There are plenty of good business ideas floating around, and not all of them are unique. In fact, new companies successfully go to market in saturated industries all the time, and most aren’t especially disruptive.
Some just take advantage of a humongous market. Entrepreneurs in the food and beverage space, for instance, know that people will always be hungry and thirsty. Most consumers have countless options to choose from when they want to meet these basic needs, but if a new product stands out — whether because of superior taste, branding or nutrition — they’ll often reach for it.
Or take the multibillion-dollar market for razors. Entrenched players with colossal advertising budgets had dominated the space for years before Dollar Shave Club came along. And founders Michael Dubin and Mark Levine didn’t need to invent a revolutionary new product to grab market share and attract venture capital. Instead, they took a slightly different (and arguably more modern) approach to delivering their products to the market — via monthly subscription — and rode the momentum from a viral marketing video to a billion-dollar exit not even five years later.
Dubin and Levine had an idea that was already proven to be viable, and they came up with a unique value proposition to sell it. The quality of their razors and the convenience of their subscription service are the factors that helped them stand out. Easy enough, right?
The problem is, it’s also pretty easy to stumble across nonviable ideas, and plenty of inexperienced founders (and experienced ones) have chosen to pursue the wrong idea. To make sure you don’t join their ranks, use three proven ways to arrive at an idea that works:
1. Listen in on social media chatter.
Social media is a great place to discover consumer pain points and needs. Consider Michael Kiel, founder and captain of Boat Planet, who created a Facebook group for boat owners at the Lake of the Ozarks. After hosting the group for a few months, he began to detect a pattern. “I noticed a recurring discussion being posted several times a day,” Kiel says. “Boaters were asking for recommendations on whom to trust to work on their boats, docks and boat lifts.” That’s when he had the idea for his startup: a platform that connects boaters with trusted marine professionals.
You may not be ready to pursue a business idea tomorrow, but you’d be wise to insert yourself into social media communities related to areas you’re passionate about today. Join or start a Facebook group, as Kiel did, or look for a subreddit in your area of expertise. Search hashtags or keywords associated with your industry and interests. Instead of scrolling past people’s complaints on social media, stop to read them. You never know when a trend could become visible or an idea could strike.
2. Dwell on your own problems.
Restaurants and grocery stores relieve hunger pangs, and entertainment companies banish boredom. People’s lives are full of needs and problems, so entrepreneurs looking for a business idea should spend some time contemplating everything that’s wrong with their lives — seriously. Write a list of all your daily woes, and ask your friends to contribute theirs as well. (Most will be happy to vent!) Not sure this approach will work? Don’t say that to the Hangover Helpers. Based in Boulder, Colorado, these two will show up at your house the morning after a wild night, hand you a burrito and Gatorade, then promptly clean every room that suffered damage.
Sound too crazy? Turns out they’re doing all right — you may even have seen them on “Live with Regis and Kelly.” Another company, DoodyCalls, will pick up dog waste from your backyard before your next barbecue. Instacart was born of the perennial challenge of finding time to make it to the grocery store. Now the service provides a convenient, affordable solution when you can’t squeeze in the trip yourself. Any challenge or inconvenience you face regularly could offer similar potential; you just have to take note of it.
3. Do future you a favor.
Elon Musk is probably the most recognizable entrepreneur on the planet. Love him or hate him, no one can deny he’s prolific when it comes to starting companies. You’re probably not the next Elon Musk, and you don’t have to be. But you can learn something from the way he approaches business.
Musk thinks about the biggest challenges humanity will face in the future and brainstorms solutions. This colossal-picture approach led to PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, and other mind-boggling ventures, and it has also made him a pretty wealthy man. If trying to wrap your head around the fate of the human race makes you feel a little dizzy, start by just thinking about your own future. What problems is the world likely to throw at you down the road? If these same problems seem to apply to more people than just you, they might be the ones you need to begin solving.
Entrepreneurs should take comfort knowing that viable ideas can come from anywhere. Most of these ideas won’t be earth-shattering, but some may be. Follow the steps above, and you just might discover the one that could launch your business.