A mental model for deciding which startup ideas to pursue, and how to pursue them.
Developing good startup ideas is hard. Great ideas and downright horrible ideas are often initially indistinguishable and somewhat bad ideas often look so tantalising until you’re really in the weeds with them.
The Ideation Flywheel is a mental model to help you think about which startup ideas are worth pursuing and, more importantly, how to improve your ideas by testing them without bias.
The first step is forgetting about startup ideas entirely - thinking only in “idea space” is a surefire way to come up with solutions in need of problems or solutions for problems that don’t really exist.
So, how do we surface problems? This is actually pretty hard. For a lot of us, life is mostly good. The trick therefore, is to become someone that starts to notice problems. I know this sounds like reductive advice, but it's a necessary precondition to finding problems worth solving.
You can do this in various ways, including:
The core theme in all of the above tips is to remain continuously curious of the world, people, and their problems.
Now you have a list of possible problems you could work on. How do you decide which among them is the best use of your time and resources?
You need some sort of rubric to grade them. You may want to rank the problems on the following characteristics:
There is no "correct" way to grade problems for stack ranking. However, I would make sure that any problem you choose to work on scores highly on both:
It’s very tempting, once you have decided on a problem, to jump in with all the possible solutions that come to mind. Hold that thought. First, you need to deeply understand the problem.
The only way to do that is to speak with people that actually have the problem. However, to gain a useful understanding you need to conduct these conversations in the correct way.
The single best resource to learn how to do this is called the Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. I recommend you pick up a copy before you conduct a single interview, but I’ll give you the overview here:
The first step into the Idea Maze is really understanding the problem. Hopefully, through your interviews, you will have built this understanding. Continuing to walk through the Maze is the essence of foundership because, in some sense, you’re never really out of the Maze.
But what do these early steps look like?
Your journey is going to be unique to you and your idea. However, I do want to share some generally applicable tips as you start out navigating the Idea Maze.
Now things can go 1 of 2 ways.
The much more likely path is that, through your exploration, you conclude that this problem is not solvable (yet), not solvable for you, or perhaps not worth solving. This may be for a multitude of reasons. Maybe the timing is not right, maybe you are not the right person, maybe you have the skills but you realise you don’t have a burning passion to work on this problem for years on end, or maybe the market is smaller than anticipated. That’s all ok, it's actually to be expected.
That’s why there is a stage 5 (or why this framework is a flywheel).
Take what you’ve learned from your exploration and feed that back into the next round of ideation - but crucially, do not throw away your research. Retaining and using the knowledge and experience you've acquired is the principle of linear ideation.
As you explored the idea maze you will have found other clues which might lead to an even greater treasure. Maybe you found new but related problems to add to your list of problems or maybe you found new information which impacts the stack ranking of your problems.
Above all, you will have contacts and experience in a problem domain through your research and your interviews which can be leveraged in the next round of ideation. Don’t start all over from scratch, preserve the value you’ve created in previous rounds of ideation to propel you to the next.
At Stackfix we believe that startups have the potential to change the world in meaningful and hugely positive ways. We hope this framework is helpful as you begin to think about the problems you're passionate about and which you're uniquely positioned to solve.
Camin McCluskey is Co-Founder of Stackfix. Stackfix helps startups find the right software, fast. If you or any company you know are looking for CRM / Customer Support / Applicant Tracking / HRIS software - go to www.stackfix.com (it's totally free).