There are a lot of books out there to help people start businesses, but even the good ones downplay the importance of the initial idea, focusing instead on the importance of action. This leaves a frustrating gap for anyone trying to come up with business ideas, and its one I’m going to fill in this post. My approach to generating business ideas, has a few things going for it:

1. It doesn’t focus on finding your passion (Note: Obsessing about passion can actually hurt your efforts to start something new)
2. The ideas you’ll come up with using this technique will often be things you’re interested in
3. This approach might actually make you an all round better person

The “P” Word – don’t make passion the goal
The time honoured advice you’ll often receive when searching for a second career or a business idea is “follow your passion” or “discover your passion!”. I think this is flawed advice for a number of reasons:

i. Unrealistic
Trying to find your passion is like trying to figure out what your favourite song or movie. There’s seldom one choice and you have to do a lot of listening and watching, before you can even attempt to choose one. If we have this much trouble with movies and songs, imagine how difficult it’s going to be to find our passion! In reality, it’s likely we’re simply meant to do many things.

ii. Unnecessary
Most great entrepreneurs or people that have turned their life around didn’t focus on one all encompassing passion

iii. Discouraging and Confusing
Passion is a powerful concept and it’s easily misunderstood. Have you ever reconsidered whether you were really “meant to do something”, simply because there was an aspect of it that you didn’t like? E.g. Maybe you thought sports videography was your passion. You’d taken some videos of events for free and got great results. But then you discovered you didn’t like dealing with commercial clients; it was too much pressure and they wanted the video shot a certain way and you weren’t sure you could pull it off, etc. So you started questioning whether videography was really your passion, after all if it was, would you really be having all these hang ups? The truth is, hang ups are natural!, and it’s rare to love every aspect of something, and to be undaunted by challenges. Starting any kind of new venture will involve both, especially in the initial stages. So don’t confuse a natural reaction, with a lack of passion.

My take is that passion is not something we find, it’s something we discover, naturally, and slowly over the course of a lifetime. The best thing to do is feed it many experiences and let it do its thing. For business ideas, I’d strongly recommend starting elsewhere!

Passion takes a long time to discover. We need to start elsewhere!

The “N” word – Notice!
So, if it’s not about passion, how do you find business ideas that are right for you!? A clue can be found in the stories of business startups that made it. Take Groupon, for example, which was born out of Andrew Mason realizing that if only people could group together, they could force sellers to reduce their prices. In the meantime they were paying more then they had to.

Virgin Atlantic is another example; the original idea for Virgin Atlantic was sparked from poor customer service Branson experienced when his flight to the Virgin Islands was cancelled from Puerto Rico. In retrospect, one of Branson’s passions is great customer service – but I’m not sure even he knew that back then. He was simply reacting to his gut instinct about a bad situation.

Both Branson and Mason saw something was broken and they decided they wanted to do something about it. I could cite numerous other examples (e.g. Apple, Facebook, Google, etc). The key is to keep your eyes open long enough to have an opinion about the things that go on around you, and when you see something’s broken, be determined to come up with your personal solution. There’s a good chance if you think it’s worth fixing, someone else will too. I call this focused awareness: “Switching It On”. It’s something you naturally do when you’re a kid, and everything around you is brand new. I’ve seen children fashion a cardboard box into a new toy and a new game, or see a railway track, where an adult would only see the runners of a patio door. As we get older we lose this vision, but there’s a way to start exercising these muscles again!

Switch it on: Simple approach to generating business ideas!

Exercises to help you Switch It On:
Below I’ve described a number of techniques that demonstrate how you can generate business ideas by switching it on.

Note: You may like these ideas, or you may hate them, at this point the goal is to start having ideas. As time goes by, you’ll start to accumulate a lot of them. Seth Godin puts it really well in his book LinchPin: “When someone says to me, “I don’t have any good ideas … I’m just not good at that,” I ask them, “Do you have any bad ideas?” In future posts I’ll talk about how to expand on ideas to determine their viability, potential market, revenue and growth potential, etc.

Technique 1: I wish I could do [something] but I can’t because of [obstacle]

Example: You’re running late for the train, and are forced to park in the overflow car park at your local Train Station. Running with a heavy laptop bag and a heavy coat through the winter wind, you think to yourself: *I wish I could afford one of the expensive premium parking spots that are a lot closer to the platform*. It’s then that you “notice” how many premium parking spots have been left vacant. What a waste! If only there was a way these people could rent (sublet) these spots out on the daily/weekly/monthly basis?

Example: I wish I could do my own car maintenance. It would save me a tonne of money – and I’d be more confident that my car was getting the care it needed. But I can’t, because I’m not very handy; I’d probably end up breaking something. And then it dawns on you that perhaps if there was a basic, online, car maintenance guide, with a no questions asked money back guarantee, perhaps you and others might buy into it. Now you need to find an expert to collaborate with!

Technique 2: What bothers me?

Example: Burning my tongue on a hot drink. Shouldn’t there be a simple way to tell whether the drink is going to be too hot?

Example: None of my SLR camera bags are comfortable. They’re ok, but I’d still rather leave my camera at home, and that’s a shame!
Of course, we might assume that the camera bag market is saturated, and surely there has to be one amazing, super comfortable bag out there? The truth is I researched this subject and didn’t find anything concrete. Several times I stumbled on pages that cite my existing Lowepro Sling Bag as a great bag for comfort. So maybe developing a reasonably priced SLR bag, that delivers on the promise of comfort is a viable business idea and something worth testing.

Technique 3: Don’t hate … emulate!
This last technique is a little different from the other two. You could say it’s complimentary as it helps us keep things real. The basic idea is that when we see something’s broken, we get excited about fixing it, and then all of sudden we discover there’s mature competition, so we do one of two things:

1. Quit – Someone’s already beaten us to this particular idea
2. Hate – We hate on the solution, challenging ourselves to come up with a radically different approach

Sometimes these are valid responses, however, perhaps a better starting point is to “Emulate”. i.e. Study the existing solution and identify ways to improve it! This approach shows respect for the existing solution, and the success it’s already had with an existing target audience. If you want to read more about this idea, take a look at this guest post by Chad Mureta on Tim Ferris’s blog.

I’ll be posting more on related topics in the future. If you’d like to get an email notification when I do, feel free to leave your email below:

Till next time!

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