Coming up with an Idea

Coming up with an idea that brings value to the world and money in your pocket doesn’t have to be a difficult thing. In fact, it should be a fun thing! But there are a lot of bad ideas out there, and they often look like great ideas on the surface. So how can you tell the difference while at the same time coming up with something? Well here’s the sure way toward great ideas. And it all begins with problems.


For startups, a tough problem is a very very good thing. Simply put, your idea should solve a problem. Where there is pain, there is a willingness to pay to stop it. And the greater the pain, the greater the amount someone is willing to pay to relieve it. So the first step is to think of a problem. What kind of problem? Paul Graham, co-founder of Y-Combinator, said this…

“The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they’re something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realize are worth doing. Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook all began this way.”

One of the best ways to think of a problem, is to think of a problem that you yourself have. If you are a potential customer, you’ve got a great first source for designing a solution. (Just make sure you still talk to other customers throughout the process; more on that later). But also know that just because a problem exists and you can think of a solution, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea. You need a solution that at least a few people want desperately and urgently. Is a few people enough? Paul says,

“You can either build something a large number of people want a small amount, or something a small number of people want a large amount. Choose the latter. Not all ideas of that type are good startup ideas, but nearly all good startup ideas are of that type.”

Start with a niche group of customers, and then expand wider once enough are loving the solution you’re providing. This also implies that your idea can expand wider. These are the characteristics of a great idea. Think about Facebook. They started with just Harvard – a small amount of people – but the students really wanted it. Then they expanded to other universities, and finally, to the rest of the world.
So the first step is to think of problems.


Do you have to be able to build the solution yourself? No, but it sure does help. If you can’t build it, then you should find a co-founder to work with who can.
The absolutely best way to find ideas is to simply be the type of person who has good ideas. But how do you become that person? Paul Graham talks about removing filters that you look at life through. We take a lot of things for granted throughout the day. Many of our new convenient products today just seem obvious, but 20 years ago, the problems they solve were simply an annoyance. If you forgot your usb drive, too bad you have to drive back home and grab it. Today we use dropbox and the cloud to store our files. One of the best ways to come up with ideas organically is to “Live in the future, and then build what’s missing.”

I referenced a lot of Paul Graham. If you want to read his excellent full article on Startup Ideas, read it here.

Already have an awesome idea that you think can make it rain?? Great! Let’s run some tests to make sure you’re in a good spot before you pour too much time and money into it.

Validating your Idea

Ok, now that you’ve got your idea, let’s make sure it’s big enough to bring the results you’re looking for. The link below is an interactive form that will ask you several questions about your idea and then give you a score at the end. The higher the score the more likely you’ve hit on a great idea and the more likely investors will be interested. Now this doesn’t mean an idea without a high score is terrible, but maybe it just needs to be more refined or maybe you just need to bring someone else on to the team with the right talent, experience, or relationships. Either way, use this tool to help you understand what problems your idea will face and needs to overcome.
Big Idea Canvas: link
(printable pdf version): link

Really Validating and Forming your Idea

Now whether you got a great score or you’re still trying to beef it up a bit more, this next step is probably the most beneficial thing you can do for your company/idea in the entire guide. It has to do with the 3 C’s in startup validation. What are they? Customers, Customers, Customers!!! Creating the right product or service for your customers is crucial to success and we can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting future customers involved in your startup process as soon and as often as possible.

So here’s what you absolutely HAVE to do before you actually start building your product or service.

Talk to 25 Customers

Sit down for 5-10 minutes with 25 different potential customers one-on-one and ask them these 5 questions. Don’t talk about your product. Just listen. And make sure these are actual potential customers for YOUR product. Someone who loves listening to music on their bluetooth speaker is not the right customer to talk to if your idea is a portable nonelectronic phone cone-shaped amplifier (true story). Ok, so here are the questions.

  1. Tell me about a story about the last time you ______(the problem your product solves).
  2. What was the hardest?
  3. Why has that hard?
  4. What did you try to do to solve the pain?
  5. Why was this solution not awesome?

The answers to these five questions will help you in incredible ways to begin forming your solution. For a more in-depth explanation of this process watch this video:



Guess what?! There’s a student competition at BYU every October for getting just this far. It’s called the Big Idea Pitch and you could win up to $500! Go here to learn more: Big Idea Pitch