Finding and Choosing a Startup Idea

Having built a business ourselves (and helped thousands of others in the Escape community to do the same) we know all too well that there are common blockers that, given half a chance, can stop you in your tracks.

These blockers aren’t what you would imagine – they’re not getting investment, having more time, or mastering certain skills.

They’re beliefs about what you think you need. When, in reality, the way forward is a lot simpler and a lot less daunting. One that we find keeping people stuck for years is an inability to come up with a “great idea”, and to choose a good one if you have a bunch of them.

There’s an article on this topic by Paul Graham (founder of Y-Combinator) that we come back to again and again. We can’t say it better myself – so today I’m going to share the highlights from Paul.

Read the full article here or continue reading for our summary.

  1. Start with a problem

Instead of starting with an idea, start with a problem. Preferably a problem you have yourself. That way you know the problem really exists – and if you’ve felt it, it’s likely someone else has too.

By far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has because they spend time thinking up ideas rather than honing in on problems. That m.o. is doubly dangerous: it doesn’t merely yield few good ideas; it yields bad ideas that sound plausible enough to fool you into working on them.

  1. Depth over breadth

When a startup launches, there needs to be at least some users who really (really) need what they’re making. Not just people who could see themselves using it one day, but people who want it urgently.

Usually, this initial group of users is small, for the simple reason that if there was something that large numbers of people urgently needed, it would probably already exist. The trick is to build something a small number of people want a large amount. Ask yourself: who wants this right now? Who wants this so much that they’ll use it even when it’s a crappy version 1.0 made by someone they’ve never heard of? If you can’t answer that, the idea is probably bad.

  1. Tap into what you know

Being at the leading edge of a field doesn’t mean you have to be one of the people pushing it forward. You can also be at the leading edge as a user. It was not so much because he was a programmer that Facebook seemed a good idea to Mark Zuckerberg as because he used computers so much.

What do you use or experience often which could be done differently?

  1. Challenge the status quo

The way to notice startup ideas is to look for things that seem to be missing. Most things that are missing will take some time to see.

You can be sure people are going to build things in the next few years that will make you think “What did I do before x?” And when these problems get solved, they will probably seem flamingly obvious in retrospect. What you need to do is turn off the filters that usually prevent you from seeing them. Take the time to question the status quo.

Why is your inbox overflowing? Why do you get so much email? What problems are people trying to solve by sending you email? Are there better ways to solve them?

It may be best not to make too much of a direct attack on the problem—i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas. Just keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing. Have a second self-watching over your shoulder, taking note of gaps and anomalies.

  1. Learn by doing

You can’t learn to have ideas by getting an MBA. You learn to have ideas by exposing yourself to new areas of work. If you know a lot about design and you start learning about some other field, you’ll probably see problems that design could solve.

In fact, you’re doubly likely to find good problems in another area: (a) people working in that area are not as likely to have already solved their problems with design, and (b) since you come into the new area totally ignorant, you don’t even know what the status quo is to take it for granted.

If you want to find startup ideas, work or volunteer in an unrelated field. Or just build things. They don’t have to become startups but you’ll learn more by playing around with small projects, either alone or with similar entrepreneurially-minded people.

  1. Don’t be put off by competition

A good idea usually seem obvious once you have it. Which means you’re likely to feel that you’re late. That’s good – it’s the sign of a good idea. Ten minutes of searching the web will usually settle the question of whether you’re actually too late. Even if you find someone else working on the same thing, you’re probably not too late. It’s exceptionally rare for startups to be killed by competitors—so rare that you can almost discount the possibility.

You don’t need to worry about entering a “crowded market” so long as you have a thesis about what everyone else in it is overlooking. Your thesis has to be more precise than “we’re going to make an x that doesn’t suck”, though. You have to be able to phrase it in terms of something your competitors are overlooking.

A crowded market is actually a good sign, because it means both that there’s demand and that none of the existing solutions are good enough.

  1. Don’t be afraid of the tough task

Most people wish they could start a business by just creating a beautiful product and nice website, and have users pay them lots of money. They’d prefer not to deal with tedious problems or get involved in messy ways with the real world. Which is a reasonable preference, because such things slow you down. But this preference is so widespread that the space of convenient startup ideas has been stripped pretty clean. If you let your mind wander a few blocks down the street to the messy, tedious ideas, you’ll find valuable ones just sitting there waiting to be implemented.

Stripe is an example of a startup that benefited from not shying away from a tough job. Thousands of programmers knew how painful it was to process payments before Stripe. Stripe pursued the challenge, and may have ended up experiencing overall less pain – due to the pretty smooth sailing they had in areas like user acquisition. They didn’t have to try very hard to make themselves heard, because people were desperately waiting for what they were building.

And besides, starting a successful startup is going to be fairly laborious no matter what. So if there’s some idea you think would be cool but you’re kept away from by fear of the difficulties involved, don’t worry: any sufficiently good idea will have just as many.

So what if you have too many ideas…?

If you’re an ‘ideas person’, that’s great. But it can create a pretty problematic kind of paralysis: ‘I’ve got too many ideas and I don’t where to start.’

The problem with this as an excuse for inaction is:

  1. It assumes our ideas are actually worth something before we do anything with them. Sorry, but they’re not. As Derek Sivers says: ‘Ideas are just a multiplier of execution.’ None of them are worth anything until you act on them.
  2. It often masks a different problem and is just another form of procrastination. It could be masking fears around failure, imposter syndrome, or the opinions of others. Just acknowledging this is a good starting point to actually start doing.

We’ve heard the ‘too many ideas’ problem all too often over the last few years working with people who are trying to get things off the ground – and it was one of our biggest challenges in the beginning.

To tackle this, a good place to start is to think about dating an idea. No commitment (yet). The other ideas are still out there, ready for us to date next if this one doesn’t work out. It’s not ‘this or nothing’.

So how do we decide which idea to date first?


Don’t ask your Mum (or other close family member or friend) which of your ideas they think is the best. They will lie to you. Not deliberately, but they honestly don’t know (unless they’re an industry expert for your target audience) and they will tell you what they think is right for you: ‘It’s wonderful, you have to do it’ or ‘Its terrible, don’t do it’ — neither is helpful. They don’t know. Ask someone else.


Of all your ideas and the key assumptions you have for each of them which one would be the easiest, cheapest and fastest to test? Should I bake gluten-free cakes (assumption: people will buy gluten-free cakes) or start a school for social enterprise (assumption: people will pay for social enterprise education)?

Answer: bake the cakes. Then you’ll know whether people will buy them and whether this is something you really want to do more of, or keep as a hobby and move on.


Cross check all your ideas with your ‘good idea criteria’.

Your good idea criteria are your top 3 drivers in life that should be considered whenever you make a decision about a project, career direction or startup.

For example, they might be:

The idea has to be able to generate £x income within y number of months.
The idea must allow me to be able to work remotely/flexibly all of the time.
The idea must match my core values.
For each idea, check: does it look likely, in practice, to give me three big ticks against my criteria? If not, dispose the idea and move on.


Get really practical. What do you currently have available to you?

  • How much time each week do you have to work on your idea?
  • How much money, if any, do you have to invest?
  • How much knowledge do you have about the industry (does that matter)?
  • How many potential target customers and early adopters could you easily reach through your network and communities you’re part of?

Cross-check all your ideas against these resources. You will be much better equipped to test some ideas over others. Start where you are.


Search all the keyword trends for each of your ideas on google and twitter. The one with the steepest upward trajectory wins.


Which idea do you get distracted by the most? If you’re not thinking about your idea on the loo, in the shower, on your commute, in the middle of the night…then it’s probably not worth pursuing.

Once you’ve picked the first idea you want to run with, be sure to check out our online startup school where we help share the best practice of what we’ve learned over the past 8 years into a simple 10 step model.

Happy Escaping!

If you’re serious about becoming your own boss and building something for yourself, check out our Startup Accelerator programme where you can launch your first version in just 10-weeks, all around a full-time job.

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