Finding the "Right" IdeaNovember 2009
It's hard to figure out whether your idea for a startup is the "right" one. If you're on the verge of starting a business, chances are you're starting with a few (or dozens of) viable ideas, and weeding the list down to one is a daunting task.
Of course, I don't have a magic formula for figuring out the answer, but there a few things I've observed that I think one can do to help increase the odds for success:
I think the best idea is one where you can answer honestly that you'll use the product yourself (and if you'll charge for your product, that you'd pay for it). Don't answer this as a hypothetical "you" in an alternate universe — ask whether you would buy this product today to solve specific problems you currently have.
Similarly, if you're in a role where you're frequently asked to make product recommendations or buying decisions for other parties — ask yourself whether this is what you would select for your client.
This certainly isn't the only criteria to test whether or not an idea has a chance for success, but it leads to a well-established pattern: 37signals created Basecamp so they could manage their projects, FreshBooks was created so they could invoice their clients, MailChimp was created so they could send email campaigns for their clients, and I created Formstack because I had to build online forms for my clients.
Neil Patel's advice is to quit asking people what they think and just start implementing. He's right — most people won't really know whether your idea will work or not. And those close to you are apt to try to make you feel good by saying your idea is the best thing they've ever heard, even if it sucks.
However, I still think you can get a lot of value by talking to people you know that fit your target market to get a sense for whether or not the problem you're trying to solve actually exists. Focus your discussion on the problem you're solving, rather than your idea itself. Most people will open up truthfully about how painful a particular problem is for them, and you might get a sense for why existing companies aren't already solving that problem.
Ask Your Market
Finally, before you spend time and money building out your idea, test it out to see whether a market for your product really exists, and gauge how hard it will be to generate leads and sales. Launch a fake AdWords campaign, as Eric Ries describes here — something that you can do quickly for less than $50. Unless you're launching rockets, it's probably going to be much harder to get enough customers to spend money on your product than it will be for someone to actually build it.
[Updated references to Formstack to prevent confusion about the name change]