3 Reliable Techniques for Generating Ideas

Many people want to be more creative, especially in the context of generating business ideas. It's popular to believe that creativity is an innate skill, but after reading books like Thinkertoys and Cracking Creativity, I'm convinced that's not true. Here are three simple techniques that make it surprisingly easy to come up with new ideas.

Technique #1 – Mashups

Some of the most notable startups of the last few years, like Pinterest, Snapchat, Uber, and Airbnb, are each built around a core theme, like visual inspiration, ephemerality, on-demand availability, or peer-to-peer sharing of physical goods. What if you mashed these themes up with other verticals? For example, Airbnb for cars, parking, lawn mowers, trucks and vans, gym memberships, or steam vacuums. Or Uber for babysitters, home contractors, pets, food delivery (see: SpoonRocket), legal advice, or jackets.

Some of the mashups may not make sense at first, and that's okay. Many ideas become interesting if you give them time. What would "Uber for jackets" be? Maybe it's for cold evenings where people who are underdressed would pay $10 for a jacket they can use for the rest of the night. Or maybe it's for men who show up in shirts to formal restaurants — a different kind of underdressed — and would pay to rent a formal jacket so that they are allowed in. (Figuring out logistics for these businesses is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Technique #2 – Change One Thing (and repeat)

Speaking of restaurants, have you noticed just how many types there are? Ethiopian restaurants, sushi buffets, espresso stands, noodle shops, you name it. If you look closely you might find that restaurants which seem wildly different are no so different after all. An Indian buffet is like Sizzler, except with Indian food. Sizzler is like Denny's, except it's all you can eat. Denny's is like McDonald's, except you have a waiter. McDonald's is like Taco Bell, except with burgers instead of Mexican food. Taco Bell is like being punched in the stomach, except… actually, it's just like being punched in the stomach. (Just kidding, Taco Bell is awesome.)

Note how easy it was to go from Indian buffets to Taco Bell by repeatedly changing a single core attribute of each restaurant. Had we continued the process, we might have arrived at the French Laundry (fancy food with once-in-a-lifetime service) or Mongolian BBQ (customers choose dish ingredients) or Dim Sum (food carts visit each table of diners). Changing a single attribute of an existing idea is a great way to generate a new idea, and the more times you repeat the process, the more original your final idea becomes.

Here are a few practical examples:


Let's start with "Uber for pets." Rent a pet instantly with a slick mobile app! Hm, that sounds dumb. What if instead of instant, the rentals were by appointment or on a regular schedule? The target market could be parents could occasionally rent pets for their kids to play with, without committing to owning a pet for years. Okay, that's a little better. What if instead of marketing this to the buyer, we marketed it to the seller? Perhaps pet owners want a break once in a while, and they'd pay to have a few hours of personal time. Now we have a potential product with a two-sided market where both sides are willing to pay. Time to start calling VCs!

Example #2

Let's start with Blockbuster Video, which offered DVD rentals from its brick and mortar locations (here's the Wikipedia link for anyone under the age of 25). What if there were no brick and mortar locations? You'd have the first version of Netflix (DVDs delivered by mail). What if you switched from DVDs to digital downloads? You'd have Netflix Streaming. What if instead of movie rentals you offered video game rentals? GameFly. What if you switched from digital goods to physical goods, like gadgets? Lumoid.

Example #3

Let's start with traditional cooking classes where people show up for a few hours and learn how to cook several different dishes. What if you let people learn to cook from the comfort of their home? You'd have SkillShare. What if you took care of grocery shopping along with the recipes that you taught? You'd have BlueApron. What if you removed cooking and just delivered hot meals? You'd have DoorDash. What if you focused on companies instead of individuals? You'd have ZeroCater or Chewse.

Technique #3 – The 5 Whys

It's easy to get so caught up trying to solve a problem that you forget about the bigger picture. The 5 Whys technique involves asking "why?" five times in order to better understand the real issue at hand. Once you've gone through the exercise, you'll have more options for addressing your original problem. Here's an example:

Premise: "I need to get a credit card with a better rewards program."

Why? "Because my credit card bill is very high."

Why? "Because I've been buying too many gadgets."

Why? "Because I need to stay up to date with technology to be good at my job as an investor."

Why? "Because I want to be an amazing investor."

Why? "Because I want to have the resources, connections, and experience to help startups succeed."

The original problem was how to get a credit card with better rewards. Now, the problem can be reframed in many ways:

  • How can I lower my credit card bill? (set a budget, shop at Walmart instead of Macy's, buy weights instead of a monthly gym membership, …)
  • How can I save money on gadgets? (rent or borrow when possible, look for online coupons, make use of price comparison websites, …)
  • How can I stay up to date with technology? (find good tech news sites, connect to more engineers and scientists, …)
  • How can I be become an amazing investor? (read books, talk to other investors, go to networking events, …)
  • How can I help startups succeed? (read books, hold office hours, share advice freely, start a blog, …)

This technique works well for business questions, too. Why do you want to add social sharing buttons to your product? Because you want to find more potential users. Why do you want new users? Because existing users aren't converting to paid very well. Why don't they convert to paid? Because they're not engaged with the product. Why aren't they engaged? Because onboarding is poor and many users abandon your app forever after trying it out for a few minutes. Why is onboarding poor? Because you've been too busy fighting deployment issues and haven't had time to improve the app. Now, while you can still add social sharing features, you might realize that your time is better spent improving onboarding or figuring out ways to make deployment less buggy.

These three techniques are very useful for coming up with product and feature ideas. For more creativity techniques, check out this site, or read a few books like ThinkertoysCracking CreativityinGenius, or A Whack on the Side of the Head.