The appeal of many entrepreneurial ideas is that they solve big problems. These are problems that affect a lot of people in some small way, or a small number of people in a big way. Aim high, right? That’s the conventional wisdom. It sounds good, but isn’t always a realistic way to get started. Information overload, for example, may be a persistent, pervasive problem, but it’s too big to address in a single shot.
Focus first on getting the idea engine running. Rather than swinging for the fences on your first at-bat, begin by scoping out smaller issues that may have slipped under the radar. The ultimate goal is to go from pain to pay. Here are some tips to help you do that:
Find small points of pain
Exercise: Take three index cards. On each write down a small pain point related in some way to journalism that you’ve expressed or heard about recently. Flip the card. Write down three possible elements of a solution.
Pain point example: The landscape of urban commerce changes so quickly that in high turnover areas it’s hard to remember what store or demolished building used to be where. This is a pain point in that commercial transience and the lack of an accessible record of such change disconnect residents from their neighborhood history. If journalism is the provision and organization of a community’s information, couldn’t it somehow remedy this pain point?
Illustration: Three elements of a solution
In thinking about elements of a solution, it occurs to me that there may well be information, images and other structured data that would address this pain point. Such material may exist on Flickr in the form of images of a nearby street that date back a decade or two. It might exist in city documents now being posted online for the first time. Or it might lie in other spots online or offline that I’m not yet aware of.
My second observation is that Yahoo Pipes is an under-appreciated tool with powerful functionality. The service enables people to filter multiple streams of information, like RSS feeds, in a wide range of interesting ways. I’ve used it to filter news, on occasion, but what if it — or some other new tool — were to filter other kinds of community information and images?
My third observation is that the complexity of creating “pipes” may stand in the way of actually putting them to use. I wonder whether new solutions might arise if I could create a simple combination of search terms and filters and package these pipes in a simple, elegant way to share with others.
Start by investigating existing solutions
In the case of any idea seed, the first follow-up step is to investigate existing solutions further. Someone may already have developed a solution to a related problem. If so, there may or may not be room for a portion of your idea. There were plenty of sources of political news before Politico launched. But its founders identified an approach that was fresh, and homed in on pain points among consumers of political news.
The existence of other solutions to a problem you’ve identified can be useful evidence that the problem is real. The key question is whether there are components of the problem that remain to be addressed, or if the solution you have in mind would fill an important gap. The simplest test: Would people pay for your solution?
Focus on little ideas first
Coming up with one big idea can be intimidating. Don’t do it. Gather lots of little idea seeds, one of which may eventually blossom, and capitalize on your strengths as a journalist. Ultimately, having a rich understanding of an array of pain points will help you match problems with solutions, and catalyze your entrepreneurial passion.