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GENERATING STARTUP IDEAS 
For the MIT Entrepreneurship Education Forum 
Dec 3, 2014 
Giff Constable 
www.neo.com 
@giffco
2 
About Me 
CEO of Neo (global innovation consulting firm) 
6 startups, founder of 2, multiple exits 
Author of Talking to Humans
“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think 
of startup ideas.” 
− Paul Graham, Y Combinator 
3
4 
What about when you need to come up with an 
idea?
What is a good startup idea? 
• It is rooted in a real human need 
• You can see how it can become an impressive 
business (even if no one else can) 
• You are passionate about it 
• You have some sort of advantage in solving it 
• Is a mission, a north star, not a set of features 
5
The paradox of startup ideas is that they are 
simultaneously worthless and invaluable 
6
Don’t be a slave to the idea 
7
8 
What is a bad process?
“Find a wave and get in front of it” 
9
What the VCs are chasing 
10
11 
What is a good process?
First, know thyself 
• A personal problem? 
• A particular customer? 
• A particular industry? 
• A particular business model? 
• A particular funding or exit profile? 
• A lifestyle or a go-big-go-home business? 
12
Second, go looking at an intersection 
Domain Insight 
Change Unmet Needs 
13
Bring a cross-functional mindset 
Domain Insight 
Change Unmet Needs 
14 
BUSINESS 
ENGINEERING DESIGN
Apply a classic VC filter: why you? 
Problems you 
want to solve* 
Problems you 
can solve 
Problems you 
have an 
advantage in 
solving 
Problems you can 
build a business 
by solving 
* I mean “willing to dedicate the next 5-10 years of your life solving” 15
16 
Let’s work via an example
My constraint, for this talk, will be a personal 
challenge I have observed and feel close to. 
I’m friends with working moms, and married to 
one. 
Can I make their lives better? 
17
Instead of brainstorming in a room, I need to 
gather domain insight. 
Sometimes you can observe customers, but in this 
case I need to talk to people. 
18
19 
By talking to 15 working moms, I learn: 
1. they are exhausted all the time 
2. they feel guilty about not doing more for their children and their 
work 
3. they feel like they have no time to do anything well 
4. they are both proud of themselves and jealous of the stay-at-home 
moms 
5. they compare themselves against stay-at-home moms, who can 
go to ballet practice and cook dinner 
6. they struggle to find time for their relationship with their partner
20 
The bottom two insights feel actionable: 
1. they are exhausted all the time 
2. they feel guilty about not doing more for their children and their 
work 
3. they feel like they have no time to do anything well 
4. they are both proud of themselves and jealous of the stay-at-home 
moms 
5. they compare themselves against stay-at-home moms, who can 
go to ballet practice and cook dinner 
6. they struggle to find time for their relationship with their partner
21 
Instead of jumping to solutions, immerse yourself 
deeper in the problem
22 
By talking to 10 working moms on having no time to cook: 
• No one can cook dinner because neither they nor their spouse 
can’t get home early enough 
• Half of them don’t even like to cook 
• Attempted solutions are fragmented: some get frozen dinners, 
some get fresh packaged meals, some cook on the weekend in 
prep for the week, and a few are trying new ingredient delivery 
services that make it easy
23 
By talking to 10 working moms on having no time for partner: 
• They struggle to find time for their relationships with their 
partner, because date night has been so inconsistent that they 
can’t keep a steady babysitter 
• And they have struggled to find new babysitters that they trust, 
because they aren’t comfortable with strangers 
• And their friends hoard their babysitters so that they are 
available when needed 
• Current solutions are babysitter agencies (the cost is egregious) 
or hitting up friends whose kids are now older (inconsistent)
24 
How to choose?
Questions you can ask 
1. does it seem like a real problem? 
2. does the addressable market seem large? 
3. do current market incumbents feel vulnerable? 
4. do I possess an unfair advantage in addressing the 
problem? 
5. am I more passionate about one versus another? 
Note: these questions often require more research into the domain 25
In this case, we’re most passionate about solving 
the relationship challenges for working moms 
26 
(our North star)
27 
Now you can brainstorm solutions
Four exercises 
1. has something changed that is opening up new opportunities? 
(technology advance, government regulation, consumer 
behavior, market structure) 
2. if you had to do one of the current market solutions 100x 
cheaper, how would you? 
3. if you had to do one of the current market solutions 10x better, 
how would you? 
4. are there analogs in other industries, with similar 
characteristics, that you can learn from? 
Credit to Shane Snow’s Smartcuts for the bottom three 28
Suspend the inner naysayer and question the 
impossible 
29
Let’s examine a few changes that might lead to 
inspiration for our hard-working couples 
30
Teenagers are now so over-scheduled that they 
don’t have time for babysitting 
31 
1
This is an information hoarding / information 
efficiency problem, and the Internet is solving 
many of these kinds of problems through 
crowdsourcing and the power of connected, 
motivated humans 
32 
2
This is a “trustworthy supply” problem, and the 
sharing economy is solving many supply problems 
with things like AirBnB and Lyft 
33 
3
This is a need-it-when-you-need-it problem, and 
mobile phones mean that participants now can 
communicate effectively in real-time 
34 
4
AIRBNB FOR BABYSITTING! 
Stay-at-home moms can earn extra cash by babysitting their friend’s 
kids in the evening, allowing for those never-happen date nights. 
35
Brilliant? Dumb? 
The idea is really a question, and that’s where 
lean startup comes in. 
36
37 
In summary
1. Know your constraints 
2. Look at the intersection of domain insight, change 
and unmet needs 
3. Get into the market and learn 
4. Filter for passion and unfair advantages, because it 
will be a long road 
38
An entrepreneur is “someone who solves 
problems, making the world the way it ought to 
be.” 
− Sean Ammirati (Entrepreneur & VC) 
39
For more on qualitative research, read Talking to Humans 
THANK YOU 
Giff Constable 
giff@neo.com 
giffconstable.com 
@giffco
APPENDIX 
41
On Domain Insight 
• what is the structure of the market? (vendors, 
customers, distributors, indirect competitors, business 
models) 
• how big is the addressable market? 
• how has the market been evolving? 
• what new pressures are the different players feeling? 
42
On Unmet Needs / Customer Insight 
• Observe customer behavior (get out of the building) 
– focus on their goals (jobs to be done) 
– what are they struggling with? 
– how are they solving things today? 
– study the fringes: power users, extreme users 
– don’t speculate on solutions with the customer 
– study analogs in different sectors with similar customer 
dynamics 
43
On Change 
• technological / scientific 
• societal 
• governmental 
• industry structure 
• customer behavior 
44
What is a bad startup idea? 
• What VCs are chasing 
• Something that is a feature, not a business 
• Something that is only an incremental improvement over 
market incumbents 
• Something you don’t care enough about to commit years to 
• Something you have no special insight into how to tackle 
• Something you don’t have, and can’t get, the resources to 
bring to market 
45

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Generating startup ideas

  • 1. GENERATING STARTUP IDEAS For the MIT Entrepreneurship Education Forum Dec 3, 2014 Giff Constable www.neo.com @giffco
  • 2. 2 About Me CEO of Neo (global innovation consulting firm) 6 startups, founder of 2, multiple exits Author of Talking to Humans
  • 3. “The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas.” − Paul Graham, Y Combinator 3
  • 4. 4 What about when you need to come up with an idea?
  • 5. What is a good startup idea? • It is rooted in a real human need • You can see how it can become an impressive business (even if no one else can) • You are passionate about it • You have some sort of advantage in solving it • Is a mission, a north star, not a set of features 5
  • 6. The paradox of startup ideas is that they are simultaneously worthless and invaluable 6
  • 7. Don’t be a slave to the idea 7
  • 8. 8 What is a bad process?
  • 9. “Find a wave and get in front of it” 9
  • 10. What the VCs are chasing 10
  • 11. 11 What is a good process?
  • 12. First, know thyself • A personal problem? • A particular customer? • A particular industry? • A particular business model? • A particular funding or exit profile? • A lifestyle or a go-big-go-home business? 12
  • 13. Second, go looking at an intersection Domain Insight Change Unmet Needs 13
  • 14. Bring a cross-functional mindset Domain Insight Change Unmet Needs 14 BUSINESS ENGINEERING DESIGN
  • 15. Apply a classic VC filter: why you? Problems you want to solve* Problems you can solve Problems you have an advantage in solving Problems you can build a business by solving * I mean “willing to dedicate the next 5-10 years of your life solving” 15
  • 16. 16 Let’s work via an example
  • 17. My constraint, for this talk, will be a personal challenge I have observed and feel close to. I’m friends with working moms, and married to one. Can I make their lives better? 17
  • 18. Instead of brainstorming in a room, I need to gather domain insight. Sometimes you can observe customers, but in this case I need to talk to people. 18
  • 19. 19 By talking to 15 working moms, I learn: 1. they are exhausted all the time 2. they feel guilty about not doing more for their children and their work 3. they feel like they have no time to do anything well 4. they are both proud of themselves and jealous of the stay-at-home moms 5. they compare themselves against stay-at-home moms, who can go to ballet practice and cook dinner 6. they struggle to find time for their relationship with their partner
  • 20. 20 The bottom two insights feel actionable: 1. they are exhausted all the time 2. they feel guilty about not doing more for their children and their work 3. they feel like they have no time to do anything well 4. they are both proud of themselves and jealous of the stay-at-home moms 5. they compare themselves against stay-at-home moms, who can go to ballet practice and cook dinner 6. they struggle to find time for their relationship with their partner
  • 21. 21 Instead of jumping to solutions, immerse yourself deeper in the problem
  • 22. 22 By talking to 10 working moms on having no time to cook: • No one can cook dinner because neither they nor their spouse can’t get home early enough • Half of them don’t even like to cook • Attempted solutions are fragmented: some get frozen dinners, some get fresh packaged meals, some cook on the weekend in prep for the week, and a few are trying new ingredient delivery services that make it easy
  • 23. 23 By talking to 10 working moms on having no time for partner: • They struggle to find time for their relationships with their partner, because date night has been so inconsistent that they can’t keep a steady babysitter • And they have struggled to find new babysitters that they trust, because they aren’t comfortable with strangers • And their friends hoard their babysitters so that they are available when needed • Current solutions are babysitter agencies (the cost is egregious) or hitting up friends whose kids are now older (inconsistent)
  • 24. 24 How to choose?
  • 25. Questions you can ask 1. does it seem like a real problem? 2. does the addressable market seem large? 3. do current market incumbents feel vulnerable? 4. do I possess an unfair advantage in addressing the problem? 5. am I more passionate about one versus another? Note: these questions often require more research into the domain 25
  • 26. In this case, we’re most passionate about solving the relationship challenges for working moms 26 (our North star)
  • 27. 27 Now you can brainstorm solutions
  • 28. Four exercises 1. has something changed that is opening up new opportunities? (technology advance, government regulation, consumer behavior, market structure) 2. if you had to do one of the current market solutions 100x cheaper, how would you? 3. if you had to do one of the current market solutions 10x better, how would you? 4. are there analogs in other industries, with similar characteristics, that you can learn from? Credit to Shane Snow’s Smartcuts for the bottom three 28
  • 29. Suspend the inner naysayer and question the impossible 29
  • 30. Let’s examine a few changes that might lead to inspiration for our hard-working couples 30
  • 31. Teenagers are now so over-scheduled that they don’t have time for babysitting 31 1
  • 32. This is an information hoarding / information efficiency problem, and the Internet is solving many of these kinds of problems through crowdsourcing and the power of connected, motivated humans 32 2
  • 33. This is a “trustworthy supply” problem, and the sharing economy is solving many supply problems with things like AirBnB and Lyft 33 3
  • 34. This is a need-it-when-you-need-it problem, and mobile phones mean that participants now can communicate effectively in real-time 34 4
  • 35. AIRBNB FOR BABYSITTING! Stay-at-home moms can earn extra cash by babysitting their friend’s kids in the evening, allowing for those never-happen date nights. 35
  • 36. Brilliant? Dumb? The idea is really a question, and that’s where lean startup comes in. 36
  • 38. 1. Know your constraints 2. Look at the intersection of domain insight, change and unmet needs 3. Get into the market and learn 4. Filter for passion and unfair advantages, because it will be a long road 38
  • 39. An entrepreneur is “someone who solves problems, making the world the way it ought to be.” − Sean Ammirati (Entrepreneur & VC) 39
  • 40. For more on qualitative research, read Talking to Humans THANK YOU Giff Constable giff@neo.com giffconstable.com @giffco
  • 42. On Domain Insight • what is the structure of the market? (vendors, customers, distributors, indirect competitors, business models) • how big is the addressable market? • how has the market been evolving? • what new pressures are the different players feeling? 42
  • 43. On Unmet Needs / Customer Insight • Observe customer behavior (get out of the building) – focus on their goals (jobs to be done) – what are they struggling with? – how are they solving things today? – study the fringes: power users, extreme users – don’t speculate on solutions with the customer – study analogs in different sectors with similar customer dynamics 43
  • 44. On Change • technological / scientific • societal • governmental • industry structure • customer behavior 44
  • 45. What is a bad startup idea? • What VCs are chasing • Something that is a feature, not a business • Something that is only an incremental improvement over market incumbents • Something you don’t care enough about to commit years to • Something you have no special insight into how to tackle • Something you don’t have, and can’t get, the resources to bring to market 45