by Jakob Greenfeld
Staring at a blank piece of paper is the simplest but also the most frustrating ideation method. More effective methods fall into one of four categories that are discussed extensively in the Grand Unified Theory of Product Ideation article:
Most people who write about entrepreneurship pick one of the four categories and claim that this is the only "right" choice. Oftentimes, the alternatives are not even mentioned. But if you want to maximize your success chances, there's no space for "ideaology". Great ideas can come from everywhere and hence it's essential to stay open-minded and try different methods. Even if you find one of the methods not really useful, it can make a lot of sense to try it again at some later point. It's also worth mentioning that certain ideation methods are better suited if you want to build a rapidly growing startup rather than a more humble business.
The various ideation methods are not just abstract ideas but immediately actionable. This becomes obvious as soon as we reformulate them in terms of explicit "ideation prompts". These are questions or instructions that gently nudge you in the right direction. A large collection of such prompts is included in the Product Prompt Generator.
The core idea all effective ideation methods have in common is that they focus on finding problems over ideas. This is one of the only things almost anyone (Pieter Levels, Rob Walling, Courtland Allen, Seth Godin, Nathan Barry, Paul Graham, Patrick McKenzie, to name a few prominent figures) can agree on.
"Customers don’t pay for ideas; they pay for their problems to be solved." - Nathan Barry
Far too many aspiring entrepreneurs still do it backwards and start with an idea, a solution looking for a problem. After months of working on their product, they start to wonder: "How do I find customers for this thing I built?"
Oftentimes this is incredibly difficult because they solved a problem no one has. Using a lots of clever marketing tricks they might be able to convice a few people to buy their product. But generally it will be an uphill battle and something that can and should be avoided.
It's far more effective to de-risk product creation by starting with a painful problem (ideally one that is well-understood but currently poorly solved).
Focusing on problems also makes sense because the most dangerous kind of product idea is what the folks at YC call "sitcom startup ideas". These are the kind of ideas that sitcom writers come up with for one of the characters that sound somewhat plausible but are actually bad. Sitcom startup ideas are "cool" ideas that in the real world no one is willing to pay for. (The Japanese call this kind of idea chindogu" (珍道具).)
[T]he way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. [I]f you make a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, the ideas you come up with will not merely be bad, but bad and plausible-sounding, meaning you'll waste a lot of time on them before realizing they're bad." - Paul Graham
For an analogy, consider how much easier it is to sell painkillers compared to vitamins.
It's easy to become seduced by an idea that seems clever on the surface. However, if you focus on painful problems that people in the real-world are having, the chances are much higher that you'll eventually be able to sell your product. The word "painful" is essential here because certainly not every problem represents a business opportunity. Two illuminating examples are podcast discovery and GlacierMD.
"Startups are as impersonal as physics. You have to make something people want, and you prosper only to the extent you do." - Paul Graham
I created the Product Prompt Generator because ideation isn't something that you can learn by reading about it. As with bike riding, there is a lot of tacit knowledge invovled and hence it's impossible to learn through descriptions. Instead, it's a skill hat you learn by doing. You have to do it regularly to become better.
James Altucher introduced the analogy of "training your idea muscle" that is just perfect. He recommends to write down ten ideas each day, if you want to become an "idea machine".
After all, the the key to creativity is quantity.
I tried this exercise a while ago but found it incredibly hard. The mistake I made was that I tried to come up with ideas while staring at a blank piece of paper, waiting for inspiration to strike. I find it far more effective to have at least some input and hence came up with the idea of utilizing specific "idea prompts". These help me to get my creative juices flowing. The ten-ideas-a-day exercise is now something that I'm looking forward to.
"The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas." — Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize laureate
Another important point that is true irregadless of which ideation method you're using is that they all, at most, will guide you to the entrance of an idea maze. The real challenge in entrepreneurship is understanding and navigating this maze.
Many aspiring entrepreneurs fail because they see their business ideas in "low resolution".
"Let's do music on the internet!" or "Let's build a note-taking app" are perfect examples of ideas in "low resolution". Ideas like this are initially worthless.
In contrast, to have a real chance at success entrepreneurs need to see potential ideas in "high resolution". This means, that the entrepreneur understands all the permutations of the idea, all possible branchings of the decicion trees, and is able to think them through to their logical end results.
This is what Balaji Srinivasan calls the idea maze. It all starts with a low resolution idea, which Balaji calls the entrance of the idea maze. The next essential step is then seeing the idea in high resolution which, in Balaji's terminology, means seing the complete idea maze, not just the entry point. A potentially good idea is then one specific path through the idea maze. You can see this site as my personal attempt to get some grasp on the "product ideas" idea maze.
Almost all ideas can lead to profitable businesses if you're able to understand and navigate the corresponding idea maze. And while it's almost inevitable that different founders find the entrance to a given idea maze, it's extremely unlikely that two founders navigate it in the same way. In other words, while "Let's do music on the internet!" is far too generic, there are lots of angles that allow for originality.
To start seeing ideas in high resolution, you need to become obsessed with the market, to study its history, and to talk to as many insiders as you can (if you're not one yourself). Good indicators of a "high resolution" understanding is that you're able to explain what has been tried before and what they did right or wrong. Almost all good ideas have been tried before. So you need to be able to explain why you're expecting a different outcome.
The "high resolution" vs. "low resolution" analogy helps to explain why direct experience is so valuable for entrepreneurs. It's much easier to see an idea in high resolution, if you have direct experience in the field. The best entrepreneurs purposefully immerse themselves in interesting mazes and then spend the necessary time to figure it out. (More on that later.)
"If you can verbally and then graphically diagram a complex decision tree with many alternatives, explaining why your particular plan to navigate the maze is superior to the ten past companies that fell into pits and twenty current competitors lost in the maze, you’ll have gone a long way towards proving that you actually have a good idea that others did not and do not have." - Balaji Srinivasan
With ideas it's almost like with electromagnetic waves. We're surrounded by them, but if we're not tuning into them (e.g. by using a radio) or even block them purposefully, we're not receiving them.
While it may sound silly to block ideas if you're looking for product ideas, this really happens all the time. Here are four far too common filters:
Good artists copy, great artists steal." - Pablo Picasso
The best ideas are usually not particularly clever and, at first, don't make a lot of sense or even sound silly. These kind of ideas are, in some sense, the opposite of "sitcom startup ideas". While "sitcom startup ideas" sound clever but are actually bad, great ideas often sound terrible at first but are actually great. Most people probably would've told the Google founders that "yet another internet search engine" is a really stupid idea.
Since great ideas are often fragile, it's essential to protect them as long as they're young. The feedback by most people won't be useful and discourage you from pursuing "silly" ideas that have a lot of potential. If you want to learn how to get valuable feedback on your ideas, read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick
"Ask for feedback on your attempts, not advice on your ideas." Sahil Lavingia
An important corollary is that ideation shouldn't happen in groups. The social forces inside groups usually kill the best ideas before they're even born.
"Be alone, that is the secret of invention. Be alone, that is when ideas are born." -Nikola Tesla