Finding Your Opportunity (III/V)

This is email 3 in a 5 part email series outlining how professionals discover startup opportunities and become full-time entrepreneurs. Sign up to receive the complete email series here.

In this article I describe how you can discover and assess the startup ideas that are right for you.

Honing your art

Many people become entrepreneurs “accidentally” when they discover a business idea they can’t ignore. However, you’re not one of those people. You’re choosing to become an entrepreneur deliberately, even before you have a specific idea. This means that you have to learn a skill that these accidental entrepreneurs never need: you have to learn how to find, assess and explore business ideas.

Like any new skill, this takes time to master. You’re not going to be great at it from the start. Only the very lucky land on a profitable and exciting idea on their first strike, and those that do most likely had been nurturing that idea subconsciously for some time before consciously exploring it.

So, becoming a deliberate entrepreneur is not as simple as finding an idea. Rather, it’s a case of developing your skill at finding them. You will most likely go through many ideas before landing on a profitable and exciting one.

To develop your exploration skills, you need the right conditions. You need enough time and creative space to be able to explore ideas, alongside the job or financial security to not need to find one too desperately. You need underlying life and emotional stability to be able to weather the highs and lows without throwing in the towel. Perhaps you need a cofounder to ideate with, a group of like minded peers for support or experienced mentors for advice. Trying to find an idea while working an intense job, or quitting and giving yourself a hard deadline of 2 months to do so is unlikely to be the optimal strategy (guilty).

Your early ideas will probably be bad. You’ll experiment and execute poorly. You’ll make false assumptions and mistakes. 

Or, a peculiar problem if you’re a good entrepreneur is that then you’ll also be good at assessing ideas, so you’ll know that all your ideas are bad! This can make it difficult to decide where to get started, but getting started is the only way to develop as an entrepreneur. It’s often simply a case of picking your least bad idea and running with it.

Remember, you don’t need to (and indeed almost certainly will not!) find the perfect idea that you have no doubts about to begin. You just need to find a good enough idea. You don’t need to have 100% conviction in these early ideas, you just need to have enough conviction to give them a shot.

Finding ideas

At a high level there are 3 types of ideas: your own ideas, other people’s ideas and shared ideas. 

Every idea is at a certain stage: perhaps it’s still an ephemeral idea, or perhaps it’s already a tangible business. Other people’s late stage ideas are established startups or companies: these are out of scope. Which means we’re focusing on finding your ideas, shared ideas, and other people’s early stage ideas.

Other people’s early stage ideas: talking to founders

Exploring other people’s ideas is the fastest way to test ideas and begin developing entrepreneurial muscle, without long term commitment or financial risk (often you can get paid for the privilege).

For one thing, other people’s ideas are the easiest to find: you just need to find the people. Every man and his dog has a business idea, obviously you want to limit your search to people with credibility and serious intent. The dream is to find Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room: that’s going to be hard to do. It’s easier to look for pre-filtered opportunities, and funded founders are a relatively safe bet.

VCs are a good place to begin networking: they have portfolio companies full of said founders. They also appreciate your professional skillset in a way that founders of different backgrounds might not. This is particularly true if you come without clear hard skills.

You can also go direct: look for early stage startups you find interesting and reach out to the founders directly, especially if you can get a good intro or find a founder likely to relate to you.

There are a whole host of tangential benefits to working on other people’s ideas – inspiration, networking, credibility, honing execution skills, testing your assessment skills and improving your ability to reach conviction on the right type of opportunity for you.

In this article I describe how to arrange trial projects so that you can get paid to test other people’s ideas.

Shared ideas: exploring with a co-founder

Shared ideas means finding a potential co-founder and exploring together. For many people, iteration happens much faster and more easily when you have someone to talk through ideas with (and there are numerous ideation frameworks you can use together), and there are added benefits of having a partner such as their complementary skill sets and even just the emotional support of having someone to share the highs and lows with. 

The main considerations here relate to idea origination and maturity. Some ideas are truly shared from birth, others originate with one founder and the ideation is shared. For those ideas, how mature an idea would you be happy to ideate on and get onboard with? You can’t necessarily answer this question in advance – it is of course a function of the particular opportunity (the business opportunity; the opportunity for ownership) and cofounder fit. 

In email 4 I outline several strategies you can use to find a cofounder.

Your own ideas

There is no formula for discovering good business ideas. However, there are practical steps you can take to maximise your odds of discovering one. Ultimately, I believe that it’s an exercise in becoming more creative by learning to trust and follow your intuition.

Broadly speaking there are 2 categories of your own idea: conscious and subconscious.

Consciously discovered ideas: 

By consciously discovered ideas I simply mean ideas that you discover as the result of conscious search and consideration.

For instance, sometimes the consideration of ideas is instigated by an external 3rd party, like the suggestion of an investor or friend to consider a certain business opportunity. Other times it may be the result of a rational search, for instance looking for ways to apply new business models in a fast growing market.

There are methodical processes you can follow to identify these opportunities, perhaps selecting big, fast growing markets to explore for problems, perhaps exploring a field you know well and making predictions about its future. Then you can follow well documented Customer Development processes to gain an understanding of customer problems and identify business opportunities.

Consciously discovered ideas can result in successful businesses, although they tend to be of certain types (arguably less innovative) and appeal to certain sorts of people, for instance those with strengths in execution or fundraising.

One limitation with these types of idea is that they can be hard to get conviction for. Yes, the idea seems to be rationally viable. But, you’re just not excited by it. Or, you can’t shake a more “irrational” feeling that for some unidentifiable reason, the idea doesn’t make sense. It may feel like you have commitment issues, but more likely it’s just that you haven’t found “your” idea yet, and you’re trying to force yourself into someone else’s, or that you’re trying to rationally make a decision that must be made at a gut level.

I’d argue that the decision to pursue any opportunity must be led by your subconscious. It must follow your sense of curiosity, excitement and intuition. Even those that pursue consciously identified opportunities are ultimately led by their subconscious drive. For instance, some people may be drawn to opportunities to copy existing businesses. This is clearly a conscious and rational opportunity search. But, at a subconscious level, they must be excited by the opportunity and potential of copying ideas to be drawn to explore doing so in the first place.

Learn to pay attention to your intuition: are you exploring these opportunities because it makes rational sense, or because you truly believe, at a gut level, that there’s an opportunity there?

Subconsciously discovered ideas

If you were told to sit down and come up with business ideas, what would happen? Most likely, you’d come up with a bunch of ideas, all of them bad.

Good ideas tend to be spotted by and form in the subconscious, starting as little more than a sense of curiosity, and only with time and attention are they matured into something meaningful.

You’re most likely to spot an opportunity in an area you know well. Paul Graham advises to “live in the future”, then build what’s missing. He argues that it’s worth the investment to spend a year getting to the leading edge of a fast moving domain, at which point you’ll naturally notice important problems. If you haven’t already, stop reading this and read his essay on how to get startup ideas.

Your subconscious may recognize a problem and the corresponding potential for opportunity long before your conscious mind manages to catch up with it. In the meantime, it’s up to you to pay attention to that sense of excitement, to learn how to tease out the idea. Perhaps that’s via talking with someone, or maybe it’s by building and creating an early draft or MVP to help get clarity on what’s in your mind.

This is messy creation in its rawest form. To make progress here it’s important that you master the means of production – whether that’s learning how to make quick websites and run ad tests, learning how to build a quick prototype of a product or (less preferably) finding a more hands-on cofounder who can get stuck into this messy process with you.

Ultimately, this requires a little bit of madness. You proceed although you don’t know where you’re going. You ignore the results of the test. You do it anyway. You build the thing, even though there are a million reasons you shouldn’t. Because you believe that there is something there. Genius or crazy – it’s a fine line.

It can take a long time for these sorts of ideas to become clear. Sometimes you can’t take an idea any further and have to park it indefinitely (which is why it’s useful to learn how to test other people’s ideas in parallel). Perhaps you’ll one day get the missing insight needed to return and progress the idea, perhaps you won’t.

Regardless, these sort of subconscious ideas tend to have staying power. They are more personally meaningful. They are “your” idea, undeniably. Conviction tends not to be a problem here, rather it’s a lack of creative experience and ability that holds people back. It takes time and effort to learn how to get what’s in your head out into reality, and double that time and effort to get comfortable putting it out in front of people and iterating on it to the point that it’s valuable to them.

Entrepreneurship as a creative endeavor

Entrepreneurship is a creative act. It entails taking an idea from your head and creating a living and breathing business from it.

Consciously or not, the reason many people become entrepreneurs is out of a desire to unleash this creativity. They have an urge to learn how to create, and a deeply held conviction that they are capable of it. This takes time – many of us have neglected our creative faculties for years. Creativity is a personal act: in what way do you create, what do you create, in what conditions do you create?

Mastering your personal creativity is key to becoming a better entrepreneur. When you are at the height of your creative powers then you are most likely to spot opportunities, nurture them and build them.

Learning how to reach their personal creative heights is ultimately what I help my entrepreneur clients do in 1:1 coaching sessions.

If I was to summarise it all in one piece of advice, it’d be that creativity is improved by working as an entrepreneur. This is why I advocate working on other people’s ideas to start, to get your creative juices flowing. Not many film directors start with their own feature film.  Get exposure to more ideas, hone your execution skills, build your creativity, learn how to nurture your own ideas on the side, get comfortable with uncertainty, get confident not having a “real” job.

You can’t force creativity, but you can provide yourself with the conditions you need for your creativity to thrive.

Still unsure about starting your journey to become an entrepreneur?

Keep an eye out for my next email where I describe how you can network to find your entrepreneurial tribe or co-founder.

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If you have any questions, please email me.