The Grand Unified Theory of Product Ideation

In short, effective methods to come up with product ideas can be categorized along two dimensions:

  • Organic ↔ Inorganic. While organic ideas are solutions to problems you noticed in your own life, inorganic ideas are related to other people’s problems. Formulated differently, organic ideas grow out of the founders’ own experiences, while inorganic ideas don’t.
  • Bottom-up ↔ Top-down. When you start only with a category in mind, you’re following a top-down approach, while if your ideation efforts start at some smaller scale you’re doing bottom-up ideation.

We’ll discuss these distinctions in much more tangible terms in a moment. But first, just one more high-level observation. With the two dimensions at hand, we’re left with four distinct categories:

  • Organic, Bottom-Up Ideation. (“Scratch your own itch”)
  • Organic, Top-Down Ideation. (“Live in the future, then build what’s missing”)
  • Inorganic, Bottom-Up Ideation. (“Idea extraction”)
  • Inorganic, Top-Up Ideation. (“Idea safaris”)

Different entrepreneurs swear by different ideation methods. But what they all have in common is that they focus on finding problems over ideas.

“Customers don’t pay for ideas; they pay for their problems to be solved.” - Nathan Barry

Focusing on ideas is dangerous because it often leads to clever products that no one wants.

My humble opinion is that you should try all ideation methods at least once. Doing this will equip you with a broad arsenal of ideas that you can later put through the metaphorical “meat grinder” (i.e. evaluate and validate).

In this essay I will not judge the different approaches (they’re all amazing!). My goal is merely to organize them within a common framework.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in. (I discuss the different ideation methods in the order recommended by Patrick McKenzie. However, feel free to approach them in any order you like.)

Organic, Bottom-Up Ideation

Organic, bottom-up ideation is all about solving problems that you currently have yourself or had in the past. It’s a great method because the best ideas are often things that you notice rather than things that you purposefully come up with during a brainstorming session.

While “scratching your own itch” might sound easy, it requires a lot of effort if you want to do it right. We all develop a certain blindness to our routines and daily processes. Hence, we need to actively turn the spotlight on and scrutinize all areas of our lives.

This includes your current job, your hobbies and all jobs you had in the past. For each of them ask yourself:

  • What frictions did you encounter?
  • What suboptimal processes did you notice?
  • Did you found yourself wondering: “Why doesn’t someone make x?”
  • What did you find frustrating? What made you think: “I shouldn’t have to x.”
  • What would you spend money on without thinking if it existed?

It makes a lot of sense to make it a habit to ask yourself this kind of questions regularly. With ideas, it’s like with radio frequency. You have to tune in to receive them and questions like the ones listed above will help you do that.

The biggest advantage of organic, bottom up ideation is that you’re an expert on your own problems and hence in an ideal position to navigate the corresponding idea maze.

However, the usefulness of organic, bottom-up ideation depends heavily on the kind of life you’re living. If you’re living an interesting life, full of intellectual adventures, you’ll have no problem spotting opportunities.

But if your life is more mundane, the ideas you’ll be able to come up with organically will be less promising.

For example, most college students will only be able to usual problems:

  • I don’t know what I should do next Friday.
  • It’s difficult to find a sexual partner.

Only if you’re doing things that others don’t, you’ll be able to see what everyone else is missing.

An obvious solution to the “boring life”-problem is to start living a more interesting life and being more curious. This is what organic, top-down ideation is all about.

Organic, Top-Down Ideation

A very poetic way to describe organic, top-down ideation was coined by Paul Graham: “Live in the future, then build what’s missing.” Formulated differently, if no promising ideas grow out of your own experiences, it’s time to become the kind of person who has more interesting product ideas.

This means that you purposefully pick a field (ideally one that will have a large impact in the future) and then immerse yourself in it. Hence, instead of starting with a specific problem you pick a new field and then try to get to the edge of it.

The most common way to do this is to get a job at a company in the space. Alternatively, you can, of course, also spend your free time dabbling in the field. For example, if you’re convinced that soon everyone will use IoT devices, you could start by building a smart mirror to get your feet wet and then move on to more ambitious projects.

If you pick a promising field, the organic, top-down approach will allow you to spot many new problems worth solving. Ideally, you pick a field that is on the verge of becoming the next big thing. After all, everything is easier when you’re riding a wave. Then the problems you want to be solved, a few years later, millions of other people will want to be solved.

“[S]ince the most successful startups generally ride some wave bigger than themselves, it could be a good trick to look for waves and ask how one could benefit from them. Looking for waves is essentially a way to simulate the organic method. If you’re at the leading edge of some rapidly changing field, you don’t have to look for waves; you are the wave.” - Paul Graham

An interesting method to find industries and professions you could start to immerse yourself in is Pamela Slim’s month-long ideation exercise. Each day you write down in a notebook how you respond to different things that occur in your life. After a while this will allow you to observe yourself like a scientist would observe an ant. Ideally, you’ll then be able to find patterns in the things that excite you. These are the things you should spend more time on.

A related useful method is to apply the principles of “curiosity overload” (h/t Daniel Priestley). Attend every event, listen to every sales pitch and subscribe to as much marketing material as you can find. If you bombard your brain this way, you’ll eventually notice interesting themes. As with Pamela Slim’s exercise, curiosity overload allows you to find out what kind of ideas get you excited. Moreover, it’s very likely that you stumble upon interesting inefficiencies and suboptimal processes. After all, if you fill your cup for a while it will eventually start pouring over.

Alternatively or supplementary, follow Paul Graham’s advice: “Look for smart people and hard problems. Smart people tend to clump together, and if you can find such a clump, it’s probably worthwhile to join it.”

The biggest downside of organic, top-down ideation is that it takes a lot of time. You can’t expect to get to the edge of a new field in just a few weeks. More realistically, we’re talking about years. This may only be viable if you’re young. Hence, inorganic ideation methods can be invaluable.

Inorganic, Bottom-Up Ideation

Rather than focusing on problems that you know from your own experiences, you can also focus on other people’s problems.

If you talk to people to find their specific pains, we call this inorganic, bottom-up ideation since we’re again starting with specific problems of a single person. It’s just that this person is no longer you. As with organic, bottom-up ideation, the goal is to discover the most painful problems (processes) that you can then put through the “meat grinder”.

However, while it is already difficult to become aware of suboptimal processes and problems in your own life, it’s even harder to do this for other people. Everyone becomes to some extent numb to the pain they experience in their daily lives.

In theory, you make a list of all the people you could talk to, reach out, and then just ask them questions like: “What’s tedious or annoying about your work?”

However, in practice it’s usually a lot more difficult than that. Proper idea extraction is a skill and an art. Whole books have been written about how to do it right. The main problem is that if you ask the wrong kind of questions, the answers you’re getting will either be not very helpful or even lead you astray.

For example, when someone tells you about a problem it’s essential to ask them: “What have you already tried to solve it?” If the answer is: “Nothing.” the problem is not painful enough. Your solution would merely be “nice to have”. A hallmark of good product ideas is that the problem is currently solved through awkward workarounds.

A cautionary tale that exemplifies how difficult it is to learn something by talking to people is what happened to anthropologist Margaret Mead. She lived with the villagers in Samoa, and tried to learn everything she could about the life of teenagers there by talking to them. Years later other scientists discovered that most of her findings were based on stories that were completely made up by her teenage subjects. The teenagers admitted that they had made up stories just for fun.

Hence, instead of talking to individual people it can make a lot of sense to observe what happens within a whole industry. In that case, we’re talking again about top-down ideation.

Inorganic, top-down ideation

The key idea is, as with, organic, top-down ideation, to start with a specific industry in mind. But instead of immersing yourself in it, you observe it from the outside like a scientist.

The first task is to find out where the people in your industry hang out (“watering holes”). This could be, for example, online forums, Slack channels, Subreddit, or Facebook groups. Once you’ve discovered these places, you go there and start observing what is happening. You’ll have to learn the jargon that is used by them and you’ll discover what kind of products and solutions are commonly recommended.

Moreover, you should pay special attention to phrases that express pain or frustration since these could be promising starting points for new products. This method is often called a “sales safari” (although I personally like the name “idea safari” a bit better).

After spending a few hours observing the processes and chatter in a given industry you’ll start to notice patterns which will then spark ideas for products. As with the ideas that you find through the other methods, the next step is to put them through the “meat grinder” and repeat the process until you find a winner.

Making it a habit

I’m convinced that far more important than ideation methods is a solid ideation system. A single ideation session will usually not be sufficient. It’s simply impossible to force yourself into having great ideas. Instead, to use Paul Graham’s phrasing, you need to become the kind of person who has amazing ideas.

“You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.” - Robert Pirsig

A solid ideation system consists of an ideation habit, an idea inbox (storage of all ideas), and a “meat grinder” (process consisting of evaluation and validation steps) that allows you to decide what ideas are worth excecuting on.

Ideation is a skill that requires regular practice. “Training your idea muscle” through regular workouts is a great metaphor.

Hence, if you’re serious about entrepreneurship I think it makes a lot of sense to develop a daily ideation habit. After all, coming up with and choosing the right kind of ideas is exactly the kind of $10.000 per hour work that entrepreneurs should spend their time on. (In the spirit of “dollarizing your time” or “setting an aspirational hourly rate”, almost everything else should be outsourced.)

However, while “Just write down 10 ideas each day” might sound simple, I personally always found it hard and was never able to do it consistently. It’s just too frustrating to stare at a blank piece of paper.

But once I was able to recognize that this is something I’m struggling with, I quickly came up with a solution. In the spirit of “scratching my own itch”, I’ve developed a little product idea prompt generator that I now use daily. The prompts are reminders to try different ideation methods regularly. Additionally, I’ve included immediately actionable prompts (“go to this Fiverr category, look at the gigs, what could you automate?”) and a few somewhat silly prompts (“What about Tumblr for tailors?” “What kind of product do we end up with if we mix Bitcoin with Snapchat?”) that usually only serve as useful warm-up exercises but occasionally also lead to interesting ideas.

Since I’m certainly not the only one struggling with his idea muscle workouts, I made it publicly available. Feel free to try it, it’s free. And please let me know if you have any kind of feedback.

Written on October 9, 2020
P.S. I'm now on Twitter too if you'd like to follow my adventures. Alternatively you can enter your email address below and I will send you occasionally a short email whenever I publish something new.