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How To Find Startup Ideas

You want to start a company, but you’re not sure what to do? Here are 21 lenses to generate ideas (thanks to B. for the great help with examples).

First Source: Yourself

This first group starts from your own skills, feelings or thoughts.

01/ MISSION
It’s the classic ‘find your passion’. Is there anything you need to see fixed in the world? Anger can be a good starting point to ensure motivation. A long-term mission can also be a useful compass, or deciding to go against a giant enemy. Here are some examples of the latter, born from frustration with the status quo:

02/ PROBLEMS
Are there problems you identified? You might not have all the skills needed to solve them, nor a specific solution, but a good problem is a great starting point.

03/ SKILLS
It start with figuring out your unique strengths and knowledge, then looking for applications, possibly starting with domain interests. You can try combining them with one or more potential partners who might contribute market or technical knowledge.

04/ TECHNOLOGY
It is often the starting point for scientists, when they look for commercial applications. For this, exposure to various industries is often a good path to identifying applications.

05/ OBSERVATION
Immerse yourself
in your field of interest to identify a problem. Methods range from design thinking to needs-based innovation.

06/ FUN / EXPERIMENTS
If anger can motivate, so can fun.
You can start with something just for fun. It might become larger later.

  • Facebook (initially: online yearbook to score looks and find dates)
  • Craigslist (initially: personal list of links)
  • Khan Academy (initially: video classes to help the children of friends)
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Salman Khan started posting videos in 2006. His channel is now nearing 2 billion views.

07/ THESIS
What might the world look like in 2030?
Examples:

  • The rise of mobile apps (when app stores launched)
  • The rise of crypto / blockchain
  • The rise of machine learning, computer vision, etc.

Second Source: Market Observation

This second group results from a market analysis. It is more ‘rational’ than the first group.

08/ UNBUNDLING
Taking a vertical slice of a giant.

  • Tinder (craigslist hookup)
  • Redfin (craigslist real estate)
  • Upwork (craigslist jobs)

09/ SEGMENTING
Taking a horizontal slice of a giant

  • Signal (chat for privacy)
  • Slack (chat for business)
  • Snapchat (chat for teens)

10/ ANTI-PRODUCT
Taking an orthogonal approach. There’s a red one? You’ll make the blue. Find a characteristic of a successful product and do the opposite. They won’t be able to fight you directly and their haters might like you.

  • Facebook used real name when Friendster and MySpace used nicknames.
  • Tinder focused on fast, picture-based casual dating.
  • The Wii targeted casual gamers with simpler graphics and movement

11/ PICKS & SHOVELS
Some look for gold, some others sell tools.
Which growing markets need tooling?

  • Unity (3d / gaming engine)
  • Cloudflare (content delivery + security)
  • Among smaller companies: AppAnnie (app ranking / marketing data) and OpenTrons (pipetting robot for biologists, now used for Covid testing at scale in NYC). Disclosure: SOSV is an investor, and I’m an early backer of the company.
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12/ NEW PLATFORMS
Are there platforms with growing foot traffic?

13/ REMAKE
Can you rebuild a popular product with modern tech?

  • Lyft (improved on Uber with better services and deals for drivers)
  • Ninebot (remade Segway for 1/10 of the price, then acquired Segway)
  • Xiaomi (reinvented how smartphones are made and sold)

14/ EMERGING USAGES
Are users of a service diverting it from its original purpose?

  • Airtable (from Google Docs)
  • Twitch (from JustinTV)
  • Discord (from various messaging and voice services used by gamers)
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The humble beginnings of Twitch

15/ NICHE SERVICE
Doing one thing very well. It might grow into something broader, or stay niche.

  • Quickbooks (accounting software)
  • Coinbase (digital currency exchange)
  • WebMD (health information)

16/ FOREIGN ARBITRAGE
Can you adapt successful foreign ideas?

  • Rocket internet (foreign taxi/food apps for non-US markets)
  • Didi/Grab (Asia’s Uber(s))
  • Taobao (China’s ‘improved’ Amazon)

Third Source: Shifts

17/ NEW TECH
A brand new technology to build things with?

  • New smartphone sensors (GPS, accelerometer, TOF sensors, etc.)
  • Smart Fitness Equipment (Fitbit, Apple Watch)
  • CRISPR (low-cost gene editing, fueling a food and health revolution)

18/ NEW DATA SETS
Fresh public or private sets.

  • The Climate Corporation (track weather for crop insurance)
  • MyFitnesspal (track fitness and diet data)
  • CreditKarma (track credit)

19/ NEW REGULATIONS
While regulations are often lagging behind tech and innovations (e.g. Airbnb and Uber took advantage of various grey areas), some regulatory changes can unlock new opportunities.

  • De-regulation(e.g. of the telecom and energy markets enabled new players to jump in, sometimes by borrowing infrastructure, like MVNOs)
  • Telemedicine (regulatory changes were further accelerated by Covid)
  • Flying things (from drones to flying cars)

20/ UNLOCKED IP
Any open source technology, or patents free now, or soon? Older technology might provide new opportunities. This is often not a favorite as if the IP is now public domain, it is harder to defend products built on it.

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Patent application filed by Stratasys in 1989, expired in 2009

21/ MINDSET SHIFT
How would IKEA, Starbucks, or other unique company build a different product in the field you’re considering? Changing your perspective can bring many new ideas.

CONCLUSION

I hope this will help you find your next startup idea!

Comments are welcome here, on twitter at @benjaminjoffe or at ben@benjaminjoffe.com

Partner @ SOSV — $700m VC fund for Deep Tech (biology, robotics, etc.) | Digital Naturalist | Keynote Speaker | Angel Investor

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