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The Great Idea

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One thing that might seem daunting when you’re considering a new venture is coming up with a great idea. What sets apart a good idea from a great one? And if you come up with a truly great idea, will a competitor crush it somewhere down the pipeline? When do you just trust your gut and pull the trigger?

When he was still a college student, Mark Zuckerberg already had a lifetime of ideas that he had shelved. Not everything passed muster in his mind, so he moved on to bigger ideas. His early successes can be traced back to his father, who taught him programming. Zuckerberg had created a communication software platform for his father’s dental office by the time he was 12. And when he was in high school, Zuckerberg built a forerunner of the music software Pandora, which he called Synapse. Both AOL and Microsoft tried to buy his idea and hire him, but he declined.

When Zuckerberg entered Harvard University, everyone knew him on campus as the go-to software developer. He wrote a program called CourseMatch, which helped students choose their subjects based on lists of courses compiled by other users. He also invented the wild popular Facemash, which compared pictures of students and allowed users to vote on which one was more attractive. School administrators shut it down after deeming it inappropriate, but its many fans were upset when it went dark.

Word got around about Zuckerberg’s brilliant ideas, and three of his fellow students—Divya Narendra and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss—approached him about channeling his software development genius into their idea for a social networking site called Harvard Connection. Zuckerberg initially agreed to help, but he dropped out to work on his own social networking site with his real friends.

At that point, Zuckerberg realized he had found an audience. He had firsthand knowledge that students definitely wanted a social networking site. He was passionate about the idea and was able to solicit a lot of support and leverage his competition.

Staying up late in his dorm room one night, Facebook was born.

Let’s take a step back and see what we can glean from Zuckerberg’s story. You may even want to sit down with a Word doc, Excel spreadsheet, or pen and paper to jot down some thoughts. These are a few preliminary questions to ask yourself that will help you narrow down where to look for ideas.

1. What do people ask you for help with? For Zuckerberg, it was software development. Maybe you are used to being everyone’s go-to tech support person or you have great video, photography, and design skills. You might enjoy fixing things around the house or planning road trips. Whatever it may be, you should start with something you’re interested in doing and expand from there.

2. What annoys people in your life? Think of the last time you had a conversation with someone about the annoying things about day-to-day life. Is it the broken traffic lights at an intersection or the long lines at a grocery store? Maybe your friends just want an easier way to find good coffee or romantic restaurants. Sift through all the noise and determine if any of these are practical things that you can build a business around.

3. What are people in your communities looking for? Whether it be a science fiction book club or a gathering for moms with strollers, people live in communities both online and in real life. Think of groups, forums, and communities on websites like Reddit. Attend MeetUp groups and throw out a few business ideas to see what sticks, or listen to ideas other people are trying to launch.

4. Who is your sounding board? The most important part of coming up with a great idea is being able to bounce it off people you trust. They could be friends or colleagues who are honest enough to tell you that an idea isn't great and save you time you might have spent fixated on something that wasn't likely to go anywhere. And when you're wondering whether an idea is any good, they can help bolster your confidence. Through consistent meetups, you may even come up with a better idea together.

When you try to force yourself to come up with a list of ideas, you inevitably get stumped. It’s hard to get the creative juices flowing, so don’t sweat it. Get into the habit of writing down ideas whenever inspiration strikes you. Jot down anything that comes to mind each day, whether it's when you're in the shower or in line at the grocery store. Sit down and evaluate your list at the end of each week.

Entrepreneur Jamyn Edis, who helped create a Fitbit-type device for cars called Dash, knows this process. When he and co-founder Brian Langel first sat down to brainstorm ideas for their startup, they had already made a list of all their ideas and had categorized them based on the following:

1. Ease of Execution: Is your idea as streamlined as it could be, or are there barriers along the way? Can you launch it on your own? If not, it might be difficult to get it off the ground. Edis and Langel had originally wanted to create cross-interactive TV analytics, but in order to do that they needed to seal business development deals. That was unrealistic because without having a product that was already proven in the market, they would have to ask corporations to provide internal data and information.

2. Market Size: How big or small is your market? In a well-explored terrain like the mobile app industry, you can run a few quick numbers and estimate the market value of your idea. Over 1 billion smartphones will be sold this year. So you’re already looking at a $25 billion global mobile applications market, according to TechCrunch. That doesn’t mean your company is worth $25 billion. It means there are plenty of opportunities to receive advice, guidance, and investment money from people interested in the mobile arena just because it’s a booming industry.

3. Competitive Intensity: Just because your idea exists in a booming industry doesn’t mean that people will want to invest in it. The downside of breaking into an explosive industry like the mobile tech world is that venture capitalists are extremely selective. Lots of entrepreneurs try to enter their ideas into competitions or get into a startup accelerator, but the acceptance rate is low. Take the mobile app example. There’s a lot of activity in this space. But the question is, what makes your idea unique? When Edis and Langel decided to launch Dash, they sought the help of Techstars, a startup accelerator that holds 13-week programs for new businesses.

The truth is that they had to go through the wringer even to get accepted into the program. One of their selling points was the argument that even though the mobile app industry was revolutionizing the way people think, eat, read, and communicate, it hasn’t really changed the way people drive their cars. This is when Edis and Langel’s entry point became visible. They had found a niche in the bigger market.

4. Personal Passion: Can you wake up every morning excited about what you’re pursuing? It’s important to be honest with yourself. In the words of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos: “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.”

Once you’ve identified an idea that you are truly passionate about, now you can do the deep dive and research more specifics about the market. Many people can come up with great ideas, but their businesses flounder because they don’t have an audience or they don't understand it.

Ask yourself these questions to uncover any potholes in your thought process:

1. What problem does my product or service solve?

2. Who will buy my product or service?

3. Where will they buy it?

4. What do I need to charge to make a profit?

5. Who is my competition?

No business can be all things to all people. The more you tailor your idea, the better. Create a niche for yourself in the market. During this time, you’ll find it extremely helpful to meet with an advisor at your local Small Business Development Center or talk to business and marketing professors at universities. They can provide guidance to help you do preliminary research. But do your homework, too.

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