What Kind of Idea List Do You Have?

A close friend and entrepreneur keeps an idea list. It’s a running lists of things he’s interested in building that could become his next company. Whenever he has a new idea, he adds it to the list. We went over a few of his ideas recently. As he explained what he wanted to build, I found myself repeatedly asking what problem he was trying to solve. Then we’d talk about whether what he envisioned building would solve the problem.

I kept an idea list for many years, as do many other founders. I thought it would lead to the new business that I wanted to create at some point. It never did, and I discontinued the list. After the exchange with my friend, I realized I’d approached things all wrong. My ideas were essentially solutions. If I thought the world needed an XYZ and people would pay for it, I added it to my list. But I had no idea what the world needed and what people were willing to pay for.

In hindsight, I realize that I should have been capturing problems that I thought people would pay to have solved (and that I was qualified to solve). Doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it is. By capturing solutions, I was trying to convince others to see the world my way. I should have been capturing problems—trying to understand people’s problems so I could build a solution that created value others were willing to pay for.

Many people take a solution approach to entrepreneurship, and it can be a mental trap. You can be in the vicinity of a huge entrepreneurial opportunity (i.e., problem) but give up because the solution you envision doesn’t resonate with people. Focusing on the problem is better—it’s more likely to lead you to a solution people are willing to pay for (i.e., a big business). Neither approach is easy and neither guarantees success, but looking for problems to solve increases your chances.