Why you’re struggling to come up with ideas

I like many of you want to create a business. Creating something from nothing, with someone valuing it so much they’re willing to exchange money for that thing. Sadly, I commonly struggled with coming up with ideas

In the rare moments when an idea came to mind, I’d immediately find weaknesses in it. Most advice on how to come up with business ideas is too general. I want specifics. 

General advice you’ll hear is… 

  • 10 ideas a day: Just force yourself to come up with 10 ideas a day. This is an approach James Altucher has popularized. 
  • Irritation list: In this video, Dan mentions Jack Canfield’s “frustration list”, but it’s an “irritation list”. This is a common piece of advice. Increase your ability to observe, then document all the things you see that are wrong or frustrating.  

These aren’t specific enough. But! I’ve recently come across a framework that’s working. In the last three days of incorporating this into my daily routine, I’ve already come up with 15+ ideas. 😀 

The framework was created by Sahil Lavingia, founder of Gumroad and author of The Minimalist Entrepreneur. The main takeaway is to start with communities.  

  • Community First: In this lecture series Sahil explains in-depth how to create, filter, design, and build a business idea. Hands down one of the most undervalued resources I’ve found on YouTube. 

I’ve decided to focus on Sahil’s approach, completing ten iterations, then see what I want to keep and what’s not relevant. 

There are multiple phases in his framework: Ideation > Idea vetting (memo) > Design > Build > Sell > Grow. If we’re stuck in the design phase, unable to manifest our product/service, we can “processize” (a term Sahil created). Document step-by-step what the sales cycle will look like for customer #1. Afterward, we can design this flow into a product or service. 

We will constrain the idea vetting, design, and build phases into a single weekend. Time constraints will act as our superpower. By slamming all of these phases into a single weekend it forces us to make short-term tradeoffs for launch day (i.e. Monday). 

The schedule is: 

  • Monday – Thursday: We come up with ideas, maybe even write a memo or two.
  • Friday: We write or polish previously started memos + We design the flow of our application or website
  • Saturday – Sunday: We build. If you’re running out of time on Sunday evening, cut features for now.  
  • Monday: Hard deadline, no excuses! We have to launch and share our product/service with our community, testing their willingness to buy. 

The Ideation Framework 

In this approach, everything starts with communities. Communities you’re a part of, would likely be aligned with, or have a genuine interest in. Through partaking in these communities you’ll understand their problems. 

The value we can create aligns with four areas of economic utility to solve these observed problems. 

  • Place utility: Make something inaccessible, or accessible
  • Form utility: Make something more valuable by rearranging existing parts
  • Time utility: Make something slow go fast
  • Possession utility: Remove a middleman

To simplify the above areas of utility, ask these questions. 

  • Are you saving the customer time?  
  • Are you saving the customer money?
  • Are you making the customer money?  

If you’re hitting any or all of these questions, you’re heading in the right direction with your idea. 

The main questions you’ll answer when progressing toward the business idea are… 

  • Community – What are the communities we want to provide value toward? 
    • Note: It’s important to pursue communities you have an interest in and contribute towards. Additionally, aim for communities that have money, either companies or wealthy folks. B2B is preferred, it’s easier to sell. 
  • Activities – For the people within this community, what are their activities?
  • Problems –  What are the problems these people run into when completing the activities? 
  • Products/Services – What are the products or services you will create to help with the above problems?
    • Note: If you’re having trouble with bridging the gap between the problems you’ve observed and possible solutions lean on the four economics of utility above.   
  • Business Model – What is the business model for your solution? I.e. How are you going to sell it? I.e. digital/physical products, services (events, courses, consulting, freelance), marketplaces, and SaaS subscriptions.  

These questions and how they’re framed acted as the “aha!” moment for me. Enabling many different business ideas. 

When creating business ideas, we’ll want to stack the deck in our favor. Riding existing trends will increase our likelihood of success. Examples are: 

  • Offline 👉 Online
  • Manual 👉 Automated
  • Desktop 👉 Cloud
  • Code 👉 No-code
  • Non-AI 👉 AI 
  • Etc. 

Let’s say we have two competing business ideas (A and B) we’re jazzed about that are competing for our attention. Sahil shared his heuristics for deciding.

  • Fastest to build: Idea A is faster to build, than Idea B
  • 10x ideas > 3x ideas: 10 people are 10x excited for idea A vs. 70 people that are only 3x excited about idea B
  • B2B > B2C: B2B is an easier sell
  • Excitement: What’s more exciting for you?  
  • Co-founder: Who do you want to work with? Does idea A provide you the chance to work with someone you admire?

We’ll end with a checklist you should run for every idea. 

💡 Checklist: 

  • Is there a clear path to profitability by selling the product/service to customers?
  • Will it grow organically when folks use the product?
  • Do I have the right natural skill set to build this business?
    • Note: Don’t be discouraged if not. “Start then learn” is a motto continuously repeated throughout Sahil’s book. 
  • Will I love working on it?

Progressing Your Idea

Now that we have an idea it’s time we progress it through the remaining phases. Our next step is to write a memo. The purpose of the memo is to articulate the problem, solution, and market we’re pursuing. This is the lowest minimal viable product we can create, placing pen to paper. By forcing yourself to articulate the specifics of your business idea, we’ll quickly realize the holes in our vision. Limit yourself to writing 1-page. Here’s an example of Sahil walking through a memo.

If done correctly, this process should filter out 95% of our bad ideas, leaving the 5% that solve real problems with compelling solutions. Send the remaining 5% of your memos to your future customers (i.e. your community). Seeking immediate feedback on the idea is key. If you receive detailed feedback you’re solving a real problem for your community. But, if most of the feedback provided is vague, the idea is missing a market fit. Start over. 

Remember this is an iterative process. We want to know if our ideas are bad before placing too much time into them. Hence gathering feedback on the memo, instead of waiting until after we’ve finished the design and build phases. 

Let’s assume we’ve successfully progressed through the memo phase, we’re now onto the design phase. It’s time we leverage Figma. Sahil favors using Figma during the design since it’s easy to share and once shared it acts as a proper website or application, with an interactive component. Here’s a design lecture with Sahil building a design from scratch.   

As mentioned above, the build phase will be constrained to a weekend, so cutting features is accepted to make our deadline (launch day). 

There’s more work to be done on your business idea after the initial build phase is complete, but by this point, we’ve completed the more difficult phases (Sahil’s perspective). We end with sales and growth. We’ll leave that discussion for a different post, this one is getting a little too lengthy.

I hope Sahil’s framework for ideation and vetting helps you as much as it has helped me. 😀