain, unmet need or inefficiency and considering a variety of solutions until one is found to have a real value proposition (through diligent customer discovery and dogged validation), that is how a good idea is born. Paul Graham shared somethoughtson this that are well worth a read.
As he notes in the article, organic idea generation is preferred, but not always an option. Inherent to the Zell program, a year long venture creation program that boasts its open approach to venture creation, its flexible structure and focus on what is right for each team and their venture, that even with all the fexibility and adaptive framework, in the course of a year each team will need to come up with an idea to work on (or it would not be a venture creation program?). Idea on demand is a challenge and some students complain to me that they feel it can constrain creativity.
My experience at Zell and other entrepreneurial venture creation platforms is that constraint is actually helpful in the entrepreneurial process, and in ideation in particular. Its a matter of being on alert for real needs. Another Zell 9 venture, Bizzabo chose their venture idea on a deadline. They were actually researching another idea at a tradeshow and realised the need for networking at conferences and business events.
It is also a matter of using your available resources at hand, like experience, domain expertise. At Seedcamp Paris this week, where I was a mentor, teams probably had the benefit of organic choice rather than on demand. The stronger ideas tapped into needs founders experienced in their workplaces (i.e. Unifyo) or used knowledge and experience gained in previous work (i.e.in PR and media inTint).
Whether on demand or organic, idea development requires jumping in the water and starting. A good idea is really a good or valid need or customer pain, your own or one you know about first hand because you’ve serviced that space, one that exists in a growing market. If Internet, Mary Meeker’s year endInternet Trends presentationgives great insights into trends and market scope and at LeWeb, the Internet of Things was slated as the next place for great ideas…
That great idea…whether on demand or organic, it should provide great added value (even a bit at a time); it need not be alone out there (on the contrary, lack of competitors has its own pretty big problems); it need not be first; it need not have all the answers, features, water tight solutions. It needs to be able to change and adapt as it is validated. It needs be uncertain. It needs to be scary. If it weren’t all those, it would be a day job.