Coming up with an idea for a student business

If you haven't already had your million-dollar idea, coming up with a business - particularly a low-cost business that can be run in parallel with your course - can be challenging. While you should avoid being over-ambitious - at the moment, getting your degree is the most important thing - have fun coming up with your business idea. In many ways, this is the best bit! 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 for 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're on a vocational course and 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.
  • 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.
  • Collaborate with friends. It's often said the friends you make during university will stay with you for the rest of your life - so use them! 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 taking inspiration from 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 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? Probably not our ticket to wealth and prosperity - but you get the idea.
  • If you're having difficulties coming up with an idea, take a break. Go for a walk or watch television. 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're training 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 on the side, or start a business which you can develop once you graduate? What businesses will help you achieve that goal fastest?

Places to find inspiration

  • Social media - people are forever complaining about life's problems on Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, YouTube...
  • News - see what new developments are being talked about
  • Improve on other people's ideas
  • Read catalogues - Lakeland, Ikea, Matalan and Argos all have the potential to be deeply inspiring
  • Go to the supermarket and browse the shelves
  • Read ideas blogs such as Springwise
  • Listen to Radio 4 - it always has programmes about unusual businesses or pursuits
  • Speak to children
  • Get your pens and paper out and draw a mind map
  • Have a conversation with a stranger
  • Go on an unusual journey or use a bus or train you wouldn't usually use
  • Visit a museum
  • Read the user comments on a blog post or online newspaper article
  • Switch off your computer and just think
  • Go to a demonstration
  • Visit your local library
  • The British Library Business & IP Centre contains hundreds of case studies
  • Get lost in Google - read blogs and look at pictures and follow long, random link paths
  • Get lost on Flickr or FFFound
  • Read comic books
  • 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?
  • Visit another city on Street View - do they have anything we don't?
  • Create a discussion group on an internet forum
  • Attend networking events
  • Open a dictionary or thesaurus at a random page
  • Visit tourist attractions in your own city
  • Go to a trade show or exhibition
  • Go to a seminar
  • Take an evening course
  • 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
  • Go to a flea market
  • Go to a car boot sale
  • Combine weird ingredients - chilli chocolate may have seemed strange two years ago, but it's popular now
  • Go through old photographs
  • Watch a play
  • Walk around your campus. What are people talking about?
  • Learn a new skill
  • Do some volunteer work - what would make a charity worker's life easier?
  • Wander around a city at night (safely, of course!)
  • Go on holiday
  • Collect something
  • Perform a random search on Wikipedia
  • Make a list of things you use every day and think about how you could improve on them

Resources

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