Yesterday I covered one tactic for coming up with ideas. That tactic was based more on getting everything out of your head as opposed to seeking out ideas. If you're not a creative type or are looking for external validation, you may still be struggling…
The second method is a bit different and seems to be more prefered within the mISV world. Almost all of my esteemed friends and colleagues over at the Business of Software Forums swear by it, so here we go:
Find a Need (or Pain) to Satisfy
The standard method here is that there are huge holes in most businesses and industries which cause pain and make conducting business more difficult. If you can track these holes down, you can quietly build a business while filling them and satisfying everyone involved. In fact, if you do it right, you may be able to completely corner a market like Phil has for Chimney Sweeps. No, I'm not kidding. He makes scheduling and customer management software for Chimney Sweeps.Without a great deal of knowledge and experience in a specific business or – better yet – a particular industry, niche products like this simply can't be built.
So how do I get this knowledge and experience?
This is the easy part. To the best of my knowledge, there are two ways to gain this perspective called “domain expertise”.
The first is to work in that industry. If you are a software developer, you probably know what makes good software development tools. If you work for a healthcare IT shop, you probably see the pains of doctors' offices and hospitals. If you work cleaning up dog poo.. well, you get the idea. There is absolutely nothing like experience in the field. Not only do you get to see things first hand, but you'll known a handful of people doing that exact job and you'll know who to ask for feedback and who to sell to first. How great is that?
… or Find a Partner
The second route is the only option for most students or other people just starting out in a field. If you don't have the experience, simply find someone who does. You find this domain expert and rely on their experience and knowledge to guide you through the development, marketing, and sales process. I worked in this role at the Library of Congress. The sheer brilliance and excellence of some of the people was stunning. If you can find the people who are willing to put forth this effort – and yes, it is a huge effort – you should cherish them and demonstrate any way you can how vital they are to the process.
On the other hand, almost everyone has a “killer idea” that they're dying to share with someone. You have to find a way to filter out these ideas and better yet these people. Once you make it known that you're looking for ideas, potential “partners” will pop out of the woodwork and throw their ideas at you. It gets even worse after you've had a few successes. I've found that out of every 20+ ideas, there are 2-3 potentially worthwhile things and one of those might stand out. Before I started actively discouraging people from sending me these ideas, I would average about 2-3/week, now I get about that many a month.
Finally, when you bring a domain expert on board, there can be a fundamental problem with how ownership, compensation, etc are divided. I can't pretend to offer you a recommendation here other than: Make this reflective of the effort contributed. Someone dropping an idea into your lap without research, potential sales, marketing effort, etc isn't worth much. Guiding the process through development, soliciting feedback from potential customers, and getting demonstrations lined up is. Consider it carefully… many “entrepreneurs” will attempt to bring you an idea without any supporting information/action and want 50%. Walk away… you don't want to do business with them.
Are there other ways to come up with ideas? Yes, definitely, but most have a good mix of these methods included. I don't believe you can identify “perfect ideas” before you begin. I don't think most people start off realizing the true value of their idea until they're underway and start getting feedback from potential customers.
Peronsally, I'm an advocate of just Getting Started. You're going to make mistakes, get over it and move on. There are innumerable variables in business, life, and the world which can hinder or help you. You have control over one of them…. starting.