“For me, inspiration comes from a bunch of places: desperation, deadlines… A lot of times ideas will turn up when you’re doing something else. And, most of all, ideas come from confluence — they come from two things flowing together. They come, essentially, from daydreaming. . . . And I suspect that’s something every human being does. Writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea — it’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anything else; we just notice when it happens a little bit more.” — Neil Gaiman
How people from all sorts of professions come up with ideas has always fascinated me. We all deal with ideas. Founders need startup ideas. Once you have started a business with an idea, you are in constant need of ideas for growth, management, competition, and so on. Writers need ideas. Footballers and tennis stars need ideas. Politicians need ideas. I can go on. But I’ll not because it does not make sense when the list can potentially run infinitely :). Simply put, the world runs on ideas.
Moreover, I think where good ideas come from is a question that many people have. We used to organize a community event in the early days of Future Startup called FS Talk. We hosted our first event in 2013. At that event, we asked attendees to submit three questions to our speakers. We received a ton of questions about various aspects of building a company. One widely recommended question was “how to generate ideas”. So it makes sense to spend some time on the question.
The second aspect of this discussion is the importance of ideas — how much weight we should put on an idea. I believe a lot. Because an idea is the starting node of everything. When the founding node is weak, whatever you build on it will be weaker. It is simple to understand. For instance, if you are starting a war — I mean a literal war and attacking another country, your chance of success, along with many other things, will depend on how sound your strategy is. Many people want to say that Hitler made a serious strategic mistake when he attacked Russia during the second world war while fighting on several other fronts. That’s broadly how important a strategic idea could be. It can cause your downfall.
Let’s move towards a closer-to-home example. Consider someone you know who started a company that will send humans to mars (you see the connection, right?) and you want to start a company that will deliver dog food in Dhaka. Which one do you think will attract more attention and thus resources? I know I don’t have to tell you. Ideas of course have qualitative value. That’s why, among other things, I guess Tipping points by Malcolm Gladwell became a worldwide bestseller and my poorly written Rethinking Failure didn’t sell more than a few hundred copies.
To be clear, I don’t take the importance of execution — doing the work well, be it writing a book or building a company, lightly. Rather the opposite. Unless you do it well, no great idea will take you far. But my view is simple: I believe ideas have qualitative value. There are good ideas and not-so-good ideas. There are problems that should get priority over other problems. So it appears to me that we should mindfully choose what problems we want to solve. Similarly, when choosing an idea we should be critical because we always could do better.
Still, when it comes to my home turf which is the world of tech startups, people remain skeptical of the value of the idea.
Many people poke the question: do startup ideas matter? I didn’t want to write about the topic but it would bug me and I guess many other readers because it remains a question. So let’s take a look at it first before we move on to the key question of this article which is how to generate more exotic ideas, if I may say so.
Before that, I want to make something clear. This article will specifically deal with idea generation for entrepreneurial purposes — you want to start a company and are in need of ideas, how you should approach it. This is the core focus of the article. However, I believe the ideas can also be applied to any other discipline. I also plan to borrow from all other disciplines where applicable. This guide is divided into the following parts:
“The most common question prospective startup founders ask is how to get ideas for startups. The second most common question is if you have any ideas for their startup. But giving founders an idea almost always doesn’t work. Having ideas is among the most important qualities for a startup founder to have—you will need to generate lots of new ideas in the course of running a startup.YC once tried an experiment of funding seemingly good founders with no ideas. I think every company in this no-idea track failed. It turns out that good founders have lots of ideas about everything, so if you want to be a founder and can’t get an idea for a company, you should probably work on getting good at idea generation first.” — Sam Altman
Identifying ideas as a less important element in the process of building a successful company has become a fashion of late. We routinely hear cliches like ideas do not matter, execution matters the most. Ideally for an entrepreneur, an idea is one of the biggest assets. A shitty idea remains shitty no matter how great your execution is. Execution is important. Maybe it is a lot more important than having an idea and doing nothing or executing it poorly. But great execution will take you only too far if your idea is not good enough.
Examples of failures due to poor execution are prevalent. Similarly, examples of failures because of a shitty idea are equally prevalent.
A great business starts with a great idea, not great execution. No one starts a company right away. You start with an idea. You test the water and then you move forward.
When we are talking about an idea, it is not only a mere idea. It is the scalability of the idea, growth potential, market size, defensibility, and more. When you are considering an idea and weighing whether you should go forward or not, you not only think about the product or service, you consider all these things. Here are a couple of points about why we should put serious importance on the idea:
Great ideas make execution easy — Great ideas excite people. It can draw lots of early attention and support. When you are working on a difficult problem, it is relatively easy to build a team, attract resources, and stay motivated. For instance, on a recent trip to India, I met a founder who is building a private rocket startup. The moment I heard his idea, I was intrigued. Not so much when I came across ideas about building a regular-sounding startup. We often overlook the importance of perception. But it makes a lot of difference in real life. When people perceive you as superior, it can bring you a lot of advantages.
Hard to copy — Monopoly makes a good business. If your idea is easy to replicate, you will face much harder competition. This is why intellectual property rights are such a hot topic. When you have something proprietary in the form of IP, it makes it very difficult for the competitors to compete with you.
Startups are a long game — you don’t build a business overnight. It takes time. Many industry insiders suggest it usually takes ten years to build a business. And if you are not passionate about something, you are not going to put ten years of life into it. That’s where the importance of an idea comes in. When you are solving a hard problem, you are likely to see value in it to dedicate years of life to solving it.
Having a great startup idea is hard. Good ideas are often overlooked or seemed too early a move or sound terrible. Good ideas are unfamiliar and on-obvious. Anything unfamiliar is often too hard for our taste to accept. Hence, we instead take the familiar route and replicate an existing idea from somewhere else.
When people talk about great execution and the importance of execution, there is a point to it. No great idea is going to bring you success unless you put it to work better than everyone else.
But the importance of execution does not negate the importance of an idea. The importance of the problem you are working on is still important.
It is objectively true that there are problems in the world that are far more important and urgent than other problems. So execution begins after you have chosen the problem you want to solve. Once you have chosen the right problem, then only a great execution will generate an outsized result.
“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It's to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself. The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they're something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realize are worth doing. Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook all began this way.” — Paul Graham
Where good ideas come from is a common question everywhere, be it in business or art. The right answer is you. Make what you need. Write the book that you want to read. Start the company that you want to buy from. That’s the silver bullet.
The common theme that runs across the board is to look for problems. Not solutions. The best kind of problems is the ones you have yourself.
You are your best customer. This is the truth for both individuals as well as for companies. Some of the best innovations in human history came forth into the world because the creator wanted them badly enough that they dedicated their lives to bring them to life.
There are several reasons why starting with you is the best idea. Often ideas need to be validated. But validation is not easy. Yes, there are models for validating your idea. That you have to go out and meet customers and get their thoughts and feedback and so on.
But the easiest way is if you yourself are using the product or service and if you see value in it. It is a proxy for other people who are like you and have the same pain points as you do.
You will eventually have to go out and meet real users but this initial validation is strong enough to get you to the next step. The important question to ask at this stage is whether you could do it at scale.
The second reason, when you think of starting a company and then trying to come up with an idea to build a business, the best you could do is to start with some assumptions. Assumptions that are not essentially tested or proven. You might develop a logic for a product using some hypothesis but that could be a false positive and people could behave very differently in reality than what you might think. Compared to that if you are building a solution for yourself, you at least have one ready customer.
People look for hot trends and shortcuts when it comes to finding startup ideas. Consequently, most people end up starting vitamin companies rather than painkiller companies. Vitamin is convenient, and painkillers are necessary.
Instead of looking at the hot trends and what everyone is running after, you should look at things that are underrated, broken, or missing and that you could help improve with your product or services.
The law of attraction says instead of trying to acquire wealth or anything for that matter, one should try to become the person who attracts wealth or whatever that you’re trying to achieve.
Paul Graham says it well, “finding startup ideas is a subtle business, and that's why most people who try fail so miserably. It doesn't work well simply to try to think of startup ideas. If you do that, you get bad ones that sound dangerously plausible. The best approach is more indirect: if you have the right sort of background, good startup ideas will seem obvious to you. But even then, not immediately. It takes time to come across situations where you notice something missing.”
You can work on developing habits and abilities that would enable you to identify broken systems, and missing things.
You can maintain a problem notebook where you take notes of issues you come across, develop a deliberate observation skill, meet tons of people, and most importantly be interested and curious.
It may sound simple and non-specific, but it usually works.
In his brilliant work, A Technique For Producing Ideas James Young Wood gives a realistic prescription for generating ideas. Written in 1939, the book remains one of the best materials on the subject. James — an ad man by profession — designs a five-step process for producing creative ideas with a clear sense of applicability and effectiveness.
In the first chapter of the book, James describes the production of ideas as a structured process similar to that of the production of anything else that follows a standardized procedure. He wrote:
“The production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.”
James then goes on to teach us how this process of production of ideas works. Comparing the production of ideas with art, James proposes a formula for training our minds capable of getting ideas.
“In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles; and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas. So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which ideas are produced; and how to the principles which are the source of all ideas.”
Then in a Chapter called ‘Combining Old Element’ he describes the most important aspect of producing ideas and proposes the now popular idea of combinatorial creativity that claims creativity is a remix and a multidisciplinary discipline. In order to create something new, we have to understand connections among things. Anything new sits on the old.
“The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations, depends largely on the ability to see relationships. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge, to others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts. To a mind which is quick to see relationships several ideas will occur, fruitful for advertising, about this use of words as symbols.”
In the book, James prescribes a five-step idea-generation technique that can be followed and put to work effectively. Let's take a look:
James wrote about building a large amount of mental treasure of information collected from diverse sources and subjects. The objective is to enable yourself to find connections among seemingly unrelated information and things. The hypothesis is simple and practical, when you have knowledge and understanding of multiple disciplines, it will be easy for you to see connections between these distant fields of work and knowledge. This is probably why many successful entrepreneurs and writers alike put undue importance on curiosity and a sense of wonder. An individual who is interested in different things can easily gather more raw materials and eventually can see more connections. James writes:
“It is something like the process which was recommended to De Maupassant as the way to learn to write. “Go out into the streets of Paris” he was told by an older writer, "and pick out a cab driver. He will look to you very much like every other cab driver. But study him until you can describe him so that he is seen in your description to be an individual, different from every other cab driver in the world.” Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested-from, say, Egyptian burial customs to Modern Art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.”
The idea can also be put in the context of our current debate of generalist vs specialist. Generalists are people who explore diverse fields and branches of knowledge. By virtue of that, they can see how diverse ideas connect with each other. When you have an understanding of different disciplines, you can make connections between them relatively easily.
This is probably why many of the geniuses and famous scientists and writers and artists from the middle age were polymaths. For instance, Muslim Middle-age Muslim school Ibn Sina, who is known as Abiesinna in the west, was known as a scholar of a diverse set of disciplines although we primarily know him for his contribution to medicine.
Gathering ideas is the beginning. James suggests we take the help of our subconscious mind in processing information and producing ideas. James wrote after gathering raw materials one must digest those materials in order to transform them into useable elements.
“What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle. As you go through this part of the process two things will happen. First, little tentative or partial ideas will come to you. Put these down on paper. Never mind how crazy or incomplete they seem: get them down. The second thing that will happen is that, by and by, you will get very tired of trying to fit your puzzle together. Let me beg of you not to get tired too soon. The mind, too, has a second wind. Go after at least this second layer of mental energy in this process.”
In my opinion, idea generation is a highly intuitive process. You can’t force it. You can build a system where you delve into a contemplative stage to generate ideas but you can’t force ideas to come to you. Often the process is automatic and happens by itself. This is probably the reason many people claim that they get their best ideas when in the shower or taking a walk.
Genius lies in the ability to be able to not try that hard. Instead, get yourself involved in something else. Have fun. Take a walk. But don’t think about ideas. Thinking constantly about the problem or the subject matter blocks the path of the idea.
James prescribes, “stop thinking for a while. Let your mind work in its own way. Let the magic happen inside when you are busy with other things. Better, let the magic happen in its own way and don’t interrupt it with external efforts. When you are done with the above three steps perfectly, then the next step will happen without a doubt.”
This is akin to what they call We Wei in Chinese — try not to try. When we exert our mind too hard, it shuts down. It is the same with idea generation. You can’t try it in a too active manner. It is a delicate process and you have to treat it as such.
“It will come to you when you are least expecting it - while shaving, or bathing or most often when you are half awake, in the morning. It may wake you in the middle of the night. This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them, and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search.”
In this section, James’s prescription is similar to what we call idea validation. You need to take your idea out to test in the real world. James writes:
“In this stage, you have to take your little idea out into the world of reality. And when you do you usually find that it is not quite the marvelous child it seemed when you first gave birth to it. It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost.”
This appears a lot similar to what founders face when it comes to finding product/market fit. Many founders have a hard time taking market feedback and making the necessary changes.
James wrote instead of becoming a passionate protector of our idea, we should let it go into the world where it actually needs to work and see whether it works or not. In the process, we will get feedback that will ultimately make the idea better.
“Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.”
One of my favorite Paul Graham essays is on generating startup ideas. The essay titled How to get startup ideas illustrates the key to getting high-quality startup ideas in a very PG way. The essay has several important ideas. I’ll try to summarize them here. You can read the entire essay here. In the introduction, PG writes:
“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It's to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself.”
I’ve used this idea in my own essay about idea generation and it generally works. It is much easier to solve for yourself than solve for others. You can then use yourself as a proxy for a lot of other people who probably have the same problem as you. While it may appear that solving for yourself may narrow your market, it is unlikely to be the truth all the time. There could be a ton of people who have the same needs.
PG also offers a framework to judge startup ideas. He writes:
“The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they're something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realize are worth doing. Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook all began this way.”
The essay has other fascinating ideas but the rest of the essay can be called an expansion of these ideas. For instance, in the essay PG talks about ideas that people want so badly that they will be happy to use badly made products rather than not having a solution for it. Then there are products that are good to have but people would rarely go out of their way to use them.
“When a startup launches, there have to be at least some users who really need what they're making — not just people who could see themselves using it one day, but who want it urgently. Usually this initial group of users is small, for the simple reason that if there were something that large numbers of people urgently needed and that could be built with the amount of effort a startup usually puts into a version one, it would probably already exist. Which means you have to compromise on one dimension: you can either build something a large number of people want a small amount, or something a small number of people want a large amount. Choose the latter. Not all ideas of that type are good startup ideas, but nearly all good startup ideas are of that type.”
PG calls this ‘well’. We can deduce this idea to what the founders themselves want to have. If as a founder you create a product that you want a lot, it is likely that many other people might also want it a lot. If the problem you are solving is somewhat mildly necessary to you, it will likely be the same with other people. Many people call this painkiller vs vitamin. Although the analogy is not entirely accurate, it serves the purpose. Good startup ideas are necessary like painkillers and unlike vitamins which are usually good to have but not always necessary.
The next important idea is non-obvious and difficult problems. There are many non-obvious problems around us. Some of these are non-obvious because we have become used to them and don’t consider them solvable problems. The problems are hiding in plain sight but we fail to see them. Sometimes the second trait of these challenges is that they are somewhat difficult to solve because of external challenges such as regulatory barriers and so on. As a result, many people don’t approach it. PG says this is an important insight into whether you should pursue an idea.
Become the person who comes up with interesting ideas. Paul Graham writes:
“How do you tell whether there's a path out of an idea? How do you tell whether something is the germ of a giant company, or just a niche product? Often you can't. The founders of Airbnb didn't realize at first how big a market they were tapping. Initially they had a much narrower idea. They were going to let hosts rent out space on their floors during conventions. They didn't foresee the expansion of this idea; it forced itself upon them gradually. All they knew at first is that they were onto something. That's probably as much as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg knew at first.”
This is something I’ve written about before. It is akin to what people call the law of attraction. You first become the person who gets rich. The same applies to idea generation. Many of the traits we discussed earlier such as being a generalist or polymath go well with this idea. You become someone who has a good grasp of a diverse field that eventually helps you identify gaps and potential improvements and connections.
Former YC President and now CEO of OpenAI Sam Altman published an essay on idea generation about two years ago. I think it is one of the good essays on the subject available online. A lot of what Sam proposes in the essay, we’ve already discussed such as looking into the future, looking for major shifts in your world, and so on. But the essay also offers several unique ideas. One such idea is your environment and the people you spend time with. This I think is an important idea. Sam writes:
“It’s important to be in the right kind of environment, and around the right kind of people. You want to be around people who have a good feel for the future, will entertain improbable plans, are optimistic, are smart in a creative way, and have a very high idea flux. These sorts of people tend to think without the constraints most people have, not have a lot of filters, and not care too much what other people think.”
I think we always don’t attribute enough importance to our environment. The people we spend time with. The content we consume and so on. But all these things are super important in how we view the world and the problems we see. I recently attended a residential unconference program where I had an opportunity to meet a bunch of ambitious people. The ideas we discussed and the topic of general conversation were almost always weird and fundamentally different from what I usually get exposed to. I was in an entirely different world for a few days. No topic was too silly or too ambitious or too new. Everyone was generally open to new ideas. Sam explains this well:
“The best ideas are fragile; most people don’t even start talking about them at all because they sound silly. Perhaps most of all, you want to be around people who don’t make you feel stupid for mentioning a bad idea, and who certainly never feel stupid for doing so themselves.
Stay away from people who are world-weary and belittle your ambitions. Unfortunately, this is most of the world. But they hold on to the past, and you want to live in the future.”
Spending time with people who are ambitious and open to ideas also alludes to the idea of becoming the person who gets ideas. We become the person we are through association. Our peer groups often shape our worldview and thus our life. To that end, although it might sound farfetched, it is critical that we find our group and design our environment in a manner that supports our ambition.
You can read the full essay here.
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”
There is a certain amount of mysticism in where ideas come from. Famous composer Rick Rubin calls it “source” and that he is a mere medium. Others call it medium. Many famous writers and entrepreneurs are well-known for their quirky habits. For instance, Victor Hugo is well-known for his habit of writing (almost) naked. When the deadline for a book approaches, Hugo would ask his servant to lock all his clothes except a gray shawl so that he could not leave the house. There are examples of writers who would go to a hotel room and shut them down until they are done with writing.
A common pattern emerges when we study the literature on idea generation. Let’s try to put together a list of what works:
Idea generation is something we have to do all the time. For founders, it is more so. It is not only about coming up with a startup idea, it is also about running your company. While running a company, you are in need of ideas all the time. It is the same for the rest of us as well. Even if you are not an entrepreneur or a writer, you need ideas all the time. To improve your life. For a presentation at work. To come up with a creative gift idea for your wife or husband. To come up with a clever idea for your upcoming advertising campaign at work.
Idea generation is a meta-skill that we all need almost all the time. The problem is that we never see it as such. We rarely take it as a possibility that we can learn how to be effective at generating ideas. Part of the reason is that it is a skill that is hard to define and measure. Also, it is a thinking job and thinking is not enjoyable. It is a non-doing job. It is hard.
But if we can develop the discipline to learn idea generation as a skill and make it a habit, it can transform not only our entrepreneurial life, it can transform every aspect of our life. We can do everything better because we’ll be thinking better. We’ll be able to improve every aspect of our work and life because we’ll be always coming up with new ideas and approaches and trying things out.
As a starting point, I think we can start with taking some thinking time daily and making good use of notebooks and diaries.
We can start by reflecting on our days and taking notes of our observations. We can make meditating on our environment and challenges a regular habit, write down our thoughts and ideas about how to address them, and try to experiment with some of these ideas.
Once we make it a habit in one area of our life, we can gradually expand it into other parts of our work and life. It will not be easy to develop such a habit because we live in such an always-doing-oriented world. But if we start small, and keep pushing gradually, it can become a transformational experience for us.
There are excellent resources on idea generation on the internet. There are also a good number of excellent books on the topic. I list down a few that I’ve enjoyed:
Cover Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash
Originally published on 1 November 2022. Updated on 8 May 2023.