How to come up with a business idea

For many would-be entrepreneurs, the first step is the greatest hurdle: if you don't find coming up with new business ideas a natural process, you'll need to train yourself to think laterally. Coming up with ideas is the fun part of starting a business, though - at this stage, you aren't limited by money or time, so the possibilities are endless. Want to run a zebra petting zoo? Brilliant! Think there's a niche for chocolate cutlery? Wonderful! Don't be realistic - that's the next stage in idea development. Until then, kick back and allow your imagination to run wild.

How to come up with an idea

  • If you've already spent time building up skills and contacts in a certain industry, it's natural to use expertise you've already developed in your own business. You may have hated working for a PR company - but why? Was it the job, or was it something the company was doing? Could you do it differently?
  • Attempt some crystal ball gazing. Ask yourself what the world will look like this time next year. What about in five years' time? Use industry media and read experts' blogs to second-guess the future and try to develop ideas in line with trends so you can develop a product or service and cash in when they happen.
  • Bounce ideas off friends. Create a collective with a group of like-minded people to help you come up with ideas, then share the profits when an idea makes money. Don't be too concerned with giving ideas away at this stage - unless someone is passionate about an idea, it's unlikely they'll follow it through.
  • Ideas tend to occur in the least convenient places, so keep a pen and paper with you all the time. It's also worth noting that just before you fall asleep and just after you wake up, your brain tends to be at its most creative - so make sure you have something to write with on your bed-side table.
  • Don't be afraid to look at other people's ideas for inspiration. There's nothing wrong with copying someone else's idea (unless, of course, it's protected by copyright law), as long as your business does something to distinguish itself by building and improving on that idea.
  • Hundreds of good business ideas have come when their creators have looked for a solution to an everyday problem. You only need to look at the Lakeland Catalogue or online to see how many of life's little problems can be solved fairly easily - and ingeniously.
  • Sometimes, the best way to get creative is to allow your mind to wander. Use a technique such as mind-mapping or play a word-association game with yourself to come up with ideas. One technique people frequently use is to take two nouns and stick them together. ScreenPhone? TreeTower? ChimneyTent? Could these be viable business ideas?
  • If you're having difficulties coming up with an idea, take a break. Go for a walk, watch television or browse the internet. The great thing about this stage of starting a business is everything you do could provide you with inspiration - so you're constantly working.
  • While creativity and optimism are great at this stage, make sure you know your limits. If you trained as an accountant, developing an interest in arborology is good but you won't be able to run a business as a tree surgeon after you've read one book about it. Take into account your experience and qualifications - and if you're really enthusiastic about your idea, get some training.
  • Come up with a goal for yourself and work backwards from that. What do you want to achieve with your business? Do you want to make money, or spend more time with your children? What businesses will help you achieve that goal fastest?

50 places to find inspiration

  1. Social media - people are forever complaining about life's problems on Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, YouTube...
  2. Read magazines
  3. Read newspapers
  4. Improve on other people's ideas
  5. Go for a long drive
  6. Read catalogues - Lakeland, Ikea, Matalan and Argos all have the potential to be deeply inspiring
  7. Go to the supermarket and browse the shelves
  8. Read ideas blogs such as Springwise
  9. Listen to Radio 4 - it always has programmes about unusual businesses or pursuits
  10. Go to the toilet!
  11. Speak to children
  12. Get your pens and paper out and draw a mind map
  13. Have a conversation with a stranger
  14. Go on an unusual journey or use a bus or train you wouldn't usually use
  15. Visit a museum
  16. Read the user comments on a blog post or online newspaper article
  17. Switch off your computer and just think
  18. Go to a demonstration
  19. Visit your local library
  20. The British Library Business & IP Centre contains hundreds of case studies
  21. Watch television
  22. Get lost in Google - read blogs and look at pictures and follow long, random link paths
  23. Get lost on Flickr
  24. Read comic books
  25. Read or watch sci-fi - did you know the inventor of the phone card was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey?
  26. Visit another city on Google's Street View - do they have anything we don't?
  27. Trigger memories by reading old letters and emails
  28. Create a discussion group on internet forums
  29. Attend networking events
  30. Open a dictionary or thesaurus at a random page
  31. Visit tourist attractions in your own city
  32. Go to a trade show or exhibition
  33. Go to a seminar
  34. Take an evening course
  35. Set limits - try to come up with an idea which doesn't use artificial products, create a carbon footprint or use orange dye. You'll be surprised how creative it makes you
  36. Go to a flea market
  37. Go to a car boot sale
  38. Contact old friends and family you've lost touch with
  39. Combine weird ingredients - chilli chocolate may have seemed strange two years ago, but it's popular now
  40. Go through old photographs
  41. Watch a play
  42. Visit a university's website or even take a walk around its campus. What are the students there talking about?
  43. Learn a new skill
  44. Do some volunteer work - what would make a charity worker's life easier?
  45. Wander around a city at night (safely, of course!)
  46. Go on holiday
  47. Collect something
  48. Perform a random search on Wikipedia
  49. Make a list of things you use every day and think about how you could improve on them
  50. See what the kids are saying at urban dictionary

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