Dylan Ogline is a serial entrepreneur and author known as a go-getter for work and lifestyle optimizations. He is the founder of Ogline Digital.
If you can’t find a business idea, you’re probably looking in the wrong place.
Ever heard someone say, “I had the idea for Uber years before they came up with it”? Maybe you even said it yourself. You hear it all the time, and shockingly few of these people get out of Lambos and rock Rolexes. To quote the dramatized version of Mark Zuckerberg played by Jesse Eisenberg in The social network: “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.”
When it comes to business, especially disruptors like Uber or Facebook, we tend to valorize the idea: “Why don’t I have thinking about that?” Or, to go back to where we started: “I did think of that!”
The result: generations of potential entrepreneurs are chasing the next big idea. The service, the product, the app, the offer that will change everything and make them billionaires in the process. In the end, they hunt by their tails. You don’t build a successful business by chasing an idea.
What my father and brother got right
I come from an entrepreneurial family. My Boomer father and my Gen-X older brother both founded multiple companies. I give them a lot of grief for being part of an “old guard” of business owners – the pre-Internet paradigm that consisted of brick and mortar stores, a large payroll, high overheads, and eighty-hour workweeks fueled by donuts and coffee en route to an early heart attack. For them there was no such thing as ‘big enough’. There was always more revenue to tap into, more market share to claim, more competitors to take down — type II diabetes, damn it.
As a millennial, I come from a completely different paradigm of entrepreneurship: the lean, mean and scrappy business, just big enough to afford a satisfying lifestyle, but small enough not to hurt my well-being. Remote teams, low overhead, digital nomadism, lifestyle design. I am an evangelist for that approach to entrepreneurship.
But as much as I give the vintage cars, they were right about something big, something future moguls of my generation often miss: They didn’t go looking for ideas. They knew you could spend a lifetime chasing the next big idea, and it wouldn’t happen.
Look for problems to start a business.
Becoming a “problem fighter”
Mark Zuckerberg didn’t find Facebook because a golden idea came to him from heaven. He did it because, as a Harvard student, he noticed that every college dorm on campus had its own online Facebook, with no standardization. He knew he could do better, so he did. What happened to Facebook next was lightning in a bottle.
When someone asks me, “How do I come up with an idea for a company?” my answer is the same: “Stop looking for ideas. Look for problems to resolve.”
Don’t wait any longer for a billion dollar inspiration to hit you in the shower; you can’t control whether that happens or not. But you can identify problems.
People don’t buy ideas – they buy solutions
When you find a problem that people are willing to pay you to solve, the solution is: is the idea.
Think how useless even the best is idea is without people being willing to pay for it. That’s why I tell my coaching students to sell their product sooner they develop it. Otherwise people spend months, even years, developing a product, only to discover that no one is willing to pay for it because it doesn’t solve a problem big enough.
So describe the product you have in mind, but more importantly, describe the problem it solves. Describe it so well that the potential customer will get excited at the prospect of solving it. Does this exercise intimidate you because you haven’t really developed? the solution already? You’re raising money for something you can’t deliver yet? Don’t worry about that. The goal of the exercise isn’t to sell the product – it’s to validate the idea by identifying a problem that people are paying you to solve.
Tell people that the solution is in development, that it will be ready in 30 days, and by removing their credit card now, they will be one of the first people to access it. If they say “No thanks,” your solution may not be good enough. When they pull out their credit card and buy it, you know you’ve found your idea. You found a problem that someone is willing to pay you to solve for them.
Learn to describe your customer’s problem better than they can
One of the first niches I focused on in my agency was plumbing and heating companies. It was easy to get clients there once I learned to describe their problems better than themselves.
Several years ago my water heater broke, so I called a plumber to come and fix it. He was a cool guy and I offered to buy him a beer after he finished work. In an informal conversation, he said, “These repair jobs are okay, but I wish I could get more installation jobs. They’re easier and pay a lot more.”
Tree. Right there: a problem I could solve with digital marketing. I wouldn’t just give plumbing and heating companies more business — I’d give them more installation jobs, the jobs they most coveted. As basic as it was, that idea sparked tremendous growth.
If you’re waiting to start a business because you’re “looking for the right idea,” here’s your homework: message all the business owners you know; walk into the businesses in your area and chat with the managers; casually interview each service provider who comes to work on your home. Ask them what they hate most about the company they work for. Ask them about the biggest recurring burden in their working life. Ask them which urgent tasks are taking up their attention and distracting them from important, money-making tasks.
Million-dollar ideas, even billions of dollars, are hiding in the answers.