One of my favorite exercises is brainstorming startup ideas with other entrepreneurs. You can gain a lot of value from a fresh perspective. When “pitched an idea” for brainstorming or feedback I tend to go through the same 7 key points and questions each time. That tends to spur strong discussion, new ideas and new opportunities.
I’m certainly not going through a full analysis of startup ideas or assessing the entrepreneurs themselves and their ability to execute. I’m not an investor; just a fellow startup guy that wants to help (if I can). And I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs that get too deep into the weeds of their ideas – either focusing too much on one thing (and the wrong thing!) or stuck at certain points with no clarity on how to move forward.
So here are 7 key points for brainstorming startup ideas that I use regularly:
- Use Cases. I find it’s helpful to understand a startup in the context of use cases. How will someone use the product or service? Who are the different types of people involved (e.g. customers, vendors, advertisers, etc.)? I often ask, “Walk me through how I would use this thing?” It gets people thinking in simpler, linear paths and often helps clarify questions in my head as to whether or not the product or service (as envisioned) will actually be usable.
- Risk and Failure Points. When you ask someone about the risk and failure points you often get to the underlying assumptions being made. Sometimes, entrepreneurs haven’t quite thought through the assumptions they’re making, but they can more easily recognize failure points. This becomes easier once you’ve asked someone to go through a few use cases as well, because now you have clearer, step-by-step processes lined up that describe how the product or service is used. So an entrepreneur might respond, “Well if no one puts any content into the system, it won’t work.” So then a critical assumption being made is that people will put content into the system. The next logical question is, “Why?”
- Incentives and Motivation. People usually don’t do things for the heck of it. Consciously or even unconsciously there have to be incentives and motivations. The clearer the incentives, the better. Brainstorming around incentives and motivations is fun. And universally there aren’t that many incentives and motivations that drive humans to do things. We’re now getting into the weeds of psychology (albeit basic psychology), but the key brainstorming question is this, “Why will people do what you want them to do, especially to remove the point of failure we’ve just discovered?”
- The One Feature. I like looking for the one feature that’s going to be the real hook inside the use cases and driving the incentives and motivations. Entrepreneurs like to stuff features into their products. And they often make the false assumption that one more feature will win the day for them. It’s not about more features, but it very well could be about one feature – the one feature (or use case) that drives the bulk of activity, virality and momentum. Brainstorming around this can be very interesting because it allows you break things up into small, digestible pieces and decompile a grand vision into potentially manageable chunks. I like to look for a starting point where an entrepreneur could focus on one small piece of their master plan and test it thoroughly with customers before moving on. Brainstorming around the “one feature” really gets to the heart of ideas very quickly, and helps create a lot of focus.
- Target Market. Most of the time, entrepreneurs know what market they’re going after. But it’s not always the right one. When you look at something from the outside in, it’s much easier to think of other applications and target markets for a startup idea. Brainstorming around this often leads to interesting ideas on product features, but more importantly on go-to-market strategy and whether the customer (that’s in the entrepreneur’s head) is really the right one. For example, there are fairly simple and interesting ways of taking a B2C web application and targeting it at businesses. The reverse is true as well; take a B2B application and steer it towards a B2C adoption model.
- Monetization. It’s interesting to brainstorm ideas on monetization, as well as its importance at an early stage for startups. In some cases it makes sense to monetize right away, in others it’s better to wait. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules that can be applied to every startup. When brainstorming something for the first time, I don’t get caught up in monetization, because the other points are more important in terms of assessing an idea more thoroughly, and tackling it with new perspective. It’s not that a single idea will guarantee success whatsoever (because it won’t), but all startups start with the idea.
- References and Referrals. One of the last things I tend to do when “being pitched” an idea is see if I have any references or referrals that can help. A reference might be as simple as an article I can share. A referral might be a potential customer, business partner, or other entrepreneur with experience in the field. If I see merit in the idea and the entrepreneur, and the timing is right, I like to help as much as I can in terms of my network and history. It’s quite easy to do this, as long as the connections you’re making are meaningful and don’t waste anyone’s time.
I love listening to new ideas (or seeing how ideas and startups are evolving). It’s fun, educational and valuable to come in from the outside, tackle the issues and questions above and hopefully provide some level of assistance. And if I can’t, then maybe I can point you to someone else that can.
Most of the points above do form the basis for a strong investor pitch as well.
The goal in a brainstorming session isn’t to solve every problem, or even discover every problem. I like to focus on moving things forward by at least one step. Can you uncover one key point to focus on? Can you think and talk your way through a few issues that leads an entrepreneur to further research, discovery and progress?
And finally, after doing a number of brainstorming sessions it becomes quite clear that most entrepreneurs have a lot of the answers already, but they still need someone to talk to. For example, you meet someone that’s hemming and hawing over an idea, but isn’t sure it’s “great” and isn’t yet ready to quit their day job. They ask, “Should I quit my day job and pursue this idea?” You can’t give them the answer – they have to make that decision, but chances are they already have. It’s still nice to talk it out though.