When you’re stuck, mix everything up. With everything in disarray your priorities and interests come to life.
For the past several weeks I’ve been in a washing machine of experiences. I’m walking away from probably the best possible career position I ever held in my life. I’m building a consulting practice from absolute zero. I plan to build a new product company to help refugees, yet I’ve never worked with refugees. It’s all pretty wild.
And yet for some reason I feel entirely zen about the whole thing. I’m sitting right in the middle of the washing machine and loving it.
There are a few ways to go about deciding what kind of new business to start. One way — which I’ve tried on more than one occasion — is to survey your chosen industry for a gap in solutions and be the first to provide a solution that integrates nicely within the marketplace.
You build something that an MBA student would submit for a guaranteed A+ on their Entrepreneurship homework assignment. You build it because it ticks off all the right boxes for investors, customers, acquirers, etc. You build it because, logically, it’s the thing to build.
And unfortunately in the process you create for yourself a job that you come to loathe. Because you’re not really emotionally connected to your idea.
Another way — the way that worked for me in 2010 and is working for me today — is to build something great that changes the world.
What I mean by ‘build something great’ is that it needs to be something great — and meaningful — to you. You have to be authentically connected to the solution.
Starting and running a company is never easy. It won’t ever be easy. You need the passion your idea brings to get you through the hard parts. You need to believe that you’re lucky enough to be the one to do this new thing. You need your company and your idea to be something that drags you out of bed on the down days.
I’ve thought about what my next startup would be every day since I left my first one. I’ve had so many ideas — most of which were complete with market research, fancy pitch decks, elaborate financial spreadsheets, awesome stock graphics, WordPress websites and email addresses…
For each idea I drew upon all of my startup experience and my MBA background to carefully craft businesses that were sure-things. All of them were winners — on paper.
And while every business I put together probably was a sure-thing, I wasn’t emotionally connected to them. Any of them.
A few weeks ago in February 2016 I took a different approach to figuring out what I wanted to do next. Instead of trying to structure everything in an organized, neatly-unfolding process, I mixed up a bunch of things up in my life.
What I came away with is nothing short of a billion dollar idea that can help a billion people live vastly improved lives. It’s technically challenging. It’s massively scalable. It’s mobile. It’s philanthropic. And most importantly — it’s something I could spend the rest of my life doing every single day.
I’m that guy who sat staring at my computer and my Moleskine books for two full years seeking enlightenment for the way ahead in my life. And so I know exactly what it feels like to be sitting there hoping to come across an article that helps you figure it out too.
And while I don’t like writing “listicles”, I wanted to break down what I did to get to my own personal big idea in hopes that it might help you get to yours too.
1. Change your surroundings.
I’ve taken off on trips alone before when I needed to make a difficult decision. One time I spent a week in a cabin up in North Georgia. When I came home, I made the decision to start my first startup company. Another time I rode a mountain bike across the state of Missouri on the Katy trail. That time I came home knowing I needed to leave that startup and move on.
This change in location always helps me put life in perspective. I always seem to meet really interesting people and have some unique experiences.
This time I took a trip to Barcelona, Spain to attend the Mobile World Congress. I knew that whatever I started it would involve mobile communications and definitely be a hardware/software combination. So I invested in a plane ticket and the conference fee with the goal of seeing things in my industry I had never seen before.
2. Stay out of your comfort zone.
Next, instead of booking a hotel I booked an AirBnB room. I stayed with some really awesome folks who went out of their way to make me feel at home. I did this because I wanted to be completely out of my comfort zone on this trip. It’s easy to go from trade show floor to your hotel room and never interact with anyone the entire time. I wanted to make sure I kept myself open and engaging the whole trip, and this definitely helped a lot.
3. Broaden your input.
I attended every conference session I could. I figured out pretty quickly which topics bored me to death (anything dealing with consumer tech), which made me feel uncomfortable (sensors in your underwear? really?), and which ones actually woke me up and got me thinking (digital inclusion). Interestingly enough, the topics that I gravitated towards were the ones that were least attended. While the Internet of Bras and Underwear (yes, both are real things) session had standing room only with hundreds of attendees, the sessions involving digital inclusion of the 4 billion humans without access to the Internet gathered maybe forty folks.
4. Talk your idea out
As an extrovert, it’s hard for me to think quietly about an idea. For me it’s far easier to talk through ideas with others. Luckily for me I was able to share some disconnected thoughts with a friend in Barcelona over a few dinners. He helped draw out of me the things that were important and tie some thoughts together. Without that external brainstorming I’m not sure the idea would have ever come into focus.
I’ve talked about my idea with dozens of people in various settings. The idea keeps changing, growing, sliding, shrinking, morphing. It’s fluid, and it always will be. But in this idea formation phase, you have so few boundaries that holding onto the idea can feel like trying to hold onto Jell-O.
5. Bring the idea into focus
For me this feels like when you just open your eyes and you’re trying to focus on several dots. They look like giant blurs at first, but over time, they start to come into focus and become defined, crisp, and clear. This process can take quite a while. In fact, it’s been 5 weeks since I had my initial idea and I’m still letting the whole image come into focus.
But the most important part of this process is that moment when you realize you’ve really started to hit on something that moves you. As you think through the idea, try to imagine your idea being used by your customer. What does that moment look like? Is there an emotional connection? Does your idea completely move your customer? Does it change their life?
For me I imagined a seven-year-old Syrian refugee girl using my product and watching her face light up in a smile — perhaps the first one in months — because of what my product could do for her and her family. I hold on to that image in my mind as the driving force in my idea.
In the end, there’s no one way to find your next big idea. But interestingly enough this is exactly how it’s worked for me twice now, and both times I’ve come away with an absolute sense of conviction that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing.
So call it success bias, but it works for me. Let me know if it works for you.