A lot of people want to start a startup — but they don’t know where to start. And where there’s plenty you can do to get the ball rolling, there’s actually one place that everyone has to start: The idea.
But, what are the best startup ideas? What are the worst?
Before we dive into that big question — one disclaimer:
This is not a plug-and-play list of startup business ideas that you can cherry pick from in order to create the next unicorn startup. (That doesn’t exist. If it did, everyone would actually be killing it, all the time.)
Instead, we’re going to talk about some general categories of startups that are more or less difficult to start, help you figure out how to pick your best startup idea, and talk to some founders about their experiences with different types of startups.
Think of it as a general guide to finding your perfect fit.
First things first: If you’re going to start a startup, make sure your startup idea is something you love.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time, money, and emotional energy on this thing, so it’s worth picking an idea that fits your passions. Obviously “do what you love” is a cliché at this point — and just because you love your startup idea, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to be successful.
But it’s a good place to start.
In addition to picking something you love, it’s a good idea to pick something you know.
What makes you unique? And we don’t mean in a “everyone-gets-a-trophy” kind of way. Rather, what’s the one thing that you’re an expert on? The thing you really know?
For David Haddad, CEO of Overlap and founder of the non-profit Open mHealth, that one thing was health data.
“Company after company was asking our little non-profit to help them do mobile health for research and clinical care,” David says. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. Surely someone else is doing this well?’ And when I looked around the table, I saw that no one really understood this new kind of data the way our little team did. So in true startup fashion, I created a new company called Overlap, which is built off of the open source work I did at Open mHealth to help health care organizations get the most out of mobile health, so they can improve patient engagement and make some more money to boot!”
Netflix wasn’t the first company to rent people movies — but they were the first to mail them DVDs and one of the first to offer paid streaming.
Now, because they chose a startup idea that found a cheaper, more convenient way to deliver a product that people were already paying for, founder Reed Hastings is worth an estimated $2.3 billion. Oh, and they put Blockbuster — that video rental behemoth of the ‘80s and ‘90s — totally out of business.
Another idea that does something similar? Food trucks.
Everybody needs to eat, which means there’s a lot of money to be made in the food service industry. Nevertheless, there’s never a shortage of restaurants, so startups need to find innovative ways to stay ahead of the tough competition.
“Food trucks are great because they avoid many of the downsides and dangers of opening a traditional restaurant,” Nate Masterson, Marketing Manager for Maple Holistics, says. “One of the biggest advantages of food trucks is their mobility and ability to cash in on big events such as concerts and sports games. Likewise, food trucks can easily take advantage of social media and technology by offering a location finder, membership programs, and online orders and payments.”
Say you’ve already landed on a thing you love and you start doing your market research. It quickly becomes clear that there are a lot of other companies already tackling your problem.
Sure, you might have the most innovation version of that idea — the one that’s going to beat out all the competitors, no problem — but it’s more likely that someone who’s already gotten started on it is going to beat you to market saturation.
Or, as was the case for Patrick Colbeck, current Communications and Experience Manger of ucreate, you might find that there’s just no more room in your market.
“In my mid-twenties, I launched a spice company,” Patrick says. “The concept revolved around importing Indian spices to the UK and educating people on how best to use them. It was a simple concept, but I soon discovered that the marketplace was saturated and growth was limited. This was not my moonshot idea.”
We here at Startups.co know how rewarding it can be to server startup founders. Our community of over 1 million founders manages to inspire and impress us multiple times per day. So it’s safe to say that we’re a little biased toward “startups that serve startups” being a good idea. And we’re not alone.
After multiple failed startups — including a failed social media site, keyboard and guitar players, and and online community for parents of newborns — Mike Sims, CEO and Founder of ThinkLions, finally found his sweet spot.
“When we decided to work with other tech entrepreneurs to avoid the issues we faced in launching our startups, we found major success,” Mike says. “With services from app business planning to app design and development, we’re now able to guide new app entrepreneurs from the funding stages, all the way up to post-launch marketing. After we launched this business, we immediately began building momentum and securing new clients. Our new idea probably wasn’t any better than our old ones, but our execution was much smoother! Usually, the difference between failure and success is the level of experience and know-how that can be used to avoid the obstacles.”
Any startup is going to have a lot of variables — that’s just the nature of launching a new business. But when you’re considering a startup idea, ask yourself if it has too many negative variables.
That’s what Linda Murray Bullard, Chief Business Strategist at LSMB Business Solutions, wishes she had done before launching a company that “wrote business plans for new startups at a percentage of what the plan would be able to garner them in their first business loan, grant, or any other funding type.”
“Why this was not a good idea: 1) Funding is not guaranteed, 2) The owner may not have creditworthiness, 3) Some people are dishonest or slow to pay,” Linda says. “It became quickly evident there are too many negative variables to control sustaining a business long term. It took having a mentor to walk me through the process to shake me from that business model. Yes, I have a giving heart, but in business I had to separate business from charity. Working hard and then not receiving payment was a very serious probability.”
Features are cool — but are they a complete startup in and of themselves?
Kyle White, CEO of VeryConnect Membership Software says, “Nope.”
“My worst startup ideas were when I was a kid, to add features on to already existing products,” Kyle says. “I didn’t at that time understand adding features was the easy part. Building a business and getting the product out there was the hard part.”
What is one thing that successful startup ideas all have in common? They solve a problem. That problem can obviously be one of many, many things, but the key is that it’s a problem common and irritating enough that people are willing to pay (in data or in money) for your solution.
“Before spending any time thinking of ideas, I began searching for what problems people experience,” Parker Eakin of Stack Innovations, Inc., says. “When you find a problem, one big enough that people would pay you to fix, you know you’ve found something in need of innovation. What I settled on is an IoT (Internet of Things) product that would help prevent people from losing or forgetting their personal belongings.”
“Too many first-time founders suffer from ‘first-and-only’-itis,” the Startups.co team wrote in a piece about idea validation. “They’re convinced that if they’re not the first person to ever think about a problem in the history of the world, then it’s not worth moving forward. But far from scaring you away from your idea, a few competitors should clue you in that you’re onto something. The existence of competition is a form of validation in and of itself. It’s proof positive that the problem you’ve honed on is, in fact, a problem – and that people are actively looking for ways to solve it.”
As Stuart Brent, founder of UserInputIO said in a Startups Live session, “Search volume for your solution can be good evidence that people know they have the problem.” So utilize the powerful — and free! — force of Google search to see if people are already looking for solutions to the problem you’re thinking of solving.
While it’s okay to do something that someone else is already doing — after all, there are very few “new” ideas left out there — be wary of being too generic when you’re picking a startup idea. Because too generic equals too boring equals why would anyone pay you for it?
“One of the worst business ideas I ever had was a generic screen printing business,” Parker Eakin says. “Nothing about this business was unique, so what would make customers buy from me over my competitors? The only way to survive with that type of ‘me too’ business is to undercut competitors pricing, leading to very slim margins.
“After dragging that company along for four years, a mentor told me that I had two choices: 1. I could keep working 80+ hours/week to barely make a living, or w. I could work the same amount on a better idea and build a company with $10, $50, even $100+ million in revenue. Needless to say, I sold my company and began validating new business ideas.”
This one is tough, because timing is one of those elusive things that can be really, really hard to gauge properly. But one founder, Ravi Ramkeesoon, CEO of FindMyFans.co, says that sometimes the difference between a terrible startup idea and a great startup idea is less about the idea itself, and more about the timing.
“An example of a bad timing venture is something that’s just too early or more likely too late in the customer adoption cycle,” Ravi says. “For example, if someone re-discovered the search engine today to be better than Google-it would cost too much money to unseat them and the search engine battle happened 20 years ago.”
And, in your quest for an awesome startup idea, don’t give up! For many startup founders — including many of the stories you’ve read here — it’s takes a few cycles of starting a company and failing before they get it right.
“I’ve had a million bad startup ideas,” Danielle Hannah, founder of Mantra Magnets, says. “I would say it takes about 100 bad ideas to think of one good startup idea.”
And that perfect startup idea? We’re sorry to say, but it doesn’t exist.
“Perfect ideas don’t exist because—until you put them into the real world—they’re just concepts,” Wil Schroter, Founder and CEO of Startups.co says. “In the real world your idea will get beat up a thousand times until it barely resembles whatever is in your head right now. We get caught up in the notion that if the idea in our head doesn’t check all the right boxes, then there must be a good reason to hold back. This leads us to the worst place—because actually getting started is what leads you to the right variation of your idea—not the mental exercise of just thinking about it.”
Finally, remember: When you’re searching for the best and worst startup ideas, ultimately it’s about what’s best and worst for you.
So keep up the hard work — and we’ll be here to help you, every step of the way.
Emma McGowan is a full time blogger and digital nomad has been writing about startups, living with startup people, and basically breathing startups for the past five years. Emma is a regular contributor to Bustle, Startups.co, KillerStartups, and MiKandi. Her byline can also be found on Mashable, The Daily Dot's The Kernel, Mic, The Bold Italic, as well as a number of startup blogs.
Follow her on Twitter @MissEmmaMcG.
Access 20,000+ Startup Experts, 650+ masterclass videos, 1,000+ in-depth guides, and all the software tools you need to launch and grow quickly.
Already a member? Sign in