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How Do I Come Up With a Winning Business Idea?

Adapted from content excerpted from the American Express® OPEN Small Business Network


Developing large or small business ideas is a matter of creating a vision, leveraging your strengths and determining what the market needs. These three steps should get you started.

Create a vision

Close your eyes for a few minutes and conjure up a detailed image of what you want your life to look like in 5 years. Be as specific as possible.

  • Where do you live?
  • How do you spend your days?
  • What kind of work do you do?
  • Do you work alone or with other people?
  • Who are you surrounded by?
  • What do you do when you aren't working?

Don't limit yourself to these questions; create a vivid vision of yourself, touching on things that are important to you. These are all personal issues that will impact the type of business you pursue - being a city or country person; wanting to travel or sit at your computer; liking to meet people or work on the phone. This activity will help you create a foundation for choosing from small business ideas, making business decisions, and setting clear goals.

It is best to do this exercise with someone else and share your vision. If you can't, write it down to make your vision more concrete.

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Determine what you're good at and what you like to do

It's often useful to look inside yourself to figure out what you like and dislike, and where your talents lie. It's one thing to come up with a winning business idea. It's another to come up with one that fits your skill set and interests you. Your business has to keep you excited so you can thrive over the long haul.

One of the best ways to do this is to make three separate lists:

List 1: What you're good at
Everyone is good at something and many skills can be the foundation for a business. You might be naturally organized or have a knack for fixing things. You may be so used to your skills that they don't immediately come to mind, so assemble this list by observing yourself for a few weeks with an eye out for your aptitudes and by asking people who know you well for their impressions of what you excel at.

List 2: Skills you've acquired over the years
Whether or not you've worked in a conventional environment, you no doubt have accumulated many. Write down all the work responsibilities you've had; think about the varied tasks you know how to complete. Make sure this list is complete -- there should be at least 10 distinct items.

List 3: Things you like to do
List the things you enjoy doing. This may not be as easy as it sounds. This list should be at least 10 items long. Stretch beyond your hobbies and interests that spring to mind immediately. If you're stymied, ask people who have known you for a long time -- particularly people who knew you as a kid -- what they have seen you doing when you're happiest.

Keep these three lists in an accessible place (for instance on your desk) for several weeks, and when small business ideas come to you, jot them down in the proper category. Ask people who know you well for their input or to help you jog your memory.

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Figure out what the market needs

So far, you've been looking inward to come up with your business idea. Now its time to look outward to discover an unfilled need that you can meet with your product or service.

There are plenty of "Top 10" or "Hot New" business lists out there. These may stimulate some ideas, but the best business ideas will come from you and will be based on who you are and what the market is looking for. So while you're doing your soul searching and list making, put up your antenna and look out for business opportunities.

The attached worksheet is designed to help you come up with ideas. Don't be afraid to be outlandish and don't be discouraged if your first few ideas are flawed. Put them aside and keep working.

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