Ideation: 3 strategies you can use to come up with great ideas

Have you ever wanted to start your own startup but don’t have an idea?

You are exactly where you are meant to be on this journey. The intention to come up with an idea to work on as a side hustle or build a start-up is the first step. Coming up with the ideas can take time, because there is a step before ideation we often overlook which is considering the problems you want to solve. Ideas are born from the creative solutions on how we might address a problem we passionately care about and want to spend time obsessively solving.

Airbnb is a classic example of this process, where in 2007 founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were broke in San Francisco, and faced the problem of ‘needing additional income’ quickly so they could make their rent. They came up with the idea to rent out air mattresses in their apartment to attendees of a conference because all other accommodations near the conference venue were booked out. What started as renting air mattresses to make their rent, is now at a $113 billion USD valuation.

If we dissect this journey on how Brian and Joe came up with the idea of Airbnb, it all started with a problem which was, not having the funds to make their rent. The creative solution/idea to solve this problem was renting out air mattresses at their place for the income to make their rent. The Airbnb we know today has evolved into more than renting air mattresses in apartments, which is a reminder that ideation is an evolving process where as you learn more about the problem you want to solve, your start-up and ideas will also iterate.

Here are 3 strategies that might help you come up with ideas


1. List all the problems you face, as big or small as they might be.

The best place to start is with yourself on pressing problems you face, because it means you understand the problem well through lived experience of it. Another great example of someone who took a problem she faced into a now unicorn idea, is Payal Kadakia, founder of ClassPass. While working at Bain & Co. as a consultant, Payal loved Indian dancing as a hobby outside work, and in the process of wanting to explore more types of dance classes like ballet, she struggled with the time it took to understand the most convenient time, location and cost, and also didn’t want to commit to a membership. Out of this problem, and a passionate desire to create a lifestyle that makes pursuing your passions outside work whether that’s dance or something easy to pursue, came ClassPass.

Any time you have a problem, even if it’s something as small as ‘I wish it was easier to find a ballet class around Docklands to try after work at 6:30pm’ – write it down, and reflect on how you might solve this in a creative way.

2. Listen to problems others face.

Equally, and if not more important, is hearing about the problems others face and listing them down on your notes in your phone or in a little black book. This is because others are more likely to be your users or customers for whatever it is you might create.

3. Look at existing products you love, and think about what you could do to make them better.

Sometimes we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and it is just doing something better or a little different to add value. An example of this is Google (founded in 1998), which was founded after Yahoo (founded in 1994). Both startups are search engines, yet have different markets with Google outperforming Yahoo. One of the key differences is Google’s user experience being simplistic with only the search bar versus Yahoo’s user experience with news headlines amongst the search engine toolbar. There are many other differences between Yahoo and Google, yet they both exist as search engines with two markets.

If you have a product or service, and can think of ways that it can address a problem better, write it all down and explore ideas around what value you might add through a different functionality. There is space for anything that solves a problem that still exists!

The ideation process is an ambiguous journey with lots of observing, listening and writing all the problems you see around you, with creative ideas that might help solve these problems. Amongst this list of ideas you come up with, there will be an a-ha moment, where an idea will spark excitement and energy for you to want to invest your time, resources and skills to start testing and validating the idea. Until that happens, have fun in this journey of finding the right idea and problem to work on and trust the process.