"A SaaS app for dog walkers? What about building another CRM app, but for auto shops? What could I build for caterers? Maybe I'll just build my own version of Basecamp, but with some new features. OK, maybe I'll go with that idea I had the other day while I was walking to the car...what was it? The website builder for restaurants?"
Sound familiar? You aren't alone. Many software entrepeneurs take this approach, hoping they can simply imagine or discover an unusually good business idea. I even saw a related question asked on Hacker News: Can we brainstorm a list of niche site ideas...
I call this train of thought "Idea Roulette". The wheel of ideas in your head spins and spin and spins. There's excitement in the air as people cheer, cocktails splash out of glasses and someone drops their phone out of pure excitement. The yelling intensifies as the wheel winds down to its next choice. "This is it! This will be the one!" you insist. After all, after a few misses you deserve a big paycheck. And this spin "just felt right".
Much like regular ol' roulette, in the back of your head you know it's a gamble and you never feel 100% confident that you know what you're doing. You spin the wheel even though you know very few will find success...most everyone walks away disappointed and with less money and energy than when they started. But it's exciting! It's enticing! Even a little bit comforting. And you have to spin the wheel to win, right?
If you're serious about bootstrapping, read on. There's a smarter way to go about this. Don't pour your heart in to another idea only to see it go untouched. Not every bootstrapping attempt needs to end in defeat. You don't have to find yourself adding another half-baked web app to your Dropbox in a few months. You can drastically improve your odds. And because you're a bootstrapper, you'll want to pay attention because every little thing counts. Since you're doing this all on your own you'll want every bit of help you can get.
The notion of "Having a great idea" will probably be one of the hardest things you'll have to change. Playing Idea Roulette is a habit even if you don't realize it. It feels good and feels like your making progress. But we know it doesn't actually lead to anywhere nice.
Here's the key step to take before you assemble the blueprints for a profitable business. You need to select the audience that you'll want to build a product for. And there's good reason for this: not only will the idea come together after research, you'll know that the next time you build something, it will actually provide value. No more gambling here!
Markets and industries are like people: finicky, very different, sometimes difficult and the attractive ones get the most attention, warranted or not. People operate and navigate life based on their personal values and what their goals are. Similarly, markets and industries have values: things that they want/need/desire to be successful and turn larger and larger profits. If you know what a niche market values, you'll know what you can build to provide more value and how valuable it is. Remember - the more valuable the product or service is to the market, the higher the price tag and more revenue for you.
Back to the people analogy. We likely don't know each other very well so I'm at a loss as to what personal values you have. The things that have worth, merit and importance to you...well, all I could do is guess. In order to learn what you find valuable, I would have to spend time with you. Ask questions. Dig a little deeper than surface area conversations and talking about the weather. After a while of learning about you and your world, and maybe going out for a few drinks, I could probably begin to put together what you find most important in life.
Now, before I continue, I have to warn you: this is where the hard work comes in to play. If you're afraid of working for your money and want to go back to spinning the wheel of Idea Roulette (it's easy! and free drinks!) then turn around. The following is not for you. If you're not afraid then keep reading.
What is this hard work? It is good old fashioned market research. Sounds like something they would lecture on during a marketing class in 1954? Probably...because it works. Audiences and industries are like people in that they have values. They have "things that make them feel good" and things that they consider to be of critical importance to their livelihood. You need to study them and ask questions and get feedback and then do it some more. You'll discover what's valuable and find out what you can create that will result in 50 paying customers your first month. It only goes up from there.
(There exists, in many different styles of explanation, a mostly-complete blog post in my head about what types of markets to avoid. I'll do my best and write that up soon, so stay tuned)
I can't tell you the best way to do market research because every business is different. Some industries, like home service (plumbers, HVAC, etc) may be better studied over phone calls, introductions from friends and even surveys. Other groups, such as web designers, are inherently found online in large quantities. Use that to your advantage - it's exponentially faster to do market research with Google and Evernote than spending all week trying to schedule in-person meetings and feeling like you're just wasting valuable time.
The final note I have about selecting your market is to be sure that you don't go too wide or too narrow. If you are too general with selecting a market, for example "Graphic Designers", you will buried with noise and unable to find common threads among the crowd. If you aim too narrow, the crowd won't be big enough to gather any useful data. Be prepared to adjust the binoculars as go -- you may discover a market existing where you didn't know one existed. Like teachers needing bingo cards.
Stop thinking ideas and start thinking about your target market. Study the audience and discover what they value. Once you do, you'll be able to build a business that you know will provide value. This is how you make sure you build something people want. Spinning the Idea Roulette wheel isn't how you win in this game. Building something valuable that speaks directly to 500,000 potential customers? That's a much better recipe for success.