In order to generate startup ideas, you need to tweak the way you see the world. You can do this by priming yourself to see problems. Most people go through their days encountering hundreds of problems. They work around them without even noticing. If you instead come up with a way to solve a problem that people find valuable, you have a startup idea. Here’s how you can get started.

Look for Problems

Throughout your day, keep your eyes open to the problems you and others encounter. These are the seeds of your startup ideas. Almost everything you do throughout the day will bring a new set of problems. Most of these problems are either very small or extremely difficult to solve. The small problems have less potential as startup ideas because they aren’t painful enough to solve. Most people aren’t going to pay to solve these. The difficult problems are typically expensive to solve. The cost of the solution may outweigh the potential.

Here are a couple of examples from my own life, first of a problem that is difficult (for me) to solve. In my neighborhood, I have trees lining the streets that leave sticky sap everywhere. This is a problem when I walk because the sap gets on my feet and picks up leaves. These leaves then come into my house and make a big sticky mess.

There are a number of ways I could approach thinking about this problem. What if the soles of my shoes were made of a material that would still provide enough grip to walk but that the sap wouldn’t stick to? I would probably need to be a materials scientist to develop that solution. What if there’s a way to treat the trees so that they don’t produce the sap? Again, this would require more expertise than I have. (I don’t even know. Maybe a botanist or a chemist?) Even if this solution were viable, I’d worry about the environmental implications. Maybe there’s a chemical or some type of floor mat that would make cleaning the sap from my shoes really easy. Again, requires expertise I don’t have. Disposable shoes that I throw away after each walk? That could work for some people, but it doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies.

Now, let’s look at a problem that is small and easy to work around. When I move through my house, I have to to either turn lights on and off as I go (which is annoying) or I have to leave all the lights on (which is inefficient). It would be really cool if the lights were aware of my location and activated when I was near and likely to need them. That’s something I might be able to build. Problem is, it would probably be fairly expensive for people to buy relative to the pain of this problem. Am I likely to pay $200 or so to avoid having to flip light switches when I enter or leave a room? Not likely.

Although these two problems might not bear fruit, noticing them and others like them will eventually lead you to a problem that could become your startup.

You shouldn’t limit yourself to your own problems though. Mine other people’s problems too! If you have opportunities to talk to people who own businesses or make buying decisions for them, ask one question:

What’s the hardest thing about your business?

Most people will happily (unhappily?) tell you all about the one thing that’s most difficult for them. The logical next question is, “What do you do to work around that?” This will give you some great insight into what solution might be viable for them.

Solving problems that cost businesses money is your fast-track to earning your share of that money. 💰

Record Your Startup Ideas

Use whatever system works for you to record the problems you find. For me, that’s a note-taking app on my smart phone. (Bear is a really nice one if you live in the Apple ecosystem.) Some people are more comfortable with a notepad and a pen. Find a system that provides the least friction for you.

In Bear, I like to make a new note for each problem. If you find a problem you want to research, you can record what you learn on that problem’s note as well. Tag each note by adding a hashtag (like this: MARKDOWN_HASH0fb61889242ddc12a066af9c64543246MARKDOWN_HASH) somewhere in your note. If you’re going to use Bear to make any other notes, make sure you are disciplined about tagging all your problems with the same hashtag. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to find them when you want to review them.

Be very careful about proposing solutions to your problem. If the problem relates to something you’re intimately familiar with like your own business, you can jot down an idea or two. Don’t get attached to anything though. This will only inhibit you from finding the best solution. This solution will come from conversations with your customers. Even suggesting your own solution can make finding the customer-centric solution more difficult.

Explore the Possibilities!

It’s the last step in your idea generation system! Don’t overthink this part. It’s more art than science. You don’t need to find the problem that will make you rich. You just need a problem that seems like it’s worth exploring. Use whatever criteria you want. Maybe take what seems like the low-hanging fruit. Try on the one that’s most exciting to you or seems most challenging. This will be the first problem you’ll focus on when you start talking to your customers.

As you talk to customers, you may very well learn the problem you’ve chosen is not viable. You may find the solution your customers will pay for isn’t one you can build. It may just be that the solution doesn’t sound like something you’d want to work on. That’s why we start here, with the cheap stuff. Instead of filing for bankruptcy protection, you can simply move on to the next problem.