By Tim Russell
In my recent post about recommended books for entrepreneurs, I quoted the author of Becoming an Idea Machine, Claudia Azula, who says that “Ideas are the currency of the 21st century”. And whether you’re at the dreaming stage and haven’t even come up with any new business ideas yet, a business with a constant need for new product ideas, or a struggling business that needs a pivot or a fresh start, new business ideas are vital to your survival and success.
As you are all aware, businesses worldwide are currently undergoing huge upheaval and disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are thriving (online shopping, food delivery, pharma etc); others are struggling or dead already. Particularly in the tourism industry where I’ve spent most of my career. But of course, every crisis is also an opportunity. And as a coronavirus vaccine nears reality and we hopefully begin to move into the ‘new normal’, now is the time for business owners to get creative and think about how they can either get back on track, or take their existing success to a new level. Here are my 5 tips for coming up with some new business ideas.
Most of us only become aware of trends when they reach tipping point. By which time you can be sure that some visionary entrepreneur somewhere is already riding them to success. Literally, in the case of Uber. Which seems like such a breathtakingly simple and brilliant idea we’re all gnashing our teeth that we didn’t spot it!
If you’re to come up with new business ideas that change your sector and delight your potential clients, you need to get in on trends. Not at the tipping point stage, but just as they begin to germinate. And of course, that’s a lot more difficult.
Firstly, you can do this by reading obsessively about what’s happening in your market. Subscribe to industry newsletters. Use Google Alerts. Use a feed reader such as feed.ly to aggregate news content about a specific topic or keyword (see example from my feed.ly dashboard below). Read internet forums about your industry sector to find out what industry peers are predicting, or what actual clients are saying about the products they use and what their issues are. Network (when it’s possible again) to take the temperature of what’s happening in your industry. Look at what’s happening in other industries and see what trends are happening there that could be applied to your sector. For example the Uber model has subsequently been applied to other verticals including meeting space, private jets, apartments, cleaners and much more.
Another good place to spot trends and potential new business ideas is the appropriately named Google Trends. Which uses Google search data to show what’s trending. You can enter a topic or keyword, choose a time period, and choose a territory, and Google will show you how the search volume is changing. Here, for example, is a snippet showing searches for food delivery in the UK over the last 12 months. You’ll see a HUGE spike when the country first went into lockdown:
We can also add additional search terms to provide a comparison:
You can apply this methodology to your own industry to see where you should be focusing your attention and to come up with possible new business ideas. Here’s a good example:
If I was a UK travel agent, a year ago I’d have been more interested in pushing Thailand holidays than short breaks in Wales. But as the virus took hold and international travel became an impossibility, and domestic travel was the only viable vacation option, I’d probably be focusing on domestic trips now and coming up with some good product ideas for trips in the UK.
So keep those trend antennae twitching and keep your ear to the ground (if it’s physically possible to do both at once!) and you’ll soon spot some potential new business ideas before anyone else does.
Be Your Client
I touched above on reading internet forums and reviews to see what potential clients for your product or service are thinking. But you can go one step further than that, and that is to ‘become’ your client. In a previous blog I mentioned the concept of buyer personas. A semi-fictitious version of your target client based on existing client data and a few assumptions. And this is also a valuable exercise when it comes to generating new ideas.
Let’s say for example you sell IT & marketing solutions to the restaurant industry. Your primary target buyer persona might look something like this:
Owns a small Lebanese restaurant in a suburb of Melbourne
Most of her business is walk-in, little delivery
Current challenge is no walk-in customers due to COVID lockdown
So put yourself in Sara’s shoes. What would you be looking for at the moment to help keep your business afloat? You’ve not done much food delivery in the past. So you’d probably be looking for advice on how to run an efficient delivery service. How to connect to Uber Eats & other delivery apps, and how to tweak your existing POS and other solutions to handle remote payments. Or you may want to get more creative and do cooking classes via YouTube or Zoom. Or perhaps to use the time to revamp your menu, your food photography, and your marketing collateral. So as her vendor, there are several good ideas there already. Consulting, technology, training, photography/video, graphic design and more.
Doing this exercise and spending an hour or so in your client’s shoes helps you see problems and potential solutions from their point of view. This gives you a valuable insight into what their future needs will be and helps you to come up with new business ideas.
“To have one good idea you need to have lots of ideas” (Linus Pauling). In other words, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. If you’ve seen Aaron Sorkin’s film about Facebook, The Social Network, you’ll know the idea went through various versions until it became the global behemoth it is today. Including a somewhat non-PC concept called Facemash, which allowed students to rate their peers on a kind of hot-or-not basis. Certainly anyone looking at Facemash and its creators back then would’ve been hard pushed to see them becoming billionaires on the back of a future iteration of the idea.
But the point is, before you have any great new business ideas, you will inevitably have a whole lot of bad ones. That means you need to do a LOT of idea creation. Claudia Azula suggests coming up with a minimum of ten new ideas every day. That means 70 ideas per week, or around 300 per month. And surely at least ONE of those has to have something, right?
These ideas can come from the various methods in this blog. As well as brainstorming sessions, either alone or with colleagues, friends & family, focus groups, even your kids! Children often come up with solutions that would never occur to adults. Do it in the pub over a few beers and let your imaginations run riot. Remembering that at this stage there is no such thing as a bad idea. You can move onto evaluation once you have a big pool of ideas you think might have some potential. The whole point is to identify 2-3 new business ideas that definitely have potential.
Do Something Different
Henry Ford’s “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always had” is one of the most famous business – and life – maxims of all time. It’s rather like the famous definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If your business needs a boost, a pivot, some new ideas, then you need to apply this approach. By doing a few simple things differently, you start to change your mindset and see things you didn’t see before.
These could be changes in your daily routine. Such as getting up earlier, taking a different route to work, sitting at a different desk, having lunch in a new place, going to the gym at a different time, going to a different bar after work. It could be shadowing someone at a business in another industry to see how they do things. Perhaps trying a new marketing channel, such as TikTok. Or it could be learning some new skills or doing some courses. Basically, anything that gets you out of your rut and gives you some new inspiration and motivation.
Look at Apple for example. In one of the best ever examples of how a company transformed itself by doing something different. They suddenly launched a phone in 2007 having never made one before… and the rest is history!
The Old Ways
Or the ‘build a better mousetrap’ approach. Sometimes, the old ways are simply impossible to improve upon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be inspired by them to come up with new ideas for our business. And sometimes that ‘new idea’ may simply mean doing things the old-school way for a change.
This year for example the travel trade shows I usually attend have gone virtual. With online meetings replacing booths and networking events. How exciting and cutting edge we all thought. Only to try and log in on day one of the first event I attended to find the server had crashed and no one could attend any of their meetings. And it’s been the same at a couple of other virtual events I’ve tried to attend. Even when the system worked, it was basically yet another Zoom call. And I think we’ve all had enough of those for one year! So now we’re all desperate to go back to the old trade show format. As there really is no substitute for human contact.
So look at your industry and see if any old ways that people liked have been replaced and if it’s worth trying to refine them and bring them back. Thai airline Nok Air did this very successfully a few years ago. When other travel businesses were going fully online & credit card only, they decided to allow people to book online but pay over the counter in cash at their local 7-11. They realized that, as they fly to lots of obscure provincial destinations, a lot of their customers are rural dwellers who don’t generally have bank accounts. And insisting on credit card payment would lose them a lot of business. So they reverted to the old ways and their profits, and customer loyalty soared as a result.
The lesson is, the new is all very well and exciting, but not everyone likes it. By reintroducing the old, you could win some old customers back.
Sum It Up
Once you’ve tried one or all of these five tips, you’ll hopefully end up with a nice big list of new business ideas. Then it’s a case of narrowing it down to those that appear most likely, or realistic, or just not plain crazy, before getting a shortlist and then applying the following questions to each:
- Is it practical?
- Can I or my team execute it?
- Is it easy for our team and our customers to understand?
- What are the challenges in executing it?
- How much will it cost, and can we afford it?
- Will it solve our customers’ problems or meet their needs?
- Has anyone else already done it?
- Am I committed to it?
If you can get the right answer to all or most of those questions, then you may well be onto a winner.
I hope this article has given you some inspiration as you look to either start your business or give it some fresh impetus. Remember, ideas can come from anywhere, even in a dream at 3am. So always be alert for inspiration when it hits, and keep a notebook handy. You may just have the next Uber, Facebook or Google hidden away in some dark recess of your brain, just waiting to be discovered!