By some accounts, over 30 percent of adult Americans have unrealized dreams of starting their own companies. What’s holding these wannabe entrepreneurs back? Among other things, many of them just can’t find compelling ideas. Here are a few tips for discovering ideas that will get you off the fence and into the action:

1. Consider yourself. Before you look outward for ideas, look inward to determine what kinds of startups are a fit for you. Got limited access to capital? Look for ideas that are bootstrap friendly. Have credible experience in a particular industry? Find ideas in that field, and you’ll have a better chance of executing well, networking your way to industry contacts and customers, and convincing partners, employees, and investors that you’ve got the right stuff. Got skills in a functional area like sales or web design? Look for business concepts where those skills are critical, and you’ll be able to accomplish more with less help from outside. And whenever possible, look for ideas that are in-line with your long-term passions.

2. Solve a real problem. Some founders come up with ideas, and then try to figure out if customers want them. That’s extremely risky. Instead, find a problem customers are already paying to solve.

3. Copy something that works. If you are raising venture capital, or think you’ll only make money by selling your venture, ignore this. Otherwise, find an idea that’s already working, and copy it. Scour the Inc. Magazine 500 list. Keep your eyes peeled for businesses doing well in other markets. Let someone else go through the hassles, costs and uncertainty of proving whether customers are willing to pay for your product. Differentiate yourself with better service, or a better quality product.

4. Look right under your (employer’s) nose. Some of the best ideas come from employees who see something their clients want, but their bosses don’t want to pursue. Maybe the market is too small for their employers, or isn’t a strategic fit. A wily founder can feast on crumbs big companies leave behind.

5. Get started. Plan “A” rarely works, but it’s tough to spot Plan “B” from the sidelines. To solve the problem, get a simple product to market quickly. If you get a product in front of paying customers, watch and listen carefully, Plan “B” will often reach up and tap you on the shoulder.


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