Here are some of my notes on approaches for getting business ideas.

Answer the questions associated with each approach and see what you find.

Starting Points

Audience First

Pick an audience and start talking to them about their problems.

To use this approach ask:

  • Who do I know?
  • Who do I like talking to?
  • Who can I help with my skills and know-how?
  • Who would / has bought things from me in the past?

Field First

Pick a field you’re passionate about and start participating in conversations and answering questions. Keep an eye out for problems you might be able to solve. Write about your own experiments on your blog and share your own contributions back to the community.

To use this approach ask:

  • What field am I passionate about?
  • What would I love learning more about? / Find fascinating?
  • What would I like to help out with?
  • What do I read about?
  • What do I spend my time and money on?

Market First

Pick a place where you have the skills and capabilities to compete. Begin running experiments ~ buying ads, posting content, learning to communicate. Find ways to out-communicate your competition.

To use this approach ask:

  • What channels can I afford to compete in?
  • Where can I be strong in marketing? Can I produce certain kinds of content better than other people? Am I especially good at ads and analytics?
  • Where can I communicate better than others?
  • Where can I be consistent?

Strategy First

Think about what makes you different / special / have some sort of unique competitive advantage that you can leverage or develop.

To use this approach ask:

  • What is special about me that sets me apart? For example: my competition is big and that’s good because… I’m small and that’s good because…
  • How can I use my differences to my advantage?
  • What choices can I make that set me apart even more?
  • What makes me different from the success stories? Is there something I can do that they did?
  • What direction should I be going in (habits and capabilities should I be forming) to develop a competitive edge?

Competition First

Think about things you wish were better? Maybe you should make them better.

To use this approach ask:

  • What can I sell that someone else is already selling?
  • What can i do better that would make customers choose me over them?
  • Who are their customers and how can I reach them?
  • How good is their marketing? Can I beat them?

Timing First

Think about trends in the world. Are there markets that are starting to take off that you could get involved in? A growing market needs lots of vendors to service the demand. You could be one of them.

To use this approach ask:

  • What’s going on in the world right now that I can get involved with?
  • What products, ‘rocketships’, trends, etc… are starting to take off?
  • What is everybody excited about in your field? Why are they excited?

Cost Focused

What could you do cheaper than competitors?

To use this approach ask:

  • Is there something I’m more efficient at than other people?
  • Is there something I can deliver for less because of my situation ~ where I live? who I know? etc…

Value Focused

What could you do better than competitors?

To use this approach ask:

  • Is there something I can do better than other people?
  • What makes my approach better? Who would care? How can I reach them?

Skills Focused

Is there some sort of skill you really like using? Maybe you like building APIs or screen printing or something…

To use this approach ask:

  • Who really needs XYZ skill
  • How might I apply XYZ skill to new audience?

Development Strategies

So you have an audience… or a rough idea… but how do hone it and refine it? Here are some approaches people have taken.

Start with your own problems and explore solutions

I don’t think this approach works that well unless it’s paired with some of the other approaches.

I’ve tried this approach many times myself and then didn’t get anywhere when I starte to try marketing… the few times I did manage to sell what I’d created it was a one-off. I found one person who sort-of needed something like what I had made.

I think building prototypes is valuable… but it’s better build some super quick prototypes (so you know you can) then ask yourself ~ ‘who is this for? what’s the problem it’s solving’ and go talk to those people.

Strat answering questions on forums or in your blog

This is the approach Amy Hoy recommends.

This approach is useful for kickstarting customer research and testing your passion for a particular community.

A blog post is like a mini product you can build in a day instead of months. Blog posts are also a form of marketing and it’s always good to start testing marketing ASAP.

The downside to this approach is that it takes a lot of time and it’s not very direct. Writing blog posts can feel like a dead-end (in my experience) you won’t learn the things that in-person conversations will give to you.

I struggled with this approach because I worried that all my blogging efforts would be useless ~ what if I blogged for years and ended up with an audience that wouldn’t support a business.

I might use this approach to make sure I’m interested in a particular community and test ideas around a particular pain point but I would probably move to direct interviews and ad-tests if I wanted to dig deeper.

Start talking to (potential) customers

This is the approach Rob Walling, Jason Cohen, and many others have used to build highly profitable products.

This approach gives you very detailed insights into a market. I’ve talked to a lot of enterpreneurs and nearly all the successful ones have used this approach.

The challenge is in talking to the right group of people and having conversations at the right level of granularity.

My sense is that you can start talking to customers once you have narrowed in on a rough problem you want more information on. For example you’d want to say, ’last time you did [some job to be done] how did you do it?’… not ’tell me about all your problems’.

If you’re too vague when you start this kind of research talking to customers will be frustrating because you won’t know what to talk about and you’ll get wildly varying answers to your questions.

There are many variations on this approach ~ talk with friends, talk with people in communities, etc…

Build marketing tests

See if you can drive some traffic to a marketing test. Produce some content and see if people are interested… or… see if you can automate some of your direct outreach.

You’ll have to get good at marketing eventually, might as well start now.

I tend to think this approach is more costly than just talking to customers, but it can reveal different things.

It’s probably worth doing for just about any project where you won’t be doing direct sales.

Start delivering value with consulting

So you’ve identified an audience or a problem and you have an idea for a super cheap streamlined solution… but why not try selling the expensive, labor-intensive version first?

Lots of people do this. They run webinars, teach classes, do one-of contracts etc…

It’s a way to begin seeing the market from the inside.

Josef Prusa did a variation of this to start Prusa Research. He worked on (worked for) the open source Rep Rap 3d printing project and eventually knew enough to launch his first product - the heated print bed. His open-source and community work was sort-of like working for the community as a consultant for free.

Copy the competition

If you want to just get into a specific market then copy your competitors.

Ideally you’d want to add a bit of your own ‘flavor’ but that can come later.

There are millions of Chinese restaurants, tire stores, insurance agencies, apple sellers etc… they all sell the same thing. That’s what an industry is.

Sometimes we get the idea that we need to be original… find some new value to create etc… but it’s not true. Customers want the solution they understand ~ a car with a steering wheel and cup holder in the right place, a loaf of bread that looks pretty much like every other loaf of bread.

I think this approach works quite well with the ’talk to customers’ approach. Go find your competitors and talk to their customers (or ex-customers) to find ways you could differentiate yourself from their offering.

Buy a business

You can move even faster by buying an existing business. Maybe there’s a business that’s in a market you want to be in and the founder wants to do something else. It can be surprisingly cheap… there aren’t a lot of people who have the time and interest to build and maintain an existing business.

If you have a vision that’s different from the existing busienss you can use the existing business as a starting point.

Wraping up

I’m working on The Next Big Thing ~ an ill-formed idea that I hope will become more clear as I work on it. I’ll be using these starting points and development strategies to (hopefully) clarify my thoughts into a profitable project.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the post and have found it useful.