You’ve probably searched for online small business ideas because you want at least one of three things: freedom of time, money, or control.
And if you’re reading this, you’ve probably read a bunch of listicles that throw 36,000 business ideas at you:
Be a virtual assistant! A babysitter! An Uber driver!
You also probably closed those tabs in frustration because none of them consider the #1 one thing that will make a business succeed: You.
What you actually want to do. Your skills. Your passions.
In this post, I don’t throw 100 business ideas at you because… I don’t know you! Instead, I’ll show you a list of brainstorming questions to generate 100 business ideas that are actually realistic for you to do.
- I provide a high-level framework of what makes a profitable small business idea to get you started
- I show you two overlooked sources that you can mine ideas from, and
- I take you step-by-step to generate over 100 viable business ideas so you can pick from a list of ideas that actually get you excited
Let’s get into it.
What Makes a Profitable Small Business Idea?
An amazing online small business idea is made of two simple, but important ingredients:
- A group of 1,000 true fans who can support your work a.k.a. a niche
- A profitable product or service with skills and knowledge you have that delivers a solution to solve their problems
Let’s break that down:
Ingredient #1: A Group of 1,000 True Fans
The best way to make a million dollars is to serve one million people. Kevin Kelly’s article on 1,000 true fans brings that quote into sharper focus:
If you generate enough value to get 1,000 people to pay you $100 every year, then you have a $100,000/year business.
Once you serve the needs of the initial 1,000 true fans, then you can expand outwards to groups that are adjacent to your initial group.
For example, if you help 10,000 people with $100 worth of products and services and you can gross $1,000,000/ year.
Ingredient #2: A Solution that Solves a Real Problem
The essential principle of business—of occupation in the world—is this: figure out some way in which you get paid for playing.” — Alan Watts
Too many failed entrepreneurs are marketing-driven. They create a product first, then find a problem that that product can solve and customers to sell to. They believe that if they build it, the customers will come. Or that they can just pour more money to sell a below-average product.
Successful entrepreneurs are market-driven. They let their fans tell them how they can help. They validate their product and survey their potential customers for their willingness to put down money for a product before they go out and make it.
Successful entrepreneurs let the market tell them what to make and release to excited customers who line up before the store opens. Failed entrepreneurs tell the market what they want to make and release to crickets.
The Two Overlooked Sources of Online Business Startup Ideas
Source #1: Building a Business on Your Existing Skills
When people search for “business ideas”, they overlook an important source of those ideas: Themselves.
Their obsessions, passions, and strengths.
To help you mine your existing skills for business ideas, here are some brainstorming questions:
- What am I already getting paid to do at my day job?
- What do people usually come to me for help with?
- What comes easy for me that other people struggle with?
- What is an accomplishment or interest my friends get excited about when I tell them about it?
If you want to learn more about how to apply an entrepreneurial mindset to your current skillset. I recommend Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It (amazon.com).
Source #2: Buy a Franchise or an Existing Business
Another source that many people overlook when looking for business ideas are proven profitable businesses.
Investing in an already-profitable business takes away a lot of the setup stress of running an early-stage startup and figuring out a business model. All you have to do, really, is ask how much you really like the business:
- Would I like to do this for several years?
- Am I good at this?
- Is there a proven need for this?
- Would I use this product or service myself?
Bonus points if you’re already a fan of the brand, the business model generates recurring revenue, or if the business is a big player in a growing market!
With these two sources in mind, here’s a step-by-step plan you can follow to get find your small business idea:
A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting the Best Online Small Business Ideas
1. Know Your Why, Your What, and Your Passion
Prime your brain by having a vision, a driving force behind why you want to start an online business. Ask yourself…
What activities give meaning and purpose to your life?
- Is it so that your wife doesn’t have to go to work? (Admiration)
- Is it to be able to help build a school with the charity of your choice? (Contribution)
- Is it so that you can work and travel from wherever you want in the world regardless of what a boss says? (Freedom)
What does your perfect business look like?
- What does it look like?
- What does your perfect business look like?
- What is your endgame?
- How much money do you want to make per year?
You also have to know what you want and don’t want:
- Maybe you don’t want to work with a team and want to be a solopreneur
- Maybe you want a business that runs itself and only requires <5 hours a week of management
- Maybe you don’t want your name on anything because you want to sell the brand for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars down the road
Whatever your why’s and your what’s are, clarify them and write them down. Remember, a goal not written down is merely a wish!
2. Figure Out What Unique Value You Bring to the Table
Once you know why, how, and what you’re trying to accomplish with your online business idea, the next step is to find an idea that you can do.
To start, ask yourself:
- What do I like to do?
- What am I good at?
- What is an urgent unmet need or “pain in the ass” (PITA) that I or others I know have?
- What product or service do I gladly spend ungodly amounts of money on?
- Is there something complex in my life that I wish was simpler?
- Am I already good at something that might be a business? What comes easy to me?
- What would I do if I already had $1 billion?
- What do I obsess over on my evenings and weekends?
These questions will help you figure out your passions, strengths, and skills. The intersection of these three things is where your best business ideas lie. These are the possible niches you could create a business in.
For example, maybe you like to go to tea shops whenever you visit a new city (passion). You also realize that your health-conscious friends have started asking you for tea recommendations beyond the usual Earl Grey and English Breakfast teas they have (strength). Maybe you could start a tea recommendation newsletter for fitness enthusiasts… And eventually, turn that into a monthly subscription box of herbal tea (profitability).
3. Stay on Top of Business Trends and New Markets
Once you know what you want and have an idea of what you can do, it’s time to look at what’s succeeding already to expand your knowledge of what’s possible.
- Read case studies and blogs (Shopify’s blog is an excellent place to start)
- Listen to podcasts that profile entrepreneurs, like NPR’s How We Built This
- Watch documentaries or movies of legendary businesses, like Netflix’s documentary about McDonald’s Ray Kroc
- Check out best-of lists, like INC.’s 5000 Fastest Growing Companies and Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 500 Franchises
- Notice your everyday life: What restaurants and cuisines are suddenly popping up in your area? What new kind of espresso is becoming popular? What stores and new apps are your friends talking about?
Take as much time as you need for this stage. This is how you prime your brain for the final step of getting the best business ideas.
4. Generate Business Ideas and Filter Through Them
Once you’ve told your brain what you want, it’s time to let it get to work.
For the next 10 days, sit down each morning with a pen and paper. Push yourself to list out 10 business ideas.
By the end of the 10 days, you’ll have 100 unique business ideas on your hands.
They don’t have to be good ones. In fact, your first 90 ideas will probably suck. That’s OK. You just have to list out 10 ideas a day for 10 days.
Once those 100 ideas are in front of you, run each one through these filtering questions:
- Are there 1,000 — 3,000 reachable (preferably online) folks who can and will pay for this?
- Does the product have high margins? Better yet, can I make this once and sell it again and again, like a digital product or course?
- Does this product have the opportunity for recurring revenue, like a health supplement or email service provider?
- Does this product take advantage of status and network effects? In other words, does the product encourage customers to talk to their friends about it because it raises their status in some way?
- Are potential customers excited when I tell them about it?
- Would I use this product myself?
- Would I like to do this for several years?
If you run an idea through these filters and it passes with flying courses, congratulations! You have a product or service that people will want to put down money for. And, more importantly, you’ll have a potential business that will help you achieve independence and freedom of time, money, and control.
Finding an Online Small Business Idea Quickly
If you don’t want to go through the entire exercise and want to skip ahead, here’s what you do: think of 10 interests that you obsess over when you’re not working. It could be…
- Stock car racing
- High fidelity audio equipment
- Leather goods crafts
- Photography bags
..Whatever it is, start with that interest. Dig into communities that are passionate about that. Get involved in the community, whether it’s on Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, or Facebook. Remember: niches!
Finally, learn how you can solve recurring problems that people are talking about — this is the problem part.
This quick method won’t give you as many options as the step-by-step method. If you want more on where you can find business startup ideas, be sure to check out this post on finding business ideas.