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Look for problems, not ideas: Y Combinator founder Paul Graham

Wednesday, 21 November 2012 | By Michelle Hammond

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham has outlined key ways for entrepreneurs to get inspired, encouraging them to look for problems rather than attempt to think of start-up ideas.

 

In a blog post titled “How to get startup ideas”, Graham said the best way to get ideas is not to think of any. Instead, entrepreneurs should look for problems, preferably ones that affect them.

 

“The very best start-up ideas tend to have three things in common: they’re something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realize are worth doing,” Graham said.

 

“Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google and Facebook all began this way.”

 

Here are three of Graham’s top tips to source start-up ideas:

 

1. Problems

 

“Why is it so important to work on a problem you have? Among other things, it ensures the problem really exists,” Graham said.

 

“It sounds obvious to say you should only work on problems that exist. And yet by far the most common mistake start-ups make is to solve problems no one has.”

 

“In 1995 I started a company to put art galleries online. But galleries didn’t want to be online. It’s not how the art business works.”

 

“So why did I spend six months working on this stupid idea? Because I didn’t pay attention to users. I invented a model of the world that didn’t correspond to reality, and worked from that.”

 

“Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of start-up ideas.”

 

2. Noticing

 

“The way to notice start-up ideas is to look for things that seem to be missing… Most things that are missing will take some time to see. You almost have to trick yourself into seeing the ideas.”

 

“What you need to do is turn off the filters that usually prevent you from seeing them. The most powerful is simply taking the current state of the world for granted.”

 

“Pay particular attention to things that chafe you. The advantage of taking the status quo for granted is not just that it makes life more efficient, but also that it makes life more tolerable.”

 

“If you knew about all the things we’ll get in the next 50 years but don’t have yet, you’d find present day life pretty constraining.”

 

“When you find the right sort of problem, you should probably be able to describe it as obvious, at least to you… Coming up with start-up ideas is a question of seeing the obvious.”

 

3. Competition

 

“Because a good idea should seem obvious, when you have one you’ll tend to feel that you’re late. Don’t let that deter you. Worrying that you’re late is one of the signs of a good idea.”

 

“Ten minutes of searching the web will usually settle the question. Even if you find someone else working on the same thing, you’re probably not too late.”

 

“Unless you discover a competitor with the sort of lock-in that would prevent users from choosing you, don't discard the idea.”

 

“If you’re uncertain, ask users. The question of whether you’re too late is subsumed by the question of whether anyone urgently needs what you plan to make.”

 

“If you have something that no competitor does and that some subset of users urgently need, you have a beachhead. The question then is whether that beachhead is big enough.”