Ok, while ideas ARE overrated, they are still important. Let’s talk about the process of evaluating, and ultimately choosing, which startup idea to commit to. This will be a long one, so I will cut it up into 2-3 posts. Remember, the criteria I will be using here will be for startups, not necessarily for lifestyle or small businesses. For a small business, sometimes all it takes is a good franchise and a good location. It’s a little more complicated for a startup with big dreams.

Let’s start with some career advice cliche.

1.Go after a passion

It’s cliche for a reason: its extremely important. A lot of entrepreneurs get into the game motivated by money, and that is fine. But it is only a deeper passion for the craft that will make your product truly remarkable. It is also passion that will help you stay in the game when the lean times come.

I immediately gobbled up Isaacsons’s Steve Jobs biography the minute it came out. What you get immediately is that Jobs wasn’t in it for just the money. I remember the part of the book where engineers were puzzled at Jobs’ insistence on getting the colors and design right for parts deep inside the computer they were building – parts the consumer would never even see. The whole book – and the whole history of Apple – is really about Steve’s overwhelming passion for the product, passion you could feel when you use Apple products.

What product can you talk about all day? What topic can you read dozens and dozens of books on?

What doesn’t feel like work?

(quick add: if you have a partner or 3, then consider common passions)

2. Consider Tech

Year after year, I get to interview fresh graduates coming out of the Universities. One thing I love asking business majors is what happens in their school’s usual “business simulation activity.” I ask the interviewee to try to remember ALL the concepts generated. I get the same sad company concept list year after year (this year not an exception) – almost 100% of groups do a retail concept, where a “new” food type or a new bag or a new snack is generated. Worse, schools usually hold a tiangge or ask students to put up a stall in Greenhills, thereby virtually guaranteeing that only retail concepts are created. The last 15 years, how many of these retail concepts have actually become household names? One? None?

If you want to make it big in retail, you need gobbles of money. Its a huge risk. With inventory. Oh, and your competitors are named Procter and Gamble, Unilever, and Universal Robina.

Didn’t people get the memo? That the Google algorithm was done in a garage? Didn’t people watch The Social Network? Tech is the one area where the playing field has been leveled, where innovation has become a commodity. Before, creating a tech product meant spending millions buying huge expensive servers and software licenses. Now you can talk to your programmer buddy and essentially create one basically for free. It’s an arena where tiny Chikka in the Philippines can build the world’s first mobile instant messenger and make a difference. There is NO reason why the next great tech company can’t come from the Philippines.

Consider tech.

If you are passionate with something else, you can think about how you can use tech to augment your product towards our new Star Trek era. Passionate about T-shirts? Maybe you can do something like this. How about food? Maybe you can build a local Yelp.

So what are you waiting for? Run and get your tech partner! That’s what I did back in ’06.

(Oh, and if there any school administrators/teachers around there who can influence curriculum – why not combine people from different majors when you do your business simulation activity? Think of what can happen if the business guys team up with the computer guys and the design guys. It will be amazing AND will simulate real life in a much better way.)  

3. Solve a Domain Problem

I was lucky enough to get a press pass and witness the first night of Startup Weekend when it was held in Fort a few weeks back. Great event. There were dozens of ideas, usually revolving around trends such as  location technology, new social networks, and online event aggregators. My problem with these ideas is this: how many people around the world are working on these ideas? Hundreds? Thousands?

My other problem is this: a lot of these ideas are features, not products. If Facebook, which everyone uses, decides to make your company idea in to a feature, then say goodbye to your firm. This problem is now what Foursquare is now facing.

My suggestion is you go zig when everyone else is zagging.

One practical way to do this is to tackle domain problems. If everyone else is busy building another Facebook (good luck with that),  why don’t you talk to 10-year veterans of certain domains. Talk to a great doctor. Ask him about the problems in that industry. Talk to a supply chain director. Talk to a high school principal. Heck, you might be one of these people. These are the people who have the needed experience to define problems very well – and the intuition to craft great potential solutions.

Talk to them about the sticky problems they face. Can creating a particular service help? Can technology help?

I tell you, you will be amazed at how much opportunity is actually available. Before doubt sets in, let me tell you now, you can make a difference.

More to come.

PS: If you are a “business” guy like me, you can form a great team already by partnering with a tech guy and a domain guy. Can’t wait to tackle forming teams!

Part II here!

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