Ask more questions to spark your next business idea

What is your intention? A question I was recently asked as I strolled down Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn's Williamsburg.

Billy Innovates, a US social innovation lab, had grabbed space on the pavement, laid out a large piece of paper and stopped people passing by, asking them to write their intention on a Post-it note and stick it on the pavement.  Sure, not everybody saw the fun in taking part but most people would stop to hear them out and give them their thoughts.

A glance at the many Post-its already dotted on the pavement showed a huge range of intentions from "to go to dinner" and "to get rich" to those more philosophical ones "to live life fully" and "to enjoy every moment".

The guys behind the experiment call themselves social innovation architects. When I spoke to them they explained that they were interested in finding out what makes people tick and they were hoping to find a problem to solve. They expected the answers to spark an idea for a product or a service.

A very basic form of crowd sourcing you may think, but one that inspired everybody taking part.

It's almost irrelevant what they end up doing with this information. The important bit is that they figured the best ideas come from the people you want to become your customers. So why not go straight to them?

The approach is similar to the one Richard Reed and his co-founders used when they were trying to decide whether to launch Innocent Drinks. They turned up at a festival with a van loaded with smoothies and a question they wanted answered: should we give up the day job to launch a healthy drinks company? Are we good enough? Would you buy from us? They asked people to put their empty bottle in one of two bins: one marked yes and one marked no.

As we now know, at the end of the day the yes bin was over spilling, the no bin was empty and Innocent Drinks was born.

Most start-ups are so scared that someone will steal their idea if they talk about them, but this was definitely not a concern for Innocent and sharing your idea is the best thing you can do. Besides, it is not your vision that matters most, but what the customers want.

Forget focus groups or other forms of traditional market research. There is a place for them but surely this is the best way of spotting - or starting - trends.

Billy Innovates were not just surveying in the hipsters' paradise that is Williamsburg, the next day they were heading to midtown Manhattan, and after that somewhere else.

Some Post-its triggered their curiosity and they pulled people aside to ask further questions, including "what do you do to achieve your intention?" and while some people had plenty to say generally the feedback was disappointing in that people did not seem to be living out their intention. Which completely validates the approach - find out what's stopping them and remove those barriers.

The message in all this is simple: talk to people. It is easy, effective, and best of all it's free. Plus you'll spend a day talking to interesting people, be hugely inspired and it'll be fun.

So go on, ask more questions.

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