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How to find start-up ideas

Chris Dixon had an interesting post a while ago about how to find start-up ideas. The advice boiled down to keeping a spreadsheet of ideas and talking to lots of smart people (entrepreneurs, potential customers, VCs, people at big companies). It’s good advice. Paul Graham also wrote in 2008 about startup ideas he’d like to fund.

Here’s another way to come up with startup ideas: walk around your house or apartment, and look for “hot spots.” A hotspot can be an area of high information density, clutter, stress, disorganization, or any place that has a suboptimal solution. Then think about a web or cloud solution to that hot spot. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Music CDs -> iTunes, Amazon MP3 store, doubleTwist, MP3tunes, etc.
Bookshelf -> Amazon, Kindle, iBooks
Stereo system -> Sonos, Squeezebox, Rhapsody, Pandora, last.fm, Spotify, Grooveshark, MOG, Rdio, etc.
External hard drives -> Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3), Pogoplug

Okay, those all seem simple or obvious, right? Let’s go a little deeper. What would you do with this pile of business cards?

pile of business cards

Pile of business cards -> CloudContacts

Here are a few more that come to mind:
Bank statements -> Mint
Photo Albums -> ScanCafe
Bathroom scale -> Withings
Pedometer -> Fitbit
Phone -> Google Voice, Twilio, Ribbit, Rebtel
Camera -> EyeFi
Stack of video games -> Steam, OnLive
DVD player -> Roku, Netflix Instant movies
Treadmill or Elliptical machine -> Nike+ shoe sensor, LoseIt! iPhone app, CardioTrainer app for Android, Fitbit
Pen -> Livescribe

All of these take a hotspot in your home and inject a cloud or web element to make life easier, more efficient or better. So what happens when you look at a pile of manuals, or receipts? Your alarm clock? Those “Learning Japanese” CDs? A stack of take-out menus? A stack of cookbooks? A hard drive full of MP3s that are disorganized? A hard drive that doesn’t have a back-up copy? An out-of-date programming book? A box full of videotapes? All those back issues of magazines? A blank wall, with no posters or other decoration? Stuff in your garage that you’ve been meaning to sell or give away? Your wallet?

Ideas are sitting all around where you live. If you have a small snag, irritation, or hotspot in your life, probably a lot of other people do too. You can make it easier to organize something (can you convert something physical to digital and store it in the cloud?). You can sell niche versions of a product (e.g. Threadless for T-shirts), you can let people make something that they couldn’t make before (CafePress for T-shirts, LuLu for books), you can pool people with similar interests (a blog like Craftzine, or a forum for book lovers or body builders), you can review products in a particular space, you can teach someone to do something. You can become a well-known expert in something and then sell your time or expertise as a consultant. You can make a free version of something useful or fun, then sell more features or consult on more involved cases. You can do meta versions of lots of these, e.g. Etsy is a marketplace for people who like to buy and sell custom crafted objects.

I’ll stop with a story. I have a friend at Google who is really good at noticing things that annoy him. While walking from his car to his desk in the morning, he can easily find six things that irritate him because they should be improved. I’m not recommending that you make yourself more irritable, but I am saying that if you notice all the times you run across something that can be improved, those are opportunities. And I think one of the easy methods of spotting start-up ideas is looking around where you live and how you spend your time. Find the hotspots in your own life and you might identify some great products or services to build.