If you’re like most entrepreneurs (I fall in this bucket), who want to start a company, you probably get 100 exciting ideas in one day and none that excite you for the next 100 days. I know enough entrepreneurs who will wait for the right idea and spend months agonizing over if it will be the one that “changes the world order”. That made me think and question my personal process of coming up with ideas and what steps I follow to get my idea to see light of the day.
First a caveat: I fall into the “good ideas, good execution, but not world changing” bucket. If I were a baseball player, I’d be the “safe bet” to get singles and doubles, and a rare home run. My ideas won’t work for everyone. They are purely in the “discipline, structure and process bucket”, not the stroke-of-genius bucket. So here is a condensed version of the process I follow:
- Keep asking questions: It’s been well documented that good entrepreneurs are perennially curious. They like asking questions. Most of my questions have come because I have the discipline to train myself to have a heightened sense of observation. I like to notice everything around me and think. A combination of reading (blogs, books) and listening (to anyone, starting with the person sitting next to me at the airport, to my dad) helps me constantly formulate and process things around. I send text messages to myself with good questions and save other questions in the drafts folder of my cell phone. I try to keep a constant list of questions that bother me daily, many I have no answers to, but would like to ask others.
My questions fall into 2 buckets: a) “Why” questions and 2) “What if” questions. e.g. When I was thinking of BuzzGain the question was “Why does engaging a PR firm cost so much for a startup and how can I reduce the cost”? With Jivity it was “Why does it cost so much to build a brand and can we do it in a less expensive fashion”? With my first company Interfinity it was “What if we could reduce the time to configure a Cisco router by 2 hours”?
These questions usually translate into ideas that can help answer the question.
- Formulating ideas and seeking answers: I found that I get the most ideas from others, while asking them their opinion on a question that vexes me. They may not hand me the ideas on a platter, but many have helped me by asking the question differently or looking at the problem in a very different way. Many questions I asked were ones that were incorrect in the first place or those that I don’t really care about getting answers to.
For BuzzGain the outsiders were practically any entrepreneur or small business owner. I talked to about 200+ people over 2 months primarily by attending 4 events – a BarCamp at SocialText, a Demo event at AdMob, Web 2.0 SF and lunch 2.0 at Oodle. I was not pitching the idea to outsiders, but asking the question that I was seeking ideas for.
Usually at this stage I develop a set of “filters”. I tend to write down 5-7 filters and they are the lens I use to determine if the question is worth answering and if the idea is worth pursuing. A filter might be “Are others also thinking these are questions worth answering”, or “Can I get someone to help me understand how prevalent this problem is” or “Is this an idea that answers the question in a very different way”? At this stage none of the questions are really about market size or determining the size of the opportunity, but more about whether I am asking the right question and if the idea is the one worth pursuing. Another good technique I followed was I sent a 5 question summary using a free online survey tool to 200+ entrepreneurs and people I knew. I even offered a few Starbucks gift card to 5 winners who participated in the survey. It provided enough incentive to get a 53% response rate.
- Validation: As opposed to the previous stage where I reach out to practically anyone, the validation process is usually one that I test with experts. I have found that it is always better to go to experts after I go to the “outsiders” since they tend to give me more simple answers. Outsiders don’t necessarily think of the idea in the context of existing solutions, whereas experts or “insiders” do.
I pitch only those ideas that have passed my filter criteria and it was not unusual to have 3-5 different ideas that I would tell the insider and ask them which one had “legs”. For BuzzGain, I had the opportunity to speak to over 20 insiders. Many immediately shot down 3 of the ideas but told me to refine 2 of them that they thought had potential.
When I did talk to the “insiders” I went with a mockup. Initially a set of 7 PowerPoint slides, which I had a friend convert into HTML (he later taught me how to do it with Dreamweaver) and took 3-5 minutes to walk them through it. I had 3 mockups for each of those ideas and showed all 3 to my insiders. They ended up picking some components from each to help me draw a new idea that was what felt was different and really addressing question in a unique way.
The questions I initially kept asking needed serious “thinking time”. I found a routine that works for me. Thinking time for me tends to be “alone”. I have heard several people ponder and think while they are in the shower and others when they go for long walks. I have tried the approach to set aside time for thinking and have enough questions to think about. The time that works best for me is while doing laundry or doing dishes (yes I did that when I was in America), and back in India, since I have a lot more time, travel time or while playing tennis is my best time for thinking. I also like to talk to others when I am advanced stages of thinking, so many times, I will take someone that works with me on a walk to discuss questions that need some ideas.