The first step in any startup must be coming up with an idea and this seems a big first hurdle.
A lot of people seem to come up with these ideas either to address problems they are experiencing or in eureka moments where the idea just hits them.
As entrepreneurs do you use any particular strategies, methods or applications to come up with business ideas?
Just start writing things down that annoy you. I get annoyed when... If you are in the software world, there's so many things that can be improved.
One thing I like to do is just go look at support forums for lots of products out there. You'll find tons of people saying things like "wish your product could do xyz". You are likely even to see a bunch of people voting those ideas up. This is a gold mine of stuff to think about. What if there was a single product that did this xyz for the user. Or what if I built something that made this other persons product better.
It's a bit risky to make someones product better with plugins etc, because that company could always implement them themselves. But look at 37signals. They celebrate all the cool stuff people build around their apps, and a lot of those things are the same things people were asking 37signals to build themselves a year previously. I like the example of Propane. I think that guy is doing pretty well selling this because it makes Campfire a little better.
Bottom line though. You're going to be so much more inspired and have an easier time getting whatever it is you want to get done if you are your own best customer. So do some soul searching to make sure this problem you find, is something you would really love to solve for yourself. Do a quick thought experiment. If someone solved this problem today, would I be pretty happy to pay for it?
brainstorming in the shower (which makes for wet, naked typing until I started dictating notes on my iphone - a mental image you do not need),
mindmapping - Ideas like to be played with. Start with a nub of an idea, and try seeing where it goes. I've switched to http://www.mindmeister.com/ for this.
look for problems that there are new technological solutions/platforms for and what used to be too small to reach markets. One example that got my money yesterday is PetSnap for the iPhone: http://www.spacelama.com/PetSnap What's so special about this photo taking app? It makes a pet-attention getting noise so you can get great shots! Brilliant.
Finding a magic formula that will generate that million dollar idea is very appealing to entrepreneurs... It saves a lot of work, since you don't need to keep your eyes and ears open, and you don't need to validate your ideas (since they must be worth a million dollars, as they were generated by the million dollar idea formula :) )
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. You need to work hard at looking for ideas, and then at shooting them down. When you cannot, you need to ask other people to play devils advocate... After you are happy with what you came up with, you need to work on it, and keep testing to see if your assumptions hold... You also need to raise money, which is another indicator if its a good idea (getting someone else to bet money on it).
Having said all that, there are some books worth reading in order to get inspiration. I would read about IDEO since it is an amazing company. Also look at TRIZ, which can be a good set of techniques for coming up with innovation.
There are lots of other techniques which I am collecting in a book I am writing, though I have no plans of publishing it any time soon, so don't wait for me, go ahead and start your business :)
i always get good ideas when I'm having a spicy burritos. I swear, something about the hot sauce makes my brain go into overdrive. Ideas pop every now and then. The biggest challenge is not to be afraid to go online and look for someone who thought about it before you. Once you realize you're alone - you have another hurdle to beat: the self doubt and fear that you're alone because your idea isn't worth anything.
With all that, we need to remember that there is a place for competition if you can do things better than someone else. Apple did not invent the cell phone, or the smart phone for that matter - but they conquered the market by storm with their iPhone. Salesforce.com did not invent CRM... and firefox was not the first browser...
All in all, i'd say the biggest challenge for beginner entrepreneurs is self doubt and fear. Overcoming that is a significant step forward. Too many let this kill off their dreams forever.
I have no problem dreaming up ideas for businesses. It's a temptation I have to deliberately resist, actually, because I think it interferes with the more important activity of finding opportunities for businesses, which involves searching the world around you, not just the combinatorial creativity of your own mind. So for me, the best thing to do is to move in circles where you meet other people who are also interested in starting new businesses or expanding current ones, and discussing problems and opportunities with them. The chances are good that alone, none of you have a great idea, but together with some chemistry, networking and collaborative complaining, an idea might emerge that actually does not suck, and as you beat it up more it still does not suck. My experience is that most everyone is really smart about something, so try to find people who are really much smarter than you in some area, and bring your own unique smarts to that, and groan and moan a lot.
Why do I mention groaning and moaning? I think it is because in my own experience, the initial idea that brings a group together is rarely the one that gets launched. Instead, it is the whipping-boy. It is interesting, but it draws attention from smart people who say that this isn't the way it should be done, that is the better way, and someone else modifies that more, and someone says, that 'll never work until you do this, and so the non-sucky idea slowly finds its expression.
The lone genius with the sudden flash of insight is actually, in my experience, not the one who produces the actual thing people do - they produce the soccer ball people kick around as they gel into a team. The team produces the really good idea.
Interesting question - I have just started another business knowing that eventually I will find an idea or two to develop into a product, but to put food on the table meanwhile, I envisage consulting for a while.
This turns out to be quite a good setup for generating product ideas - working with clients often shows you where there are gaps in the market which you can look to fill, or your clients may even offer to pay you to develop something they need, but that has more general appeal. Assuming you've worked out a good arrangement regarding the intellectual property up-front, this is a great, low risk way to get bootstrapped in a product business. Of course, there will always be tensions between their specific needs and the more general needs of a broader market, but these things can usually be worked around.
In the case of my first business, we used this approach (with a fair amount of hard work on top) to build a $1m+ a year business - at the outset, we had no clue what product we were going to build.
Every time I have any Idea no matter how bizarre, I make a note of it on my smart-phone (but a notepad thats always accessible would do). Then I can use these ideas as a basis for brainstorming.
Here's a great article written today by Ben Yoskovitz on this exact question
http://www.instigatorblog.com/7-key-points-for-brainstorming-startup-ideas/2010/01/07/ In summary, his strategies are: