How to Come Up With Great Ideas for Startups

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

I just finished Paul Graham’s course on generating startup ideas that are freely available in the Y Combinator’s startup school. Here are in my opinion the key points from the course with some of my comments. Hope you enjoy it! :)

But before we kick in, I want to express why I wrote this. Confession; I have an obsession coming up with new startup ideas. In the past, I would literally wake up during the middle of the night and obsessively think about new ideas without being able to sleep. So, I had to study and learn how to deal with my thoughts and ideas. Sure, meditation has helped, but here I would argue a great boon has been to know which ideas are good and which is not.

1. It’s not about you, it’s about your customer

At the very start, Paul mentions that he did this mistake himself.

“I made it myself. In 1995 I started a company to put art galleries online. But galleries didn’t want to be online. It’s not how the art business works. So why did I spend 6 months working on this stupid idea?”

It’s very easy and somewhat natural to think about different business ideas and endlessly use the time to polish them. However, this will take you nowhere. Your first concern should be to consider your customers and try to solve real-life problems for them. That’s where to start.

If there is no problem, there are no customers. Just like old the maxim “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it” goes.

So, start by talking to your potential customers. You don’t need to incorporate for that. Just ask the first one(s) if your solution would help them or not. If they feel to need it urgently, it is even better. Best if they need it urgently and want to pay you for it. That’s where to start.

2. Work from your strengths

What point makes an idea, if you cannot implement it?

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Ok. That was a bit tough.

I mean, you should at minimum see how to start testing your idea. If you are focusing on your strengths, this should be easy. Most of us have a skill or several what we master to some degree. If you grow your business ideas around your strengths, it should be easy to be able to test them.

“It’s even better when you’re both a programmer and the target user because then the cycle of generating new versions and testing them on users can happen inside one head.”

Just like Paul says in the above; if it’s something that comes to you naturally and you are already doing it yourself, it’s easy for you to start testing what works and what doesn’t.

Work on that.

3. Notice what is missing

Once you’re down this trail, Paul guides you as follows.

“…the way to notice startup ideas is to look for things that seem to be missing.”

It maybe is small at the start, just a hint, or then it shines on you like the sun; in essence, you understand that there is a need. Something is missing. But it is not easy to see what is missing.

“Most things that are missing will take some time to see. You almost have to trick yourself into seeing the ideas around you.”

This could come up to the level that you are living in an imagined future in which your solution is already there. Then facing the real World makes you annoyed since your solution is not out there. This might be a good sign in the sense that it might be actually worthwhile to build it.

Thus, notice what is missing, limit to your strengths and start asking potential customers for feedback right away. So far your set up cost = zero, which is excellent!

4. #*!@, somebody already built my idea!

In short, it doesn’t matter!

If fact, it might be even a positive sign. Paul agrees.

“A crowded market is actually a good sign because it means both that there’s demand and that none of the existing solutions is good enough.”

So, take your time and do your research. If it’s a digital product, or you plan on a digital marketing or sales channels, which I would guess concerns a great majority of new entrepreneurs, you could even take Semrush’s or ahrefs’ free trials and do your competitor, SEO, content, PPC and social media research. Within a day and a few online pieces of training, you should be amazed at how much info you can gather.

And then it comes to the main point; you know where there is room for you!

5. Ideas on demand

“While the best way to discover startup ideas is to become the sort of person who has them and then builds whatever interests you, sometimes you don’t have that luxury. Sometimes you need an idea now. For example, if you’re working on a startup and your initial idea turns out to be bad.”

As Paul shows, we often don’t have the time to nurture and slowly cook our ideas. The house is on fire and we need to fix it right away.

Here he focuses and stresses discipline. You need to adjust your idea filters correctly and stick to your filtered list, now mind wander around in wonder.

Again, it is best to be in the venue where you are an expert. If you are a cook by or a nurse with no programming skills past your forties, it is not wise for you to start building a video platform for teenagers. It is safer to stick in your expertise including your hobbies and other personal interests.

“The place to start looking for ideas is things you need. There must be things you need…try asking yourself whether there’s something unusual about you that makes your needs different from most other people’s. You’re probably not the only one. It’s especially good if you’re different in a way people will increasingly be.”

For example, if you are a vegetarian or into meditation, you probably have seen the current trends a long time ago. This illustrates the point; go and talk to people. Ask what they are into currently. Ask what they see. As if there are services that they would like to have but nobody is offering them. Just ask, and people will tell you. Chances are that you’ll get a massive influx of ideas!


Paul highlights that “Finding startup ideas is a subtle business, and that’s why most people who try fail so miserably. It doesn’t work well simply to try to think of startup ideas. If you do that, you get bad ones that sound dangerously plausible.”

Stick to your system. Don’t float useless idea; they just consume your time and energy. Become a master in filtering your bad ideas of the good ones. This is a great habit.

He concludes the course by “Live in the future and build what seems interesting. Strange as it sounds, that’s the real recipe.”

I can not help but agree. Whatever you do, it should be interesting to you.



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