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What Startup To Build? December 25, 2011

Posted by Ian Cheng in Funding.
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STEVE POLAND

If you’re asking which startup to build, not whether to build, you probably have several half-baked ideas and don’t know which one to devote yourself to. Or you have no idea at all.

Max Levchin and Peter Thiel would tell you innovation is dead and that you should go work on real, world-changing, notable problems. They say too many young companies are solving small problems and creating features. TechCrunch writer Rip Empson would ask you to not build a copycat app. Paul Graham of Y Combinator would tell you to check out instead his list of 30 startup ideas he’s looking to fund.

Or programmer Chris Moyer would tell you, “If you are asking what startup to build, then maybe you are too focused on doing a startup. Find something you are so passionate about, that this isn’t a question. Then make that. Worry about the startup bit later.”

It’s easy to get trapped and excited by the startup world we read about through the looking-glass of TechCrunch. Too many entrepreneurs focus their time on building things they think are cool or could be the next startup homerun. Stop building to get covered by TechCrunch or get an investment by Fred Wilson.

What are your problems? That’s what you should be working on. Businesses are solutions to problems. Solutions come from ideas. Ideas are hypotheses. These hypotheses need to come from a defined problem. Humans have problems.

There are an infinite amount of ideas out there. I have a list of 100+ web startup ideas that you can poach from, but who knows what problems they solve. There are millions of opportunities to change and disrupt this world. However, most of those opportunities are very small and might only change the world for you or a few (which isn’t a bad thing). Instead of brainstorming ideas, start by brainstorming problems.

Problems are found in the processes that humans go through everyday. Start keeping notes of everything you do each day and things you observe others doing, at work and at home. Question the processes involved and write a few words explaining each step in the process.

Jack Dorsey of Square questioned the retail purchase process and is now making it simpler and more pleasing for consumers. Dorsey asked why there were so many steps in the process of purchasing something: Why do I have to go into my wallet, pull out a credit card, swipe a credit card, wait awkwardly while a machine checks my authorization, wait for a receipt to print, wait to be handed the receipt from the cashier, sign the receipt, hand over the receipt, be given a hard copy of my receipt, put my credit card back into my wallet, all the while having a big uninviting machine in-between myself and the cashier?

To start observing, start reading status updates by your friends on Facebook and Twitter to see what they are doing and talking about, but don’t fixate entirely on their complaints. There are many processes we all go through everyday that we accept without question, but could be simpler and more user-friendly. Just like that clunky retail purchase process that we all hadn’t questioned until a minute ago.

Help fellow entrepreneurs know your problem. Try this: add one human process you go through either at home or at work to this Quora thread: “What processes do humans experience and what steps are involved in each?” Let’s talk about what problems need to be solved so that one of you can launch a startup to solve them.

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