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A majority of professionals claim they want to start their own business, but an extraordinarily small percentage actually do. Excuses include family obligations, bad timing, risk aversion, not enough savings, etc., but the most common excuse I hear is that they’re just waiting for the right idea to “come to them.” We have a cartoonish fantasy that one day a lightbulb will flash in our heads as we strike pure inspiration for an idea so original or so nuanced that we feel utterly compelled to become an entrepreneur in order to bring it to market. While lightbulb moments may exist for some select entrepreneurs, for most great product or business concepts out there, you need to be highly intentional in how you chart a path to uncovering them.
I founded an innovative and profitable small business that took me all the way to Shark Tank, Forbes 30 under 30 and over $1 million in revenue in just a few years. The idea didn’t just come to me. Instead, it took four months of highly organized and intentional time to find it. If you want to find your startup idea, here are the steps to follow:
1. Commit to an intended outcome, a schedule and a timeline
Start by making your ideation process have a beginning and an end, along with a specific schedule of working sessions. My business partner and I committed to a six-month period of meeting at least twice a week in the evening for 5 hour blocks on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Our intended outcomes were a product concept with a strong enough G2M plan that we felt confident enough in to fully commit to. If we still didn’t have our idea in six months or weren’t feeling confident in the one we had, then we would scrap it and call it quits on this round. If you don’t set a strict end date, you risk losing the sense of discipline that comes hand in hand with urgency.
2. Get your family on board with the commitment
Don’t hustle in the dark. From day one of your commitment, share the plan and time investment with your family, and emphasize why this is so important to you. Most likely, they’ll cheer you on and be some of your biggest advocates. Not being open about your ideation journey will likely lead to resentment. If your family is loving enough to let you put all this extra time towards your idea, be sure to pick up the slack by taking on additional chores around the house or planning a few extra date nights. It never hurts to show them how much you appreciate their support.
3. Form guardrails derived from your interests, expertise and appetite for risk
Start by defining soft and hard guardrails to help narrow your ideation path. My co-founder was an architect, and we both loved woodworking. Okay … so maybe something made out of wood. We both were avid conservationists, so maybe something to do with nature. We weren’t eager to invest a lot of money upfront in the business, so maybe a product that could do well on a crowdfunding platform. Most were soft guardrails that played to our strengths and areas of interest, which typically lead to better outcomes anyway, but at the end of the day, the purpose of putting in guardrails is to focus your ideation. You can’t boil an ocean, but maybe you can boil a pool full of seawater. I highly suggest spending your first few meetings crafting these guardrails before diving into open brainstorming.
4. Embrace diverse brainstorming techniques and immerse yourself in stimulating environments
Don’t just sit in a room and stare at a screen. Instead, research and adopt a wide variety of brainstorming techniques (i.e., cocktail mixers, stepladder, rolestorming, etc.) all while sticking to the four key roles of brainstorming: focus on quantity, withhold criticism, welcome wild ideas, and combine ideas for more ideas. The best thing you can do is surround yourself with a wide array of stimuli. We would spend hours at a time strolling down the aisles of Walmart just mentally mashing different products together in our heads. Walmart is a candy store for product brainstorming.
5. Iterate, challenge, evolve
Once you’ve amassed a number of possible ideas, you enter the evaluation phase. This is where you can start getting critical with your ideas — evaluate how they align to your guardrails, use matrices to determine feasibility rankings, etc. Pay attention to your excitement during this phase. Which ideas do you find yourself advocating for the most? Why? Even if some ideas have more challenges than others, your passion will fuel you and help you overcome them when you later decide to bring it to market.
6. Once you commit, don’t doubt yourself
Once you come around to that idea that you’ve poked enough holes in to the point that you are feeling really confident, just go for it. Remember, you didn’t decide to become an entrepreneur just off of a single fleeting lightbulb moment … you just invested months of highly intentional time to come to a well-vetted idea. Have confidence in that, and take it to the next stage.
Stop waiting for your lightbulb idea to just come to you, go out there and find it. What are you waiting for?