Below is an excerpt from our book Startups Made Simple: How to Start, Grow and Systemize Your Dream Business. Learn more about the book here.
“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
Imagine the perfect business for you where you are doing what you love. What would that look like, and what would you do (or not do) on a daily basis? Having this vision is the first crucial step in creating your ideal business and is why I consider it one of the founder superpowers.
Why is having vision important? Because there is something magical about the human mind and its ability to make a clear vision a reality, sometimes without you knowing it. Anyone who has built something from an idea in their head knows this; whether it’s a business, a dream house, or anything else.
Some of you more scientific types may have flinched when I wrote “magical” above, but fear not, I have science on my side. Having a clear vision in your head activates certain parts of your brain. One of those is known as the reticular activating system or RAS, and its purpose is to filter out unnecessary information and then focus on information that you’ve deemed important.
An example of this is when you can filter out all the voices and background music in a restaurant to focus on one person. Or, when you have been thinking about buying a particular make and model of a car, you begin seeing it all around town or online. This is your RAS in action.
A similar phenomenon is actually one of a human’s cognitive biases called selection bias. You think there is more of something simply because you notice it more. But unlike most biases, which are usually negative, we can use selection bias and our RAS to begin focusing on the things that are going to make our vision a reality.
We’re going to make our Vision so clear that your brain will have no choice but to immediately begin working overtime (especially at night while you sleep or doing unrelated activities like walking) to solve the problem you’re working on or idea you’re thinking about. This is another aspect of our brain called the default mode network (DMN) that works while you are not focused on a specific task.
For years, I’ve been letting my unconscious mind work on problems for a few days and the solutions just come, usually while I’m in the shower, walking, or doing something not directly related to work. Does this sound familiar? Having ideas in the shower or while walking or driving is almost a proverb at this point. This is your DMN, and it works best (mostly by making connections in your brain) when you’re relaxed and not focused on something specific.
You’ll begin to notice things that will make your idea a reality, suddenly see the clear solution, run into people that can help, or see opportunities and connections that you previously ignored. This is the power of having a clear vision.
Motivation and Desire
We know that if we have a clear vision, our brain will help us make it a reality. This means the next step is to ask yourself what you really want. What is your primary motivation for starting a business? This question seems obvious, but I see many people get this wrong and say things like “to be a millionaire” or “to buy my dream house and car” or “to not be broke anymore.”
What I want you to do is take what you want a level higher and really determine why you want to start a business. If you’re honest with yourself, you probably want some or all of these things:
The list above is not exhaustive, but I hope you can see how identifying a deeper purpose to your business can actually make it more powerful when you visualize what you ultimately want in a business. This is powerful motivation, so take the time to do this. It shouldn’t take long because it’s usually pretty clear when presented like this.
The next step is to turn this motivation into a burning desire. The entrepreneurs who seem to make it are those whose level of desire for freedom (for example) is so powerfully overwhelming that they’ll do absolutely anything to make it succeed. This is related to Agency, which we discussed in The Founder Superpowers.
For example, working for others, before I started my company, was so frustrating and soul-crushing for me that there was no way I was not going to have my own business eventually. Anyone who knew me at that point knew I was going to do my own thing before long because I wouldn’t shut up about it. I made my freedom a burning desire, and I did absolutely everything within my power (which, admittedly, was very little at that time) to make that a reality.
The Perfect Business
“If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.” – John Cleese
Now that we’re getting clear about why we want to start our business, it’s time to start getting more specific. Remember, we want a clear Vision so we can get our mind working on making it a reality. Even if you have no idea which business idea you will eventually pursue, you probably know the types of things that you are good at, the working environment you prefer, a daily routine, and more.
In the introduction to this book, I wrote about imagining the perfect business for you. This is important because so many entrepreneurs end up trapped in a business they don’t like running, a daily routine that is not for them, and having a lifestyle that is not ideal for them. There are so many ways to be successful in business that it’s important not to limit yourself to the concept of a business that may not be perfect for you.
Some people dream of owning a huge, world-changing, international company and others simply want a small profitable local business. Some people like early morning meetings and daily interaction with a large management team, and others would prefer a business that pretty much runs itself or can be run from anywhere. It’s important to figure out what the size and complexity of your perfect business is before you start it.
Because one of my primary motivations is freedom, I’ve structured my business so that it doesn’t require constant supervision, doesn’t require many meetings, and doesn’t require me to have a set schedule at all. Frankly, the corporate life is repulsive to me, and I prefer to work from home most of the time with my family. Somebody who wants to build skyscrapers or land on Mars would obviously have a much more rigorous daily routine.
Answer the four big questions about your perfect business:
You get my point here. The more you know what is perfect for you, the more clear your vision and the sooner we can start limiting the types of business ideas that would be perfect for your personality and preferences. The endgame is also important as it shows what the priority is for how you set up your company.
The Business Idea
“All children are born geniuses, and we spend the first six years of their lives degeniusing them.” – R. Buckminster Fuller
By imagining your perfect business, you’ve immediately begun to clarify the types of business ideas that may or may not be ideal for you. If you already have an idea, we’ll go over ways to clarify that idea as well.
For example, if you value freedom and imagine working from home with plenty of free time and vacations, you probably aren’t thinking of starting a restaurant. Sure, you can start one and eventually get to that point of freedom, but if you’re bootstrapping and have limited funding, a restaurant is going to take considerable time and money at first.
To begin, let’s expose the myths that business ideas are “lightning strike” inspirations and that only certain people are good at generating business ideas (or ideas in general). These myths are pervasive and almost exactly wrong.
First, there are very few ideas that survived intact after launch. Many businesses started with one idea and pivoted to another idea. Microsoft didn’t start out selling operating systems, for example. The chat application Slack started out as an internal company tool. There are many examples like this, and the obvious idea was usually not that obvious until the company started getting customer feedback.
Ideas are a starting point, and many times, entrepreneurs play with them for months or years before they even realize the idea could be a business. Many side projects have turned into successful businesses this way. The entrepreneur didn’t even know they were an entrepreneur; they were just tinkering with something they loved.
Second, generating ideas and tinkering around with things you like is a natural function and a skill that can be relearned. Almost every human started out curious, making connections, being creative, and coming up with new thoughts and ideas. Do you know a toddler who isn’t curious about things? If anything, kids will drive you crazy with questions, ideas, and their creative messes everywhere.
Only something as silly as our current schooling system (based on an 19th century model that specializes in producing factory workers) could take that natural curiosity and browbeat it out of a kid. Schooling mostly teaches you not to think creatively and only to do what you’re told. Don’t question things, sit still, read these books, do these exercises, etc.
The Perfect Idea for You
It’s time to get more specific about the kind of business idea that would be perfect for you. The Japanese have a concept known as ikigai which means “reason for being” or “reason to jump out of bed each morning.” Think about it, there’s a cross-section of things that would make something absolutely perfect for you to do each day and want to “jump out of bed,” and it’s likely a cross-section of:
What You Like to Do
You want to start with business ideas based on things you like to do. This should be obvious, so I’ll just say that if there’s one thing you should avoid it is starting a business doing things you don’t like to do. Now, you’re always going to have to do things you don’t like to do in any business, but for the purpose of business ideas, make sure you’re at least interested in the industry or topic.
Notice I didn’t say “What you love to do.” Passion in business, in my opinion, is overrated as a starting point. If you’re going to wait to start a business you’re totally passionate about, then that might be an extremely high bar, though I admire it if you can find it. I believe a true passion often develops after you become an expert in something.
Some things to think about are what you would do if you were already a billionaire and had total freedom. What types of projects would you engage in, or what would you like to do daily? A big myth is that satisfaction comes from the money in a business, but there are plenty of miserable millionaires. It’s important to identify what you truly like to do.
What You Are Good At
You may love something deeply, but if you’re no good at it, then you either need to upgrade your skills or focus on something else or another aspect of that business. Notice I didn’t write “What you’re an expert at.” When you explore potential business ideas, you will know if the basic skills required for that business are something you might be good at.
For example, I’m very interested in Bitcoin and the cryptocurrency industry at the moment, but my math and programming skills are lacking. Now, this doesn’t immediately disqualify the idea in my head; I just know that to get involved at the technical expert level it would probably take a year or two of learning to catch up.
However, and this is important, if I feel that eventually I will get there, what I can do in the meantime is learn everything I can, start a blog or email list on cryptocurrency, meet other cryptocurrency experts, follow the industry closer, follow or hang around other startups and gradually become an expert.
Here’s one thing that people miss out on a lot: They’re so good at that particular thing that they don’t even think it’s special or that people would pay for it. Seriously, there’s a lot of hidden talent in the world, and it’s important for you to identify the low-hanging fruit right in front of your face. Do people constantly ask you for help or advice on a topic? That might be something you are fantastic at but may not realize yourself. It’s important to pay attention to this.
Another way to look at it is to identify the Founder Superpowers in Part One that you’re already good at, and see if you can apply those skills to what you like to do. For example, if you’re already great at productivity, then you can apply that to an enormous amount of businesses or industries. I don’t know one industry that is not looking to improve productivity.
You can even focus on that superpower alone and teach it to others: productivity consulting, blog/newsletter, ebooks, training, or just become the “productivity expert” for the bookkeeping industry or whatever your primary interest is. The same thing applies to communication skills, decision making, etc. This is why I call them superpowers; they are applicable and give you skills in almost any industry or business idea.
Many people know what they like to do and what they’re good at. However, the other two parts of ikigai are the critical pieces of the puzzle: what’s needed and what you can be paid for. If businesses fail for any reason, it’s mostly a lack of these two things.
You may be an expert on World War I flamethrowers or at restoring Atari 2600s from the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean that those things are necessarily in demand by that many people. “What’s needed” is another way of saying “Is there a demand for this product or service?” Do a large amount of people need this enough to make a real business?
Now, there’s a famous quote from Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” which is hilarious but something I want to clarify. Yes, most people don’t know what they want, but identifying “what’s needed” is about making sure that you’ve thought about the problem properly. In this case, people knew that riding horses was way too slow, and they had a strong desire to move faster.
What’s needed is to move faster, not a faster horse. This is an important distinction, so you should think about the core problem that people have (wanting to move faster), not necessarily the specific one (faster horse). For McDonald’s, it’s not about having a better burger (almost every decent restaurant does), it’s about having a fast, convenient, and predictable eating experience at every McDonald’s worldwide. They didn’t solve the “better burger” problem, they solved the convenience and trust problem.
If one of your primary motivations is to help others, a great way to think about business ideas is to frame it as “How can I help the most people possible with my product or service?” This will make you start thinking big about the worldwide demand for your product or service.
Finally, if you can focus on being the best (again, assuming this is needed), then the best product or service rarely loses and usually demands the highest prices, so that’s one way to pursue an idea: be the absolute best in the world at it.
What You Can Be Paid For
Back to World War I flamethrowers and Atari 2600s—you want to make sure there are enough people that want to actually pay you to justify your business. Later, we’ll go over how to test your idea, and that’s why testing and feedback is so important.
For now, it’s important to get feedback on your idea from real people. One thing I like to tell entrepreneurs is not to keep your idea secret. I know that you might be terrified of people stealing your idea, but one thing to understand is that likely (not always) the idea is not that new. Don’t take offense by this, there are very few new things in this world if you really take the time to think about it. Almost everything is a modification or combination of old ideas. For, example, Facebook = People Directory + Photos + Email.
Venture capitalists typically refuse to sign a “non-disclosure agreement” (NDA) with entrepreneurs for even the most “top secret” ideas because they’ve found that it’s actually more of a hassle to sign the NDA then it is to read the idea. Put that in perspective: A VC actually values the time it takes to sign an NDA (minutes) over the vast majority of business ideas.
Ideas, for the most part, are worthless without execution (why I consider execution a critical Superpower). Besides, 99.999% of the world is not interested in your idea now like you are, nor will they likely have the passion you do to implement it, so it’s usually pretty safe to share it.
Where I’m going with this, and what we’ll go over in Step 2 in more detail, is that it’s important for you to contact potential buyers and then survey or ask them if they would pay for your product or service. Ask real customers, and if they’re excited and basically react by basically saying “Shut up and take my money!” then you know you may have a winner. You may even find out people are willing to pay handsomely for WWI flamethrowers or Atari 2600s.
How to Generate Business Ideas
As discussed, there are no magical formulas or “a-ha” moments for the vast majority of business ideas. It’s mostly a matter of consciously paying attention to your surroundings and developing the skill of generating ideas. Yes, generating business ideas is a skill that can be learned. Here are some of the principles that have proven to be true among the greatest “idea people” in history.
Principles for Generating Ideas
The list above is not exhaustive, but I think it covers the major ways that ideas are generated and gives you a great framework for thinking about your own. Again, I want to emphasize that it’s important that you start thinking like somebody that has business ideas and that this may take time. Don’t limit yourself, and trust in your brain to work on the problem you’ve assigned it: creating the perfect business idea.
Signs of a Winning Idea
Everyone is different, and sometimes there isn’t much evidence of one idea being better than another until you get feedback. But there are some similarities between winning ideas shared by many great inventors and entrepreneurs. Here are a few:
Step 1 is about focusing just on the idea and your imagination. I’ve created what I call the Business Idea Generator (BIG) which you can download in the Chapter Resources. I don’t want you to interrupt the creative process to move on to more practical things, so continue to use the BIG until you feel like you have a pretty good idea on your hands and are ready to get down to the nitty-gritty.
When you’re ready, move on to Step 2 where you’ll do a quick business plan so you can test this idea, see if there’s a market for it, and begin organizing your perfect business.
Visit http://www.startupsmadesimple.com for Chapter 5 Resources and to download the Startups Made Simple Business Idea Generator (BIG).
This was an excerpt from our book Startups Made Simple: How to Start, Grow and Systemize Your Dream Business. Learn more about the book here or see our previous excerpts here.
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