Are you the kind of person who’s always getting excited about new ideas for businesses?

If so, this cycle might sound familiar:

I know the feeling because it happens to me all the time.

But having travelled all the way around the internet and back again, I’ve realised the root of my problem.

Having a good idea isn’t enough

In fact, even what seems to be dazzlingly brilliant idea won’t get you anywhere, on its own.

And that’s not withstanding the difficulty of judging the merits of the thing that’s just been plucked out of your head. How do you know if it’s any good or not?

Adobe’s open-source innovation process Kickbox suggests writing down all your ideas — even the ridonculous ones — in a ‘Bad Ideas’ notepad. This has two benefits: it stops you losing things in the heat of the moment; and it forces you to qualify their usefulness.

Usefulness. It’s not a sexy word is it? But it’s a crucial one for inventors who want to get their inventions out of the garden shed and into the real world.

As Paul Graham notes in ‘How to get startup ideas’, starting a startup by trying to think of startup ideas is a guaranteed recipe for failure.

I’m going to take the last example from this (randomly generated) list, because it sounds the coolest.

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Picture the scene: right in the middle of a headspin, you suddenly realise that you didn’t pick up that cat food for your B-girl, and she’s gonna be mad at you. “Why isn’t there an easy way for B-Boys and B-Girls to keep their todo lists close at hand, even when they’re breakin’?”, you think, and then “OMG, THE WORLD NEEDS THIS THING, NOW!”

Apart from the fact that the Apple Watch might be about to destroy the need for a solution, I’ll admit that a reminder app for B-Boys sounds vaguely cool.

But “Is this thing cool?” is the wrong question.

When you have an idea for a startup, ask yourself: who wants this right now? Who wants this so much that they'll use it even when it's a crappy version one made by a two-person startup they've never heard of?
Paul Graham

It’s not just would-be startup founders who get this wrong. It happens to bloggers, writers, inventors, engineers, tinkerers — to everyone in the business of starting a business.

The question you need to ask is…

“Am I building something that people want?”

Don’t get me wrong. I think that “build something to solve a problem you have” is still great advice. But you need to make sure, absolutely unequivocally sure, that the itch you’re scratching is one that other people are feeling too.

I can hear you. You’re thinking “Ok then James, if I shouldn’t start with an idea, where the heck should I start?”

For the answer to this, I’m going to pass you over to Amy Hoy (the brains behind the Freckle time-tracking app).

This is the wrong order:
1. Come up with a bunch of “ideas”
2. Try to figure out if anyone wants to buy any of them

And the right order:
1. Find out what people need and what they’re ready to buy
2. Make it for them

This blew me away the first time I read it. Seriously, I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ve been ‘all the way around the internet and back again’ earlier. It’s taken me two years of attempted product-building to land back at this advice again.

It’s a hard pill to swallow but...

You’ve been doing it backwards

Whether you’re working on a side project outside of your day job, or trying to get a new business off the runway, your time is precious.

Guesswork, making something that nobody wants, testing hundreds of ideas just in case one of them is magic — all things that will use up your limited time (and energy).

Instead of starting with an idea , begin with a customer, and ask yourself these three questions:

How to get inside your customers’ heads

Amy Hoy’s Sales Safari technique is perfect for this.

As the name suggests, it’s all about observing your customers in their natural habitat.

Unlike a tourist however, you’re not trying to snap a photo of your target. Instead, your objective is to figure out which problems (small and large) you can solve for them.

Online forums and Amazon book reviews both make for great Sales Safari hunting grounds because they are readily accessible and easily to search. (If you don’t know any forums for your niche, try searching on Reddit).

Here are the things you should be looking for:

  1. What pains do your customers have?
  2. What do they spend money on?
  3. What do they believe in?

Let’s go back to that ‘reminder app for break dancers’ concept for a moment.

Even if I was a B-boy myself, the first step would be to figure out if other B-boys had the same problem as me.

But from a quick scan through the Bboyworld forum, it doesn’t look like anyone is complaining about forgetting their todo list whilst breakin’.

In fact the pain point that breakers seem to suffer from most is a very real one — injuries. I can tell that because there’s an entire sub forum on Bboyworld for them, full of topics like this:

Sounds pretty painful right? And you can be pretty sure that Bboys will be willing to spend money to fix or avoid injuries.

So if I was going to build a product for B-boys, this is where I’d start. You could collect injury prevention tips and cures into a book format, set up an online store selling all the meds/bandages/equipment they might need, or maybe create a video course showing people how to avoid injury in the first place.

Anyway, I’ll stop now because this is clearly something I’m not qualified to hypothesize about.

The key point is this:

You must qualify your ideas — and their usefulness — with rigourous customer research before trying to turn them into a business

Otherwise you could be building something that nobody wants, and forever stuck with the ‘trying’ part of this sentence.

If it’s good enough for Amazon…

If you need further convincing, consider that retail giants Amazon have also reversed their idea->customer process, by writing press releases for new products before building them:

We try to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it. If the benefits listed don't sound very interesting or exciting to customers, then perhaps they're not (and shouldn't be built).

How do you feel about not starting with an idea?

And how are you going to get inside your customers' heads?

PS. Writing this has made me reconsider my plan to write a beginner's guide to Instagram. But if you're interested in using Instagram to promote your brand or business, I'd love 2 minutes of your time.

Posted to Uncategorised in 2015.

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