Ok, the title of this post is a joke. I know that new product idea generation is never easy.
Actually, I do not think that is quite true. Coming up with ideas is sometimes not all that hard – sometimes it seems like I come up with ideas faster than I can write them down, or even think about them. The real trick is coming up with good ideas, or being able to recognize the good ones form the piles of ideas in which they are buried. This, in my opinion, is the big challenge in developing a defined innovation process – how do you take this idea generation, selection, and development process more predictable and less serendipitous.
In the past, most of my efforts in this area have been within the context of an employer. This is important, because in general, this provides constraints on where you go with your ideas. For example, if you are working within a vertically targeted software company, your idea-generation efforts typically work within that vertical, and even more tightly, close to your niche area within that vertical (this is not always a good thing, it just seems to be true). If by chance you get the opportunity to take your efforts into a new vertical, you are still constrained. Typically, you will be trying to leverage what you are successful at in one vertical, and trying to replicate that success in another vertical. I am not claiming that any of this is easy, but it is not what I want to talk about in this post.
What I am thinking about right now is the challenge of starting from scratch. Here you are, on your own (alone or with a group), with no particular historical context, you have a wide-open, blue sky ahead of you. Well, where do you start? How do you decide where to begin? How do you narrow down the playing field, and how do you pick ideas to tackle (wouldn’t be nice to be able to try all of your ideas)?
To me it all starts with “what do you want to be”? What is your vision for the company you want to create? Do you want to follow the Micro ISV model, and start a company which will only be you (or at most a few of you)? Do you want to start a company which you envision will develop into a small software company, but bigger than an ISV? Or, do you want to go all the way and build the next 800 lb gorilla? Or do you have a completely different business model in mind (remember, innovation can be found in a business model as much as in a technology). This decision is vital to picking your ideas. Some ideas just will not work in some models – or at the very least will have great challenges. Unless you have a pretty good idea of where you are going, it is tough to identify an idea which will get you there. As one of my physics professors taught us “never start a problem until you have some idea what the answer looks like – otherwise you will not know when you get there”.
A second big piece of the puzzle is “what do you know how to do/what do you like to do”. Obviously, if you want to develop a useful (and hence successful) product, you need to either possess or develop a deep expertise in the relevant field. This is especially important if you are developing a vertically oriented product. Breaking into a new vertical is a huge challenge even for an established, successful company. As a start up, trying to develop a product while learning about the vertical is just making your task harder. So, if you can, it pays to attack a space you already know. That being said, you may have an idea which is so compelling that you want to attack a space you do not know well. In that case you will just need to acquire the expertise you are missing – learn it, buy it, whatever you have to do. The other side of this question is what do you like to do. No matter how good your idea is, taking it from idea to successful company is going to take an enormous amount of work. Your chances of success will be greatly improved if you are doing something for which you have a passion. Can you be successful doing something you hate? Yeah, sure. But, given the choice, why would you?
So, once you have figured out these simple questions, what next? Well, I will take that up in another post.