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Look for opportunities rather than ideas

Yesterday, someone emailed me, asking about how to find good ideas to start a startup.

Every founder who's been in the game a few years has clouds of potential ideas floating around that they can't find the time to work on. They might not all be good, but there are always too many of them. At the same time, though some people have this cloud of ideas following them even before they run their first business, many start off with few ideas. Before I started my first business (and for a year or two afterwards), I was one of those people... I didn't have that many ideas. But now? I spot (and ignore) new business opportunities on a weekly basis.

Why is that? I think it's because of a shift in perspective. Few businesses are actually started based on an "idea". Instead, entrepreneurs start businesses because they spot opportunities. That is the shift in perspective that occurs after a few years running your own business: because your job is, basically, to identify and pursue opportunities, you become very good at noticing and evaluating opportunities for business.

Can this shift in perspective happen before running a business? Perhaps, but I don't know of any tried-and-tested methods to induce it. Perspective shifts don't usually happen merely by reading an article or hearing a good story. Articles and stories are just one part of a long series of experiences that lead to someone to change their view of the world.

That said, I think there are a number of things you can do to drive towards that shift in perspective. It might still take years, but getting there in years is still better than not getting there at all. Here are some suggested activities:

  • Go out of your way to meet entrepreneurs and talk about opportunities (rather than ideas) with them. You can meet them for lunch, at startup meetups, etc.
  • Realise that almost everything you can lay your eyes on was built and delivered by a business - even the trees in your local park are probably being tended by a business. Most of these businesses make money. Some make a ton of money. Make it a constant habit to pick out some of those things and figure out how they make money. In the same way that a programmer will try to figure out "how they did it" when exposed to a cool new piece of software, an entrepreneur will have a habit of trying to figure out the business model, constraints, effort and so on, whenever exposed to a cool new business. Keep asking yourself "how would I build this business from scratch?"
  • Learn to sell. Once you know how to sell, the space of opportunities that you can spot grows tremendously.
  • In fact, learn as much as you can from the startup skill set. Each of those skills grows your reach in the opportunity-space.
  • Finally, read the right kinds of blogs/sites. Swombat.com is a good example, but there are many others that provide insight from the point of view of experienced entrepreneurs. Many of those are found in the Founder's Library. With the right kind of daily reading, you can probably brainwash yourself into a different state of mind (whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate).

Ultimately, if you want to achieve this more quickly, jumping in at the deep end and starting a business will always be the quickest way to achieve this perspective shift. Running (and failing at) a business shakes you to your roots, and this kind of painful experience is the stuff perspective shifts are made of. As they say, it "builds character"...


More from the library:
Show it doesn't work
Toxic investment
The steep startup learning curve