As developers there is one aspect of starting a business that seems to trip most of us up. That is the process of finding an idea to work on. We spend a lot of energy trying to imagine a problem to solve, and then even more energy building the solution to our imagined problem. If we ever actually build and launch these solutions, they fail.
But why? Why is finding the perfect idea so hard? Because there is no such thing as a perfect idea. It’s a common fallacy to believe that we, as developers, can come up with a unique problem and solution on our own.
To find the right project idea, we need to start by throwing away any ideas we may have come up ourselves. Most of these ideas fall into the category of “Hollywood Ideas”. A Hollywood Idea is one that sounds great on paper and would make for an interesting set piece in a movie about Silicon Valley. But, the idea itself has no real world applications because no one actually has the problem you have thought up in your little bubble.
What is the first step?
Step 1: Find a Target Audience
This will sound incredibly counter-intuitive to most developers, but to find a valid business idea, we need to start at the end: the target market. We start with the market, because building a successful business requires us to build a product that solves a real problem. The only way to find real problems is to talk to actual potential customers about their daily struggles. After we have spoken to enough of those customers we should be able to find a problem that is shared by most of them. That is the problem we want to solve if we want to build a successful product.
Picking a market is not as difficult as it may seem. As someone that has done this process several times now, I do have some advice on how to find a market that you are interested in though.
A good market:
- Is a specialized niche. Don’t go after too large of a market, because it’s impossible to boil the ocean. Narrow down your audience as much as possible, without getting so specific you cut out every possible customer. Good Examples: Music Stores, Divorce Attorneys, Pet Sitters, Stripe users. Bad Examples: Teenagers, Moms, Enterprises
- Has competitors. Don’t ever listen to someone that gives you the advice to find an idea in a completely unexplored market. If there are no competitors that means that you need to not only sell your product, but you need to teach your customers why they need your product which is hard to do. Competition means customers already know they have a pain that needs solved, you just need to convince them that your solution will solve it. Even the most crowded markets have room for another competitor, just don’t expect to win a large percentage of that market without a lot of time and money invested!
- Is something you know. You will have a much easier time entering a market that you know something about. Look to your hobbies or day job for motivation on markets you already understand. The next best market is one that a spouse or close friend is a member of. If you have easy access to connections within that market, you could cut down significant research time.
Step 2: Talk to the Market
This has always been the hardest part for me: calling or emailing complete strangers. But, it’s the best way to explore a potential market for problems you can solve.
I like to spend 2 weeks on this step. Start by gathering a list of potential customers and get their emails or phone numbers. This is where knowing something about the market comes in very helpful! Reach out to your contacts in that market and ask for recommendations on others to talk to. Build out your list of contacts to preferably 30-50 potential customers.
Once you have the list of customers, start emailing or calling them. Interview each one that responds and ask them questions about their day-to-day activities. Directly asking if they have any problems usually doesn’t work, so instead ask them to walk you through a day in their life. Drill into each activity they tell you about and see if there is anything that sounds painful. We are looking for problems that can cause them to lose money. If you can solve those problems, you can save them money, and they will be willing to pay you a portion of what they save!
Step 3: Sell the Idea
At this point, we should have a list of problems to solve and ideas to help solve them. Now, sell it. Call back some of those contacts you built and ask if they would be interested in the solution you have.
You don’t actually have the solution built, but you can still pre-sell the idea as a form of validation. Wouldn’t you love to know customers are waiting while you build it, than to find out after months of work that no one actually cares?
Another good way to pre-sell your idea is to set up a Launch website. Build a basic squeeze page that asks users for an email address in exchange for more information about your solution (or some other form of lead magnet). Drive traffic to this landing page with advertising for a quick test on viability. You can get a good idea of demand for less than $100. If no one is interested, you either have a bad squeeze page, or your idea is not as good as you thought. If the idea isn’t working, pick the next one off your list and try validating it instead!
As developers, we tend to over complicate the process of finding new ideas to work on. If we take a step back and focus on customers and their problems instead, we will find an infinite source of problems that people are willing to pay to solve. All we have to do is tap into that source and we can build a successful business in no time!