How to Get Startup Ideas: The Meat Grinder Approach

There are a million books and blog posts on how to get startup and business ideas. Many people think the biggest road block to successful entrepreneurial life is having that one great idea. Once you get even a modicum of success, lots of people will start asking you about how you got an idea like that, and for any tips and tricks on how to “come up” with a similar idea.

The concept is extremely tantalizing and sounds so imminently teachable that it’s a favorite tool of lifestyle business spammers everywhere. 7 Step Guide to Profitable Business Ideas. Join My Webinar on Finding Your Dream Business Plan.

But this is entirely the wrong way to think about it.

First of all you should be coming up with at least five possible business ideas every day. This part should be basically effortless. People trying to sell this part are scamming you.

If you are going to be a successful entrepreneur at all you should innately be looking around you at your life and the lives of others, thinking what are their problems. What are their desires. What do they spend money on. Which of those things are broken or could be done massively better or cheaper or faster. You should be constantly thinking this way. It should annoy people who spend a lot of time around you.

If you’re not doing that, you’re probably not going to be an entrepreneur… sorry. It’s okay. There are lots of other great life paths but this one isn’t for you.

There is one common exception to the rule. You might be hung up on one idea, and that stops the process of thinking of new ideas. It’s cool, you just need to build yourself a better meat grinder.

The secret to coming up with a successful business idea is putting hundreds of ideas through the meat grinder.

The process goes like this. You see a problem. You quickly sketch the outline of what a business that solves that problem might look like. Then you put that business through a brutal meat grinder of questions. You’re actively trying to poke holes in the idea and stress test it. Beat it up. Be actively trying to discard it and move onto the next one. You need to refine the meat grinder, get really good and fast at obliterating ideas.

And then move on to the next one. If it fails even one part of the meat grinder, ditch it. The worst thing you can do is hold on to that one idea, which is actually fatally flawed, and talk about it with your friends for decades never actually getting to the one that you could have actually built and launched.

A note: the meat grinder is not useful if you are looking for genuine moonshot ideas. If you want to build the next Facebook or Tesla by all means ignore this list and chase your dreams. But just know that unless you are currently well-networked in Silicon Valley, the time of getting VC funding for “just and idea” is over.

If however you want to build a profitable, successful business that could replace your job, build a lifestyle, help a lot of people and potentially grow into a big sustainable and impactful business, use the meat grinder.

Here are some of the basic questions in my meat grinder for business ideas.

Can I make this?

Like literally can I make this. Me, just me. Or failing that, me and a friend with some skills that I know I can conscript for a weekend with guilt and promises of free beer. If the idea is a great one but requires building 3D-printed prototypes. And you don’t have the first clue how to do that. And you don’t know anyone who does. Move on.

If you start getting dozens of ideas that require building 3D-printed prototypes. Then do a deep dive and learn how. Or go to 3D printing Meetups about it and meet someone who knows how and wants to help. Then start over on those ideas.

This is one reason why I’m a huge fan of building a first version software-ish business without writing any code. Everybody has one great idea for an app but because most of them can’t code, they get stuck waiting around for a software developer to fall into their lap. If you can figure out a way to build a crappy version of your “app” without actually coding, you can get past this first hurdle. If it involves facial image recognition algorithms and you can’t even write HTML… Next!

Are people currently spending money on it?

If people are not currently spending money on the problem that your product solves. Ditch it. Otherwise it better be just unbelievably better than what they currently use. Companies currently using spreadsheets or free things? You better be at minimum 10x better to convince them to start spending money on a totally new thing they already solve for free. If you’re selling to businesses of more than one person, don’t underestimate the shear enormous friction of someone having to go to the boss and convince them to start spending money on something they currently don’t.

What’s that? Your customers are currently not even trying to solve this problem? It’s a problem they don’t even know they have? OMFG, Next!

How will I get the first 25 customers? Then the next 250?

Viral word of mouth or put it up in the Apple App Store are not valid answers here. If I can’t think of an easy way to find and get in front of the first 25 customers, the idea is toast. Good answer: I’m building an app for construction companies so I will go on Yelp, find 50 of them, call them and go to their office to pitch them the business. Bad Answer: I’ll launch my music app for tween girls in the App Store and tell my friends to tell their younger sisters. Then it will go viral!

Then I start to think about the next 250 customers. Is there at least one scalable way to reach large groups of potential customers. Do they hang out in places online or in physical places. If your product is for traveling vacuum salesmen… ditch it! How are you ever going to find them and literally get your idea in front of their eye balls?

By the way, these numbers are geared towards B2B businesses. If you want to sell direct to consumers, multiply them both by 10x.

If it works, will it be sustainable?

This is where I start thinking a bit about the end game. Let’s assume I can build the product and can get the first 25 and next 250 customers. At that point, would I have some kind of sustainable competitive advantage? Would I be profitable? What are the switching costs and/or can my business lock in customers for the long term?

Too often people have great business ideas that are a small variation on another company’s ideas. After all the sweat of building a product from scratch. And after all the hustle of building a customer base from nothing. You’ve just proven to their much larger competitor that there is a market for this feature. They launch the new feature in a week and squash you. Make sure that you won’t just be doing a larger company’s R&D work for them.

Am I the person to build this business?

Sometimes I think of great business ideas that pass all these basic tests, but I realize I’m just not the right person to build it. Maybe I think that I just don’t actually like the day to day process of what that business would entail. If you’re going to build an app for lawyers, make sure you don’t absolutely hate talking to lawyers, because you know you’re going to be doing a lot of that.

For example, I travel constantly. I’m always thinking of new travel gear ideas. Really substantial improvements on the things I carry in my backpack. But actually building an ecommerce business requires doing lots of “fulfillment” yourself in the beginning. That means sitting somewhere with your inventory piled up all around you, packing it up and shipping it out every day. Not exactly compatible with a minimalist traveling lifestyle. Ditched.

Just the beginning

This is not even close to comprehensive. Building on and refining your meat grinder is the path to finding a profitable business idea. Make it your mission to discard five business ideas per day for a week. If something comes out the other side, and you really just can’t get rid of it. Odds are you’ve got something worth your time. You already know that you can go out and build it, so build a first version and launch it. If it flops, figure out what you can learn from that to improve your meat grinder and get back to grinding.

Got an idea and want me to put it through the meat grinder?

Tweet it at me.