I know that many friends of mine who own businesses are rethinking their businesses today, given the constraints of COVID-19. Some friends have become unemployed and need a way to make ends meet – maybe just a temporary side gig. Some simply want to jump in and help make their community’s situation better rather than watch idly while it suffers.
Whatever your motives, you may be considering starting a new business of some sort. Here is one way to methodically think through the very front end process of conceiving a good business idea. It builds on the work I did earlier in my career as an innovation consultant. I have used this process successfully as a coach, and you can certainly use it on your own.
Please enjoy – it’s free. If you like it, if you benefit, or if you just want to – you can buy me a coffee.
Step 1 – Explore the world of problems worth solving
Look around the community(ies) you are interested in.
- This community could be geographic – your neighborhood, your city, your nation, your world.
- It could be a peer group – your school, your fellow gamers, your fellow sports people, your fellow painters, or your fellow yellow-haired Siberian ground squirrel enthusiasts.
- If you are already in business, it could be your existing customer base or one market segment of it, your market, or your industry peers.
For each community that interests you, ask yourself these three questions.
- What’s broken or needs fixed – and who suffers as a result?
- What’s missing – and who suffers as a result?
- What injustice occurs – and who suffers as a result?
If you are using this process because COVID-19 has shaken your world, consider asking the same questions starting with the phrase, “As a result of COVID-19 constraints”.
Use brainstorming rules to write done whatever comes to your mind. Make a long list. Don’t worry about having an overwhelmingly long list – we’ll pare it down later.
Don’t worry about the details – just put the main thought down.
Please note that you are brainstorming PROBLEM IDEAS here, not BUSINESS IDEAS. We’ll get to those, but let’s first find a problem worth solving.
Step 2 – Narrow down that world of problems worth solving
Write each problem idea down, maybe in a spreadsheet.
Score each idea on these three criteria. I like using a scale from 1 to 4. Don’t overthink it – score them quickly.
- Score passion – Is this something I truly want to fix? How passionate am I about fixing it?
- Score impact – Will fixing it make the impact I want to make in the community? Does it truly help the community?
- Score doability – Does it seem doable for me, even if may be a bit of a stretch? Do I have the knowledge and skills to address this problem?
You could have a spreadsheet that looks like this, except with a much longer list.
|The first problem idea||3||3||2|
|The second problem idea||4||3||4|
|The third problem idea||2||4||1|
|The fourth problem idea||4||4||3|
Most people would next total scores to see idea scores highest. Don’t! That’s a trap.
What we really want next is to eliminate the ideas that clearly don’t belong. They are usually pretty obvious. Cross them off!
- I look for those ideas that I am not truly passionate about, like the first and third ideas. If you are not passionate about what you do, you will either fail for lack of interest or eventually hate every minute of it.
- Next, I look for those ideas that I really don’t have the resources to pull off. In this case, ideas one and three have a doability problem.
You may need to go further with your larger list, and evaluate level of impact, but in this small example, we are clearly already left with two decent choices – ideas two and four. And, that’s what we want – a short list of two to four top problem ideas.
|The second problem idea||4||3||4|
|The fourth problem idea||4||4||3|
Step 3 – Select one problem worth solving to pursue
Once you’ve crossed out the obvious non-starters and narrowed down your list, you are going to ignore the numbers and make a qualitative decision.
- Which of the ideas that remain intrigues you the most?
- Which one calls to you?
- Which one speaks to your identity, your brand, your being, or your soul?
PICK THAT ONE! But, keep the others in your pocket just in case.
Step 4 – Explore the world of ways you can make money solving that problem.
Just like you brainstormed problems, now brainstorm products or services that solve the one problem you want to address. For that one problem, ask yourself these questions.
- For this problem. what products could I make and sell?
- For this problem, what services could I make and sell?
- For this problem, what products or services could I resell?
- For this problem, what could I sell, even if it only solves a small part of the problem?
- For this problem, what do the people experiencing it really truly want to own?
- For this problem, what is being sold now that I could legally design a [maybe better] version of?
Write down as many ideas as you can. Brainstorm – meaning write down everything, no matter how silly it seems. Don’t pre-judge an idea that seems inappropriate – add it, and we’ll judge it later.
Step 5 – Narrow those business ideas down
You know the drill. Make a list or spreadsheet and score the business ideas from 1 to 4.
|The first business idea|
|The second business idea|
|The third business idea|
|The fourth business idea|
You will still score passion and doability, but now you see a new scoring criterion – sustainability.
- Score passion – Just because you were passionate about the problem to be solved doesn’t mean you will be passionate (or equally passionate) about each business idea to solve it.
- Score sustainability – Sustainability is the monetary potential of the idea. Think about how much gross profit you can make from each sale. Think about how big the market is. Think about how much in monthly fixed costs you’ll likely need to run this business (but be frugal – this isn’t a wishing well).
- Score doability – Do you have the skills or connections to make the product or service? Do you know how to connect to the target market, to the buyers? How much will it cost to start this business – and what’s the likelihood that you can afford or raise that? If you are using this process to brainstorm new ideas because COVID-19 has shaken your world, consider doability given those distancing constraints.
Like before, be ruthless crossing out ideas to remove those that clearly don’t make sense.
- Something that you are passionate about and can do, but won’t sustain you financially needs to be crossed off.
- A great sustainable idea that you are not able to do has to be crossed off, no matter how cool it sounds or passionate you are for it.
- A highly sustainable and highly doable idea that you are clearly not passionate about doing needs to be crossed off. This is a tough decision for many, especially those who need money right now. If you DO start with it for financial reasons, recognize that over time your lack of passion may cause you to hate it or lose interest and fail.
Step 6 – Select the best one business idea to develop and launch
You know the drill. Just like before, it is time to pick just one idea from your short list. You can keep the runners-up in your pocket in case this first idea doesn’t make it – or for when you want to add more products or services. What does your heart say you want to jump into?
PICK IT! Create it. Launch it.
There are plenty of resources to help you.
- Look at Design Thinking practices to deep dive empathetically into understanding your customers’ situation and needs.
- Look at the Lean Startup world for startup process.
- Look at StoryBrand to tell your brand story. You started this whole process by envisioning a problem and a group that suffers from it, so you can fill in the story easily from there.
- Your local SBA or Small Business Development Center offers free consultants to help you.
- SCORE offers free mentors to help you.
- Your local community may have pre-accelerator or accelerator programs to help. The Build Institute and gener8tor’s gBETA program operate in my community, and our Women’s Economic Opportunity Center offers a women’s Business Builder program. In the past Co.Starters operated here. Your community will likely have something similar.
I wish you success!
If you like, you may download a pdf of this article.