Want a new business idea? Here’s why you need to stop trying to think of one

“Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of start-up ideas” – Paul Graham (co-founder, Y-Combinator).

It was March 2016 and I was armed with two great” new business ideas, which I’d dreamt up whilst sat on a beach in the Philippines reading Tim Ferris’ The Four Hour Workweek. And I couldn’t wait to get started testing them out. The ideas were:

  1. To produce industry reports for the retail technology sector, where I’d been working as a business consultant for four years. Money could be made through selling gated content such as eBooks, using free content to attract customers. A fairly well-trodden model by online marketers and bloggers.
  2. To develop a solution to help people find trusted, local tailors and clothing alteration shops, something I’ve often thought would be useful to have. Money could be made through subscriptions and commission for any leads/sales generated.

Through April 2016 I sought to test people’s interest in the industry reports, loosely using a model described in The Four Hour Workweek. To summarise, I conducted keyword research using Google Adwords, with help from my virtual assistant. I purchased the domain “www.startingculture.com” from GoDaddy, created a basic landing page using Weebly’s drag and drop website builder and ran a Google AdWords campaign for two weeks. Throughout the campaign, I considered a conversion to be a user clicking a “buy now” button, which led to an “out of stock” page. I didn’t actually have a product to sell at this point.

The results were underwhelming. I managed less than five conversions. Unconvinced and uncertain as to what went wrong, I moved on to testing idea number two.

To help people find trusted local tailors in London, I decided that an online marketplace would be the best solution. Again, I purchased a domain “www.yourlocaltailor.com” and this time used Sharetribe to develop a basic marketplace – all done in less than a day. The Sharetribe Academy has a load of useful guidance on launching a marketplace. It was here that I got the idea to trawl through Yelp for tailoring and clothing alteration shops located in London who, based on the fact they were already listed on Yelp, were more likely to be interested in using an online marketplace. Reassured by the number of businesses using Yelp, I literally worked through the directory contacting each business with a semi-personalised email. For the one in ten that responded I suggested a time for a call or face-face meeting.

After three to four weeks I’d spoken with the owners of 10-15 businesses and listened to countless issues they each faced on a daily basis. Overall, their feedback was that they could be interested in another online marketplace but were more concerned with challenges related to staff retention, recruitment and customer relationship management. Great insight but it didn’t necessarily validate that yourlocaltailor was a winning idea. Needless to say, I was unconvinced… again!

Two ideas later and I felt deflated. But why? Well, being honest, I’d invested little time and effort into my landing page and advert for testing the industry reports so, on reflection, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the outcome was poor. Furthermore, while I had listened to people about the problems they face on a daily basis, I had never taken a genuine interest in solving them. Instead, I’d been entirely focussed on pushing solutions for problems they didn’t really have, which I’d dreamt up weeks before, alone, sat on a beach 6,700 miles away!

So, I went back to the drawing board to rethink.

Putting myself in the shoes of a consumer, I began listing out the reoccurring tasks I faced that also caused me the most mental and/or physical stress. I soon realised that I’d already made a similar list when thinking about the tasks I could outsource to my virtual assistant to save time – one of the exercises in The Four Hour Workweek.  I’d actually found a solution to arguably my most tedious, repetitive task through using a virtual assistant – my supermarket shopping. And it was going great!

My hypothesis was thus: people value convenience and would pay to have someone to plan their meals, find recipes and order all of the ingredients and other household essentials for them each week. This was in many respects supported by industry research from leading organisations, such as this report from Mintel, as well as the growing consumer acceptance of meal delivery services such as HelloFresh.

With provisional evidence to support my hypothesis, I figured that the best way to test it was to get it out there. No procrastination disguised as business planning, customer research or market testing. I would launch as soon as possible and see what people say about it, figuring the worst case scenario would be that no one notices. More likely, I’d receive candid feedback from consumers allowing me to improve and try again.

It was time to roll up my sleeves, grit my teeth and get on with it.

P.S. If you’re stuck on coming up with business ideas, this article titled “How to Create a Million-Dollar Business This Weekend” is a great place to start.

P.P.S.  You can read Paul Graham’s full essay on startup ideas here.