When You Have No Business Idea

We’ve all been there before. It’s where I’ve been recently. When no matter what you do, you can’t come up with an idea with good product-market fit, or all the ones you’ve had were taken, it’s tough to stay motivated when you can’t come up with a solid business idea.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably feel alone. Well, good news — you’re not the only who’s ever felt this way. In fact, you’re in great company, as this is a common stumbling block for entrepreneurs. If you’re stuck on an idea that already exists, or have no idea, it’s likely you just need to change your approach.

Stop Looking For Novel Ideas

Coming up with novel ideas can be a fun, creative exercise, but rarely leads to products that sell. Your new idea for a social media startup might be cool, but good luck convincing enough people to use it to where you can even earn a dollar advertising.

It is extremely difficult to convince people to give you money, even for things they need to survive. Imagine how much more difficult it is to sell an item to someone who isn’t convinced they need it. The absolute worst-case scenario is spending a lot of time and money on a MVP, website, and ads, only to never find customers. Avoid this at all costs.

Even the iPhone, one of the most innovative products of the 21st century, had a precedent. It wasn’t the first smartphone. And even PDA’s had already been a thing for many years. Imagine trying to sell the iPhone to people living in the early 1500’s. Nobody would understand why they needed it. So instead of trying to be clever, pay attention to context. You want an idea that will sell today.

Start Looking For Problems

Many businesses fail because they fail to find enough customers. If you don’t want to join them, find a problem that people are already seeking a solution for. Why? Because if you can narrow down a problem like this, it means you’ve found a niche of people who will potentially pay for a product that addresses it. Good examples of problems like this are time-consuming administrative tasks, recurring annoyances, and anything that prevents businesses from making as much money as they could.

The closer you are to a niche, the easier it will be to identify solvable problems. Think about your daily routine at work, or your boss’s routine – are there any extremely tedious tasks that could reasonably be outsourced or automated? If so, then you’ve found a potential business opportunity. If the niche you work is too saturated (spoiler alert: it’s probably not), then ask a sibling or close friend.

Find Problems Worth Solving

Some common advice for finding problems is to “scratch your own itch,” but I find that somewhat vague. Though it expresses the basic point, it doesn’t define any criteria for which itches are actually worth scratching. It also keeps you in the habit of “looking for ideas,” which got you to this point. Continuing to think in this manner will keep you running in circles, while people around start profitable businesses.

Don’t believe me? I’ll let you convince yourself — take about 5-10 minutes right now to list out every business-solvable you regularly encounter at work, during projects, or in your daily life. Sure, you might come up with a decent list, but you won’t come up with a list of problems you actually care enough about to solve. If you did care about solving these problems, you would have already solved them by yourself, or paid someone else to. Trust your gut — if you wouldn’t spend money to fix these problems, nobody else will.

Instead, I think it’s smarter to wait until you get pissed off at something. For example, imagine you run a doctor’s office. You have to email invoices to your clients to make sure they pay you. Most people won’t pay immediately, and might forget, so after a certain period of time, you have to start sending reminders. If you only have 5 or so customers, then it might not be such a big deal to just send these out manually. However, any successful doctor’s office sees at least 1,000 patients per year, or more. Imagine having to hound hundreds of people to pay you, every month — it would drive most people mad. That’s a problem worth solving, and it’s why Intuit, the maker of QuickBooks, makes $6bn in revenue, every single year.

The next time you get extremely irritated, especially if it’s at work, or if the problem threatens your health or safety, write it down. Write down how you feel. Answer these questions:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how frustrated did this problem make you?
  • This problem triggered an emotional response from you. Which emotion was it, and why?
  • How would you solve this problem? Is the solution reproducible?
  • Does this problem happen over and over again?
  • How would you be feeling right now, if you hadn’t encountered this problem?
  • Is this problem costing you money?
  • Would you pay $29, every month, to never have to deal with this ever again? How about $99? $149? Maybe even $249?

Answering these questions will help you figure out exactly what it is you need. If it doesn’t, then at the very least, you’ll have a lot of useful information that can be used to narrow it down.

Carve Out A Niche

A group of people meeting a table.
When in doubt, niche down.

What do you do when your business idea is already taken? Panic? No! If your business idea is already taken, that is a clear sign that a niche exists that is willing to pay money to solve their problems. In a sense, your competitor has already done the hardest part for you by finding product-market fit. So, how can you make money in this niche, without being driven to compete on price? Achieve better product-market fit than the competitor. You can do this in two ways:

  • Create a better product for the same market. By “better,” I mean “is as close as possible to the customer’s ideal solution.” This can come down to competing based on features, which isn’t always practical, especially if your competitor is already well-known.
  • Create a product that targets only a subset of that market. This subset is a “niche,” and helps you position your product.

Especially if you are a solo founder and/or self-funded, finding a niche is best. In general, the more product-market fit, the better.

Validate Ideas Before Investing

But wait! I’m sure you’re excited to start, but it’s not wise to start a business based on gut feelings alone. Validate your idea to make sure people are actually willing to buy it. Even if your gut feeling is correct, in the process of validating the idea, you’ll learn more about the market, which will help you sell.


Two people exchanging a two-dollar bill.
Time to chase the bag.

Hopefully these suggestions have gotten your mind unblocked. Go find the problem that annoys you most, find a group of people who are also annoyed, and then sell them the solution. Take your new idea, and go become a millionaire. Leave a comment below, and let me know how excited you are.