This is an exercise in creative thinking. It’s fun, challenging and there’s no limits… this is what brainstorming is all about!
Let’s uncover some of the best ways to generate ideas – for products, businesses or services – otherwise known as “muses”.
The ideas we’re looking to cultivate should provide value to others, either by solving problems, addressing needs, or satisfying desires.
In return, these muses should serve us through income (active or passive), experience or prestige, level of impact, or whatever measure you deem important to you.
These muses could include ideas for a service, software, app, gadget, course, eBook, etc. The exact deliverable – how your concept can be turned into something that can be sold – will be determined in the next phase of brainstorming.
To be clear: this is not inventing for the sake of inventing – it’s with the purposeful intention of generating (or discovering) a great idea, that has a serviceable market; testing that idea on that market, and ultimately creating and selling that muse to earn profit.
This specific blog post is a how-to on brainstorming ideas – sounds pretty simple, right? Well, sort of…
Simple, but Not Always Easy
This post is not about finding your passion, or your “calling”.
Many recommend that you start by evaluating your passions first in order to develop ideas worth pursuing, and although desirable, it’s not necessary. Similarly, it’s ideal if your ideas are congruent with what’s important to you, but again, not 100% necessary.
This is about brainstorming and generally listening to your gut; discovering the potential in your observations and developing a habit of generating and recording your ideas – big, small, silly or brilliant.
What you do next with those ideas, is up to you. Most dream things up and then promptly forget them. Many write them down, leaving them for a future “someday”. While a small few take action. We want to encourage you to be an Action-Taker – that’s at the core of what we do at Test the Muse.
Some people have ideas in abundance, while some people struggle to even come up with one. For those who struggle to come up with ideas, or suspect they have some, but they’re stuck deep in the recesses of their minds, this post will help you make a habit of shaking them out.
Personally, I can’t shut them off. Sometimes my brain goes on vacation; but other times, inspiration comes to me in torrents and ideas begin flowing into (or out of) me like an open faucet. I’m not saying all of them are “good” ideas (most aren’t) and many are not even actionable. That’s where the testing comes in – to take the emotional attachment out and bring in the quantitative results.
From a qualitative standpoint, after going through these exercises enough, you’ll notice an increased ability to assess the quality of an idea in its infancy – you’ll become more effective at keeping or discarding, acting or letting go.
Recognize that all of this takes practice, but after a while, can simply become habit. Who wouldn’t want a habit that could be potentially profitable?
Teasing Out Your Ideas
1. Take Notes
Take note of your thoughts: Ideas can come out of nowhere, they can hit hard, or dissipate quickly. The first action to take, whenever you get an idea: write it down!
If you really want to start a fire, but have no flint, the best way I’ve found to create a spark is to have an open brainstorming session with yourself. Just start writing (or typing).
Write your thoughts down on paper preferably; the physicality of writing helps distill the idea – the same principles apply as taking notes and studying in school.
However, if you can’t do that: type it out, or dictate into your mobile device. There are tons of resources for this, but I usually choose the Evernote app, as well as iPhone’s Notes or Reminders app (if date/time sensitive or associated with a to-do). Email works too.
You can always flesh it out later, but in the meantime, make an edit-free record of your thoughts – no need to go overboard with the details, just the high-level concept. You can elaborate or go through it with a red pen later.
2. Study the market:
The “market”, in this context, is pretty broad because it may be dependent on the kind of ideas you’re hoping to generate. This could be as straightforward as a trip to the mall to window shop, or browsing online at various retailers. The phrase to keep in mind here is innovation through observation.
The type of “store” you visit for inspiration will dictate the type of ideas you generate, for example, you wouldn’t browse the toy aisle of Target if you wanted an idea to create a software-as-a-service (…or would you?).
If you’re completely open, and not tied to one specific market, begin studying the “ideas” marketplace – more specifically, any media designed to inspire, which can take many forms (e.g. blogs, newsletters, magazines, websites, etc.).
If you’re not already watching, check out TV shows like Shark’s Tank or Dragon’s Den. I also find trend-following sites and newsletters are particularly amazing resources, filled with fresh ideas.
A couple years ago I had to stop reading Springwise.com, because their newsletter and idea database would take me into a massive blackhole, where hours would just disappear without warning. Powerful sources for getting your creative juices flowing.
3. Intentional Brainstorming:
This can be done by yourself, but works best when with others. Involving others, particularly trusted family or friends, by chatting about personal dreams or concepts you’ve been thinking about, can be extremely potent.
If you don’t already have these types of sessions with a friend, they can feel a bit forced, especially if you’ve arranged this meet-up specifically for the purposes of generating ideas.
Intention can sometimes be a creativity killer.
However, I’ve had some great brainstorming sessions with friends that have left me feeling rejuvenated and inspired, so it’s worth trying out.
A less formal way of “brainstorming” is to make a game of it! Think about things that drive you crazy on a regular basis – at work and at home. What products or activities do you frequently complain about? There’s always room for improvement (or at the very least, competition).
I love the suggestions made in One Simple Idea by Stephen Key, which outlines a few excellent games to make brainstorming new ideas fun, specifically:
- “Mix and Match”: Combine two seemingly unrelated items.
- “What if…”: Imagine a repurpose of an existing product for a completely different use.
- “Solve it”: Observe everyday problems and come up with wild solutions.
4. Purposeful Research:
Ask questions – of both yourself and others.
What problems do other people have? What problems are encountered on a daily, weekly or monthly basis? Can you think of a way to solve these problems?
Try not to limit yourself to what exists today. If there’s a repetitive task, there’s a chance someone would pay to streamline that process, or somehow make it easier (or fun).
When researching for ideas, Dane Maxwell of The Foundation emphasizes the power of reaching out and asking the right questions. Dane suggests some “golden questions” to pose to potential customers or target markets may include:
- “What’s the most important area of your business?”; and
- Is there any pain associated with that activity?”
The answers to these two questions alone will arm you with enough ammo to begin cultivating some excellent muse potential. But while you’re putting yourself out there, dig deeper by following up with:
- “What else?”; and
- Tell me more.”
The inclusion of the latter questions likely gets its rationale from the “5 Whys” method of systematic problem solving.
The 5 Whys were developed by Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno, the father of “Lean Manufacturing”, explained and applied to startup companies in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
This investigative method of finding the root cause of “why” something has happened is effective at helping uncover the underlying cause of the problem, which is where the real value is. When artfully done, it doesn’t come off as nagging – you are actually getting them to really define their own problems, often without knowing it.
Whether or not “5” is the magic number is less important, just understand that it will take several levels deep of questioning “why” to really define the underlying pain (which in turn produces the most impactful idea or solution).
Reaching Out through Social Media
Depending on your personal level of engagement online, social media platforms are a great way to ask these questions. You could message individuals, or pose these types of questions openly on your status updates on Facebook, or to people or groups you’re connected to on LinkedIn. This can be done proactively, or you could passively search the existing posts of others, to identify potential problems people are having that you believe you could solve.
You can ask these questions to literally anyone – your friends, family, accountant, pet sitter, real estate agent, etc. Focus on targeting people in markets you’re most interested in, or take a broader approach. The questions won’t really change, and while the responses may differ based on personal experience or industry, the answers will always be enlightening.
No ideas? No Problem!
If you’re still drawing a blank and can’t come up with any ideas that you’re burning to pursue, that’s okay.
Noah Kagan from OKDork and AppSumo provides a short list of sources of inspiration:
Amazon – visit the Best Sellers section (yep, the section that already lists exactly what customers want and are already opening their wallets to purchase. Seems obvious, right?).
You can imitate or innovate (only recommended if you have a larger budget for development and marketing to build a brand, or strongly believe you can invent a better mouse trap).
Or, the preferred path, is to look for a related or complimentary product – something that can aid, enhance or somehow be used in conjunction with an already established product.
This takes creativity and vision, but if you can come up with a supporting product, often you can ride the wave of an existing popular product or brand.
To really dig deeper, or flesh out an idea for a complimentary product, my suggestion would be to examine the product reviews. Of course you’re going to find people at both ends of the spectrum – leaving rave reviews or scathing reviews. But somewhere in between all the madness is magic: suggestions on what would make [this product] better.
“Better” can take many forms (more user-friendly, quality of design, additional features, etc.). Often this can be the void that you can fill.
A spin-off of this kind of research would be to review the Top Apps Charts for the App Store (Apple) and Play Store (Google).
If you’re looking to build the-next-best-app, these marketplaces hand you consumer data on exactly where people are voting with their dollars. Select the categories you’re most interested in and sort to view the most successful apps, by popularity or profit.
Can you think a related app or spin-off of these popular themes? Which ones do you already use on your devices – do you enjoy them, are they useful, can they be improved upon, or added to?
Obviously you can dream up your own app – go nuts – cause if you have the budget, it can be built. But clever or unique ideas are not mandatory. If you’re first looking to cultivate ideas, I’d suggest aligning your concepts with what’s already a proven success.
Craigslist – if you’re more interested in muses that are service-oriented, visit the “Gigs” section of Craigslist. In a similar way to how Amazon’s Best Sellers lists lays out what guaranteed customers are already buying, Craigslist Gigs displays exactly what real people are willing to pay real money to do.
TaskRabbit – an additional source to assess the demand for service related muses.
Sure, you could start a business offering those services that people are already requesting (there’s obviously a demand for it), but that’s more building a business, not a muse.
To really take your brainstorming to the next level, consider if there’s potential to create a product or ancillary service around these tasks. Again, this is simply brainstorming: don’t get caught up in the “how” just yet, just meditate on the “if” and what possible forms that might take…
To go through the above sources and really identify people’s pain points would be the equivalent of mining for gold. It would be hard work (research and critical thinking), but sooo worth it when you find that one nugget. The difference here is that you know “there’s gold in them thar hills” – so it’s really a no-brainer to start digging.
The point is, even if you don’t have a burning idea of your own, don’t let it stop you from searching for golden opportunities. Once you shift your mind frame to actively look for potentially profitable ideas, you’ll begin to see them everywhere.
Having too many ideas is a problem in and of itself – but we’ll deal with later when assessing which have merit and which should just stay ideas.
Over the next several months, I’ll be building on this post by writing about what happens after you have a bright idea, such as beginning to conceptualize what saleable form your idea could take (productization), checking to see if there’s an audience or customer base for your concept (market research), followed by various approaches to testing whether or not the market is receptive to your idea (testing the muse), and finally how to interpret the results of your testing (business validation), and everything in-between.
Key resources mentioned:
Action you can take:
- Get brainstorming! Using the methods described above – let us know what’s yielding the most (or best) ideas for you?
- Have a different ritual to get your creative juices flowing? ‘Do tell’ below in the comments.
- Share this blog post, please. If you have any friends, family or social media contacts that you think this would help, please share on Twitter or Facebook, etc. (use our nifty new “sharing tool” to the left!)
Yours truly, Jonah