If you’re looking for advice on how to come up with startup ideas, you’re probably coming across lots of basic advice like “brainstorm ideas” and “merge two ideas into one.”
But this type of advice fails to give you any actionable tips on how to get startup ideas.
Instead, you need frameworks that you can implement to methodically generate your next company's idea.
When you use frameworks, you can systematically work your way towards a real business idea. In other words, it’s a more direct approach than just sitting down and trying to brainstorm an award-winning startup idea out of nowhere.
Though it’s impossible to predict with 100% certainty whether or not your startup idea will succeed, VCs have found that startup ideas generated using deliberate strategies like the ones below tend to do the best.
10 Frameworks To Come Up With Startup Ideas
1) Look for Founder-Market Fit
A great way to find the right startup idea is to think about your unique skills, expertise, and relationships and how those could be used to build a product. By creating a startup around these unique personal advantages, you’re finding what’s called founder-market fit.
If you already have a co-founder or a team, think about your collective knowledge and what your team is particularly good at.
Once you’ve taken note of all your unique advantages as a founder/founding team, start thinking about what types of product and service ideas you would particularly excel at executing.
Paul Allen and Bill Gates, co-founders of Microsoft, are an example of a founding team who had a perfect founder-market fit for the company they built. They studied computer programming and computer science, and their idea for their startup utilized both of their skills perfectly.
2) Solve a Personal Problem (Bottom-Up Approach)
Some of the most successful startups have been created to solve their founders’ personal problems.
For example, DoorDash’s founders built their vastly successful food delivery app because they couldn’t get Thai food delivered to them in the suburbs, and they saw the need for an easy-to-use delivery app that functioned everywhere.
Whether you’re in college or already well into a professional career, think of different problems you have in your personal and professional lives and brainstorm products that could solve those problems.
Another way to look at this is to think about what products you wish others would build for you — then consider building them yourself.
If you don’t have any particularly big problems in your life that you can think of new product ideas to solve, you can try changing things up and putting yourself in different positions that allow you to experience new problems.
For instance, go work for a new type of company, live in a new place, or travel to expose yourself to new situations and challenges. Simply being curious and leading an interesting life can be all it takes to come up with a startup idea.
This strategy of experiencing a problem and coming up with a product or service to solve is known as the bottom-up approach to thinking of startup ideas.
3) Consider Your Passions
Whether it’s applied to finding a career or coming up with a startup idea, “follow your passions” is a piece of generic advice you’ve probably heard a lot. But, there is some value to be had from it in terms of coming up with a business idea.
The most successful startups succeed because their founders are passionate about the projects, so they stay committed to working on them through all the ups and downs (of which there will be many when you’re working on a startup).
Consider that it takes 10 years on average to build a startup into a strong, established company — you definitely don’t want to be working on something you’re not passionate about for the next 10 years, right?
To find a startup idea that you’re passionate about, think about some area or industry you would love to work on a project in for the next decade, even if it didn’t succeed. Then, try to come up with different product/service ideas around that.
For instance, if you love virtual reality (VR) technology, try to think of different practical applications for VR that you could develop a product around.
It’s important to remember that not every passion translates well into a business, so make sure you are aware of the limitations when you’re brainstorming startup ideas this way. You might be passionate about Star Wars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should try to start a startup based on that interest (Disney probably has all the Star Wars-related ideas covered, anyway).
A good example of a startup that was founded because of a passion is Duolingo, the free language learning app. Duolingo’s founders, Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker, were passionate about education and wanted to give people a free way to learn languages as an alternative to expensive courses, tutors, and textbooks.
4) Come Up With Ideas Around Something New (Top-Down Approach)
Rather than coming up with a product or service to solve a personal problem, as the bottom-up approach does, the top-down approach to finding a startup idea looks for new technologies or situations in the world to build a company around.
A good example is all the new businesses, products, and services that sprung up because of the unique situations presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The world had never experienced something like this in the modern era, and there were all kinds of new rules, regulations, and challenges that had to be dealt with to keep life functioning somewhat normally.
During the pandemic, many different companies created apps to do things like provide digital vaccination proof for travel. They then sold these technologies to various governments and organizations that needed them desperately.
QuickHire, “a career discovery platform for the service economy workforce,” is one example of a startup that was created to meet new challenges presented by COVID.
Because so many people were losing their jobs during the pandemic, especially in service industries, co-founders Angela Muhwezi-Hall and Deborah Gladney saw the need to build a platform to help service industry workers find new jobs more easily.
Note that, since products created using the top-down approach aren’t being created to solve a problem, it can be easy to get wrapped up thinking about high-level stuff and take too long to actually build a functional product.
So, if you use a top-down approach to create a business around a new technology or situation, make sure you don’t lose sight of the actual execution. Otherwise, you might end up building something too late, and there will no longer be a good product-market fit.
5) Employ Strategic Foresight
Strategic foresight consists of making informed and educated guesses about the future.
To use strategic foresight to find an idea for a startup, look at past recurring trends, and think about how they might affect the future to try and predict coming market trends.
Specific areas to consider in order to employ strategic foresight include trends and developments in political, economic, social, technological, and legal environments.
For example, maybe you predict that certain laws will soon be rewritten to allow new types of online businesses to operate. This is precisely what happened with Indiegogo, the world’s largest crowdfunding platform.
Indiegogo’s founder, Danae Ringelmann, predicted that Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) laws that prohibited people from investing their money online would be rewritten because they were originally made when modern technology didn’t exist.
This strategic foresight led Ringelmann to start building Indiegogo. As it turns out, she was right about the SEC law changes, and Indiegogo became one of the first major crowdfunding platforms when it was launched in 2007.
6) Think of a Variation of a Recently Successful Company
Look for new companies making headlines because of their recent success, then come up with new variants of them.
For instance, imagine that Airbnb was just launched and it’s changing how people book places to stay on vacation.
You might come up with something that’s “like Airbnb, but for pets,” which allows you to find people to stay at your home with your pets or take care of your pets at their homes when you go out of town.
If you use this approach to find a startup idea, make sure your idea solves a problem utterly different from the problem the company that inspired you is solving.
In other words, don’t just create a different version of Airbnb. Make something that functions similarly but for a completely different niche.
A real-life example of a company that is a variation of Airbnb is RVShare, which is essentially the same as Airbnb but only for renting RVs.
7) Search For an Industry That is Broken
Many industries are outdated and struggling to keep up with the needs of their users in modern times. Any of these industries might be a good one to develop a new product or service in.
For example, certain financial sectors, like insurance and lending, have been traditionally very slow to adopt new technologies and provide digital services to their clients.
You might look at the insurance industry and think something like: “it would be great if people could get quoted and sign up for new real estate insurance policies from an app in just a few minutes.”
Then, you might develop an app that uses machine learning and an AI bot to automatically provide real estate insurance quotes and pre-approve users for policies without the need for time-consuming back-and-forth with an insurance agent and tons of traditional paperwork.
If you know something about the broken industry that you want to improve, even better. Sticking with the insurance example, if you have previously worked in real estate insurance, you will have a better idea of what problems within the industry your startup can solve.
One example of a company that had an idea to fix a broken industry is Stripe. Stripe’s founders saw that it was very hard for people in the online sales industry to accept credit card payments online, so they set out to build a platform that would make it incredibly simple and easy.
8) Crowdsource an Idea
Even if you don’t have a personal problem you can solve with a product or service, someone close to you might.
Ask friends, family members, colleagues, and other people in your social and professional circles what products and services they wish existed to help you come up with an idea for your business.
If you know people with expertise and experience in certain areas, those can be particularly interesting individuals to talk to. They can give you insight into specific problems in different industries or areas of life in which you might not have any personal experience.
For example, if you don’t have any children, talking to friends or family members who have kids may spark an idea for a startup that helps parents raise children in one way or another.
Or, if you already know you want to create a startup related to a specific area, such as travel, talk to people you know who work in hospitality businesses or are frequent travelers to get some ideas.
9) The 10x Rule
The 10x rule is the idea that you can build a great product by “10xing” something — making it 10x easier, 10x faster, 10x more fun, or making the user experience 10x better in some other way.
So, what you do to get a startup idea this way is look at things that already exist, then think of ways you can drastically improve them.
For example, Superhuman is an email app that redesigned the email experience from the ground up to make the “fastest email in the world.”
10) Find Ways to Use Otherwise Idle Assets
There are idle assets all around us that you could potentially find a way to utilize through a new product or service.
Assets can be anything, too. For example, many people have skills that are not being utilized, so you could develop an app that allows them to use those skills in some way.
A great example of a company that found a way to utilize idle assets is Airbnb. Airbnb’s creators realized that tons of people had spare rooms in their homes or extra properties that were just sitting empty most of the time, so they built an app that allowed people to rent these underutilized spaces out.
How To Evaluate Startup Ideas
After you have some startup ideas that you think could work, the next step is to evaluate them. This allows you to rank them based on their quality and viability, so you can choose the best one to pursue.
Here are some questions you should ask yourself for each of the ideas you have:
Is There a Good Founder-Market Fit?
One of the key things that many successful startup ideas have in common is that they are something their founders could build themselves.
For example, Mark Zuckerberg coded the first version of Facebook from his dorm room, and Bill Gates spearheaded the development of Microsoft Windows, the company’s proprietary operating system that skyrocketed Microsoft to global success.
So, even if you have a good startup idea, in theory, it’s not worth anything unless you can execute it.
If you look for startup ideas based on founder-fit, your ideas should already pass this evaluation step.
Who Wants This Product Now?
Another key characteristic of successful startup ideas is that someone wants the product or service at the time of development. Successful products and services solve real problems that people have, and there is at least some demand for them.
You should also ensure that your product is something people want badly enough that they will give it a shot, even if it’s just a prototype version with lots of kinks to iron out.
If people don’t want your product enough, they’re most likely going to discard it before really giving your product a chance to develop in its early days.
Keep in mind that even if the product you’re considering building is only something you want, that’s often a good enough reason to get started on it. Remember that many highly successful startups have been created because of their founders’ personal problems.
How Much Room is There For Market Growth?
Of course, no startup idea, no matter how innovative, is good unless there is a market for growth.
Even if only a handful of people want your product or service now, you should be sure that more people will want it once you develop it.
A good way to evaluate whether your idea has much room to grow is to look at the industry it revolves around and make sure it’s big.
For example, cryptocurrency and other digital investments are a huge industry right now, so a new idea for a startup revolving around those could definitely grow in the near future.
Is My Idea Something That Only Recently Became Possible?
If your startup idea is a product or service that only recently became possible, perhaps because of a new technology or situation, it’s a good sign that it could be successful.
This is especially true if you can be the first person to get something to market that wasn’t possible until now.
If you use the top-down approach to come up with ideas for a startup, you’re already set here.
Are Any Successful Companies Doing Something Similar?
If other companies are already experiencing success with a product or service similar to the one you want to build, this is another indicator that you have a good startup idea.
Just make sure that your idea is different enough from others and/or that you have an entirely different market for your product.
For example, Rappi, the Latin American food delivery app currently operating in 9 countries, came well after other successful food delivery apps like DoorDash. But Rappi became successful because it was launched in an untapped (and huge) market.
Another example is Lyft, which came a few years after Uber. Despite being very similar services, Lyft was able to achieve success by marketing itself differently. Lyft was marketed as “your friend with a car,” while Uber was more of a luxury service at the time.
Am I Building Something That is Missing From the Future?
One final piece of advice for evaluating your startup ideas is to imagine yourself living in the future — even just a few years from now — and consider whether you would need the product you have in mind. If the answer is yes, you could be onto something.
Even if your idea is just something you think is cool right now, imagine how it could be used in the future to evaluate its potential over the long term.
Remember that you have years to build your startup into a successful company, and society can change a lot in just a few years, so work on employing that strategic foresight we mentioned earlier!
5 Common Mistakes Made When Looking for Startup Ideas
1) Creating a Solution Without Looking For a Problem
Every good startup idea should have a problem behind it that you are directly trying to solve. If you start with a solution instead of a problem, you’ll likely force yourself to find a problem for it to solve, which might not even be a real problem in the first place.
Ultimately, if you don’t find a problem to solve first, there will be far less demand for your product, and your startup is less likely to succeed.
2. Waiting For an “Amazing” Startup Idea
Many people mistakenly think they will recognize their startup idea as “amazing” as soon as they find the right idea. However, the reality is that most ideas only seem amazing in retrospect after a company has already become successful.
For example, imagine you talked to Mark Zuckerberg back in 2004 when he was building Facebook, and he told you about his idea for a social network for university students.
You might think the idea sounded cool and useful for students, but there’s no way you would have predicted how ingrained in our society Facebook would become.
The point is that startups change over time, and your future product or service might look completely different from your idea right now.
So, as long as you evaluate your startup ideas and choose one that passes the criteria mentioned above, you might just have the next “amazing” idea already.
3. Working on The First Idea You Have
Another mistake people make when they want to start a startup is getting too excited about their first idea and starting to work on it without evaluating any other ideas.
This doesn’t mean that your first idea shouldn’t be the one you end up working on, but you should come up with at least a few other ones and evaluate/compare them all to choose the best option before proceeding.
4. Discarding Ideas Because They Seem Too Hard to Work On
Many people with good ideas for businesses throw them away because they involve lots of moving parts that make them seem too complex and challenging to work on.
However, doing this is a mistake because even things that seem hard to develop now can become easy when you break them down into manageable chunks.
Actually, hard ideas are often some of the best because no one has been able to figure out a way to solve the problem you want to solve yet.
5. Not Working on Ideas Because They Seem “Boring”
Some of the most profitable startup ideas revolve around boring areas and industries. In fact, often, the most boring seeming sectors are the best ones to build new products and services in — because nobody else wants to do it.
So, rather than trying to create some amazing, exciting new technology, why not try shaking up the way business is done in a “boring” industry?
Industries that haven’t changed much in decades and sectors where you’ve had frustrating experiences are good places to start thinking about changing business models.
When you’re trying to come up with an idea for a startup, it’s easy to get stuck and feel like none of your ideas is the right one. By applying the strategic frameworks discussed in this article, you’re much more likely to come up with a startup idea that’s good enough to get started on.
Make sure to avoid the common mistakes people often make when they’re looking for a business idea, and you could soon be well on your way to founding your first startup!