Business for Geeks 101: Part 4 of N – Ideas

When I began this series, I started with the belief that most of my readers would already have their idea but that it just wouldn't be fleshed out. How wrong I was…

What's the best way to come up with an idea?

Personally, I think this is the wrong question. Having an idea in itself isn't worth much. Many of the greatest inventors, creators and pioneers in history aren't the ones who initially came up with the idea. They simply did it right. Therefore, I would first re-form the above question to this:

How do I find an idea I can be passionate about?

There, that's a bit better. Do you see the difference? The first was focused on just finding an idea… preferably one that makes money. The second is focused on finding an idea that will keep you up thinking in the middle of the night or will rattle your brain in the shower or put that little sparkle in your eyes that convinces your friends and family to not bring up the subject. Personally, I believe there are two main strategies for this process. Today, I'm covering the first.

First step: Get it out

A friend of mine – a preacher who's a total geek – calls these “shower thoughts”. These are the ideas that pop into your head when you're the least prepared. You must get these ideas out to make room for new ones. Don't worry, most of your ideas will be crap. There's nothing wrong with that. We're not evaluating at this point, we're just brainstorming. Years ago, I started carrying around a simple spiral-bound notebook with me. I keep it within reach while I'm at my computer, while I'm on the Metro, and generally not too far from my bed at night. Every day, I take this list and I dump it into a (mostly) categorized list.

Next step: Establish your vision

Most people see this as unrelated, but I see it instrumental to the rest of the process. What vision are you reaching for? Are you trying to build a profitable business? Are you attempting to bring jobs to your area? Do you just want to work with cool toys? Are you trying to be bought by Google? Are you trying to beat competitor X? If you don't have this question answered, you can't move onto the next step.

This is always up for review. When I began CaseySoftware, I had the single goal of getting out of my deadend job. As time went on and I brought people aboard, I had to adjust and clarify my vision. As our work started drifting into unsatisfying areas, I evaluated again. There is *nothing* wrong with re-evaluating and changing your vision, but you must have one.

Next step: Evaluation against your goals

Alright, so you have ideas and goals, now combine the two. How do they fit together? Do they fit together? Do some ideas feed into other bigger and better ideas? With each and every idea, you must determine how it fits against your goals. If something doesn't fit at all or is detrimental to your goals, you don't have to discard it, but you must put it on a different list. Some of your ideas are going to be great and some are going to be horrible. Don't worry, there's plenty of room for that. Throughout this, you'll think of new ideas, put them through the same process. Look at your list. You should have a multitude of things fitting into categories like “furthers”, “neutral”, “distracts”, and “supports” all refering to your goals.

Next step: Evaluation against your bank account

This is the hard part. Take the lists and figure out if you can support yourself financially. Yes, this is the hard part. Hopefully, you'll see profitable ideas on each of the lists. Then you'll see horribly unprofitable ideas on each of the lists. Immediately discard all of the ideas are both “distracting” and unprofitable. Next, anything that doesn't make money is not a business. It may be a hobby or a project and it may be incredibly satisfying and worthwhile, but it's not a business.

Next step: Make a decision

Now, your list should consist of a page of ideas split across these two areas and it's time for the tough decisions. Can you meet your goals and feed yourself? Even if the answer is a definitive “no”, that's not the end of the world. Almost every entrepreneur goes through a few iterations, follows some false leads, and works in areas “just to pay the bills”. There's nothing wrong with that but it needs to be an active choice instead of an accident.

Final step: Repeat

Regardless of the above, you should continue this process constantly. Once you actually get out there and get started the ideas, proposals, and opportunities are going to come at you fast and furious. If you don't have a way to filter them, you're going to be flooded by “distracting” and unprofitable before you know it.