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Ask HN: It’s 2018, what to build now?
69 points by ryeguy_24 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments
Enough is enough. It’s now 2018 and I’ve spent months trying to come up with good side business/product ideas and have hit an analysis paralysis point with no good ideas. I’d like to focus on small business problems but just can’t seem to find any. I’ve emailed businesses, scoured the web and am having little luck. My last product was a hypothesis that never gained traction so I’m now extra cautious (maybe too much) about jumping into any new unvalidated ideas.

Any entrepreneurial advice on how to get out of this funk? And also any advice/approaches on how to identify a good idea?

Speaking as an anthropologist: go into the field. I bet very few great ideas came from behind a desk. Ask people with jobs you don’t know much about simple questions that are not directly aimed at finding out what you can sell them. Be genuinely interested in their day.

“What do you do first when you get to work?”, “Do you dress a certain way?”, “Do you eat with co-workers or alone?”, “Do you like to go outside during the day?”, “What are your thoughts on <habit x/y/z>?”.

It surprises me time and time again how deep a seemingly simple line of work turns out to be, and how many simple things are in a complex job. If you ask many questions, something that you have good thoughts about on is bound to pop up.

> Ask people with jobs you don’t know much about simple questions that are not directly aimed at finding out what you can sell them.

I'd advise against this. Good product ideas usually come from a deep, subtle understanding of the problem domain, not by searching for new problems in markets you don't know anything about.

Also you could go into the field at different levels, right? Level 1: by canvassing random businesses asking about problems. Level 2: by attending conferences where business owners are open to discovering new solutions. Level 3: by crawling business forums where owners discuss specific problems they have. Level 4: by crawling reviews for solutions where business owners complain about specific problems they have with existing solutions.

I would try not to focus on ‘discovering problems’ when ‘going into the field’. Consider what you will get if you ask directly what someone's problems are: only the stuff everyone knows about and no one has solved in 200 years since the industrial revolution, ± 60 years since the first computers and ± 30 years since the commercialisation of the internet. They probably haven't been solved because there's some horrifying ROI maximalisation scheme behind it that you cannot beat, or solving the problem is terrible ROI for yourself.

Going into the field anthropology-style means participatory observation; you join those that you are researching in whatever they are doing. You try to experience their world and uncover their interpretation of it. You make an honest attempt to blend in and almost become of them.

And then you don't become one of them, because your being-different enables you to identify opportunities that others in that field cannot. And that is the stuff great ideas are made of.

I was something like 10 when I had my first business idea - "I'll do library/rentals for comic-books \o/"!!!

My room window was just above neon sign for video/movies rental shop (VHS stuff - where I'm from it was called "Video Klub"). And naturally I used paper, scissors & glue to make my own sign to hang from my window as of course I wanted to "tap into" people looking at VHS-shop neon sign...

And let me tell you - business was doing awesome ... Until one day an older neighbor (like a grandpa) asked my parents what's up with sign hanging from one of our windows saying "Strip Klub"?!? (context: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comic_strip)

And in the ~25 years since then - I've had plenty of those "not the brightest idea". However over time, most of them these days are good, though almost all are either a bit too late or too early, so I didn't quite yet come up with million bucks idea...

I still keep trying - and it's the combination of knowing two things:

1) The only reason everyone can walk (that is able to physically) is because they kept trying until they did it!

2) On your death bed - only things you'll regret, are the things you wish you tried but didn't ...

Keep trying!

Don't come up with ideas. Finds problems.


You know people say - never be afraid of discussing your ideas? I believe one of the reasons for that is everyone's vision is different. So, even if I gave you an idea, I might see things differently than you do.

That said, here's my advice on finding a good idea - sell shovels during a gold rush. Now what it means find places where you can provide value by connecting two different parts of society.

One of the ways you do this is by building a robust "Customer Acquisition Strategy" for X business.

People had spare bed/couch at home but no way to find customers. Answer - Airbnb. The platform is so robust now that even full time B&B are using it for their customer acquisition.

People wanted to earn some money using their cars, especially in cities. But they had no way to connect with people wanting a ride. Answer - Uber.

Restaurants were spending tons on advertising but not getting steady stream of customers. If they wanted to provide "home delivery" it was an additional burden of maintaining a delivery fleet. Answer - Uber Eats, Grubhub, Postmates etc. Even review sites like Yelp etc are part of customer acquisition strategy as not only helps in great advertising when people see 4-4.5/5 rating but also assuage concerns on food quality.

So find a niche where people still have this pain and you might have a unicorn on your hands.

All of these businesses share one common theme.

They are all aggregators.

Recent non-aggregator examples for the "cloud" gold-rush: Docker and Hashicorp (Terraform especially).

I reckon there's plently of money left on the table for cloud-shovels (though the market is getting fuller by the second).

Though of course, as pointed out in a different comment - you'll need some experience with the problem-space in order to figure out what problem to tackle.

Copy a startup that got acquired last year.

Try using https://ourincrediblejourney.tumblr.com/

Or searching HN.

Companies that went under are a source of good ideas too. Many of them failed because they accepted too much funding and thus lost the option of being a modest success, but for a small team of one or two people, you can possibly make the idea work and be profitable.

Why waste your time on failures when you have successes that already have customers waiting for you to get your money .

Because it might as well be a timing or a strategy issue.

Can I suggest instead:

Pick a market - no point in building things for people who don't have the ability or will to pay for them

Join their community - make like you're interested in getting licensed or participating. Look around for forums, almost every specialty field of hobby or business has online forums and they're generally easy to get into.

Pay attention to what people complain about and which problems come up repeatedly. You can ask people who are complaining to explain what their issues are and they'll often be happy to tell you. An even better way to gather information is dispute the basis for the complaint, insisting that The Problem isn't a big deal - as a newbie on the forum this will usually inspire someone to put you in your place with a detailed rebuttal that they might not otherwise have bothered to spell out for you.

A few Ideas I want someone to work on:

- Code/Product Documentation SaaS tool for early stage tech companies (very few good products, one is ReadMe.io)

- An ad network for progressive web apps (PWA have good future and as of now there is no exclusive ad network for them)

- CRM kind of SaaS app for startup founders (where founders can manage all their relationship, communication and contacts like investors, journalists, team, power users, etc.)

You wanted B2B so I shared those. I have a few B2C ideas as well in case you'd like to explore them as well. Hope it was helpful.

What is ReadMe.io missing that you'd like to see?

It looks like a well built product. Its just there should be more products and alternatives in every niche.

I'd personally like to see a simpler version that offers a free plan too which students can use. Just like how many B2B and developer targeted SaaS apps offer a free plan that has some limitations but help people to get started.

Students globally are not documenting their code, projects and startups because there is no simple and more importantly free/cheap alternative that they are aware of.

Readme.io is pricey and is simply beyond the reach of students and developers of developing/underdeveloped countries.

Their is no Readme.io like SaaS app for small and budget-sensitive projects as far as I know.

1.- If you are in the right mindset, ideas will come effortlessly. Read articles, work with cutting-edge programming languages (even for toy projects), be involved with communities.

2.- There are no blatant problems awaiting for a solution anymore (it's 2018!). Successful startups have to provide an original, excellently-executed approach to old problems.

3.- You have huge competition; be aware of that. A whole generation has been taught to pursue the same goals as you.

4.- Finally, one always can network. Lots of non-tecnnical founders are looking for CTOs.

> There are no blatant problems awaiting for a solution anymore (it's 2018!).

This is unlikely to be true. It's at least as untrue as it was in any previous year. Good ideas are only blatantly obvious in hindsight.

I disagree. Airbnb, Uber, Amazon and many others are extremely basic ideas that some person or another would have come up with sooner or later.

Basically it was a matter of being in the right place, right time, right knowledge (and execution, of course)

Winners took it all.

Blatantly obvious ideas, and those that someone will come up with sooner or later, are distinct categories, more or less by definition.

There are plenty of problems, the shortage is in problems with obvious solutions that have not yet been implemented yet. One could argue that these opportunities are becoming more fleeting, as more people are being drawn into the search for them.

basic != blatantly obvious. An idea can be easy to see, but difficult to value.

Go and do some contracting work at a small business or startup - even if its short term. You'll bump into all sorts of pain points that should be addressed by someone taking the time to develop and market a good product.

It's no coincidence that there have been many successful products that have started as internal tools written to solve internal problems.

I think that one business model that will never get old is information spread. Most (all?) of the problems we see in the world today could possibly be fixed if people were more knowledgeable. And I don't mean necessarily textbook knowledge, but common stuff as well.

For example, I live in a somewhat small city and it's not easy to know where can I go to have swimming classes. Google could help me with that, but usually these places aren't very tech-savvy (or they do have a certain presence, but they don't keep it updated).

Another great example: https://www.pointy.com/.

Is there any industry or history where you can draw from personal experience?

What inefficiencies have you noticed?

What problems have you noticed from the consumer end of your relationships with businesses?

Could you make something obsolete with automation, or make something else more efficient and profitable?

You don't need to be the first one to come up with an idea for a startup. Most startups fail, even if they came up with a very new and unique idea.

You just need to be the one who does executes it better.

For people starting out, I would suggest looking at "inevitable" trends. Things that seem like they will certainly be popular or prevalent in 2 to 5 years.


- Cannabis legalization: It's virtually inevitable that cannabis will be legal in all 50 states, there's lots of room for ancillary businesses.

- Crypto currency: This is becoming more and more mainstream. If you can come up with some way for the average person to benefit from and want to use crypto, there's great opportunity available for you.

- VR: The tech for vr is improving every year, and mainstream adoption is increasing. There's still no "killer app" for VR (a "killer app" is software that convinces people to want to buy the hardware en masse).

- IoT: Adoption is increasing for smart lights and other devices, but they're still a luxury for most people. Can you come up with some connected everyday device that people can't live without?

Look at what's working well in similar industries that could work well in emerging industries.

One of the first "successes" I had was to create very simple apps for Android in 2008/2009 which simply showed quotes from popular celebrities. The technology was not impressive at all, but it was obvious to me that many people would get smartphones in the next few years. I learned that you could take something people love in one medium, and reproduce it for a new and emerging medium to gain "free" marketing as the medium grows.

> - Crypto currency: This is becoming more and more mainstream. If you can come up with some way for the average person to benefit from and want to use crypto, there's great opportunity available for you.

This might be both good and bad as the steam runs out of the current climb.

That said, I have been wanting to build something which might solve the volatility issue in cryptocurrency but see multiple problems. For one, I have zero programming knowledge and I have been trying to learn but it is going no where very fast. Second, the cryptocurrency crowd is difficult to please. This service, at least for starters, might cost a lot of money which might not go down well.

>- Crypto currency: This is becoming more and more mainstream.

I second this for 2018 but the quicker you ship your project the better: becoming mainstream means the sector going to cap saturation / projects flooding / big boys regulation pretty soon.

I would also be happy to find a cool thing to work on the side that could benefit people and/or companies. But, just like you, am not exactly the "Idea generator".

If you have an idea, try putting it on Halfbakery.

The ideas I've had that I don't feel like pursuing are on my profile: Age of Empires Theme Park, Removing wires, fences with two cameras, Translated Search, Vibrating Wristbands for GPS, Web TV Channel. If you need ideas, read around there to get some inspiration.


Pick one your ideas. Start meeting people who are already working on something similar. Start meeting potential customers. Just talking to people in the same space and potential clients will change your idea or help it grow. Then start working on it. Build anything. Don’t try to be perfect in version 1. But plan for long term perfection instead over multiple iterations. Be proud of what you create. Whatever that may be

Come up with a way to support creators by buying individual articles, videos, podcasts, etc. Ads aren't gonna work for much longer, Patreon type solutions don't seem sustainable for everyone and people won't be putting down money on dozens of subscriptions anytime soon either. There needs to be a way to pay for content like a physical product.

First person or organisation to fix this problem will rake in the cash.

>> "My last product was a hypothesis that never gained traction"

Best place to start is where you already are, not a new venture - what exactly was the product and what did you do to gain traction?

EDIT: You posted a "Show HN" linking to the site below [1], is this the project you're referencing?

[1] https://www.helloreads.com/

One thing I would find really useful is a web tool that can scrape/ filter/ list events. E.g. in most cities, it is impossible to get a simple listing of all screenings of films in cinemas, let alone filter them by location/time/... or mash them up with tools tracking your own taste. Same for concerts, theatre, art exhibitions, ...

The hard thing about this is fragmentation. Building a web scraper for events means extracting information from a wide variety of non-standard websites. Even Eventbrite aggregates events manually, I think.

Yes, except you'd only have to do it once for each entity (e.g. chain of cinemas). Plus, this should not be rocket science, so maybe you can crowd source extractors...

Yeah. I want to get a daily email with the day's screenings from a single place (my local cinema museum) and I ended up having to extract data from their monthly PDFs.

Asymmetric knowledge is hard to come by, people aren't going to give it away here. For what it's worth the few times I've had an idea that turned out to be valuable (retrospectively) it was because I learned a new technology. Might be worth specializing in some niche tech for a few months instead of focusing on product ideas.

You could consult and see what problems businesses are having that you work with.

This is a popular suggestion but I don't think as well as people make it sound.

Lots of problems don't have solutions that would be viable for a new startup (especially not for lean bootstrapped ones).

The problems tend to be either so very specific where the solution would be "just use Excel" or "you need a custom made software", or somewhere in between there.

Or so common and obvious and popular where the solution is already hyper saturated with million dollar and billion dollar companies.

For example very few businesses have customer service support software needs that are not already satisfied by the huge array of existing solutions.

Even if they do, that knowledge is not suddenly going to give you any advantages. You end up at the position of building a feature of a much bigger software ("We like Zendesk but it's missing ____ feature").

Do you have friends working in different fields ? Spend more time understanding their day to day job. IT people lives aren’t a good starting point to come up with new business ideas. Use other people’s lives instead.

I'm in a very similar situation and would love to connect. We may be able to help each other. If you're interested let me know how I can get in touch.

Did you mail businesses out of the blue? What did you write to them?

I did. I emailed a bunch of different smaller companies in different sectors/industries. Explained to them that I build software to help small companies and am interested in knowing if they either have been looking for a product that doesn’t exist or are unhappy with a current product. Got some friendly responses but most said things are working well.

That's basically a sales email where not only do you ask the potential customer if they would buy but also to tell you what they would buy. I would advise against that.

Instead I would suggest:

1) introduce your self and inform them you are interested in their area of business.

2) ask if they'd have the time to chat to you about it on a call or perhaps over a coffee.

3) book the meetings (some will say no, that's fine).

4) at the meeting ask them about their business. Be genuinely interested. Don't sell them anything. These aren't sales calls or meetings. Listen to what they say. Ask how they do those things. What's the best part about they way they do it, what's the worst, what tools and processes do they use and where did they hear about them from.

5) write it all down and after 3-7 meetings looks for patterns that indicate problems or processes that you could solve.

6) given those problems return to your new friends and ask them what the world would look like for them if those problems you identified were solved (no pitching solutions). How much better off (if at all) would they be. How much more time could they save, how much more product could they sell, how many bew customers could they find or old customers could they keep.

7) record everything and look for patterns again.

8) come up with some ideas to solve the more valuable problems. Use the Mum Test technique (don't reveal your ego) to identify if they would pay for your solution (ask for money on the spot, you've enough report now to push the boat out a little).

9) once enough people bite, have a crack at it!

You asked the wrong question. You should only ask how do they work, and think yourself about the solution. They are business, not software developers.

Respectfully, I hear this advice for sales all the time, and it sounds silly unless you've already built a relationship. If someone cold-calls me and starts asking open-ended questions, they're wasting my time.

This isn't sales. It's market research. Your point stands, though. It's actually harder to get market research meetings than sales meetings, because you have nothing to offer. You have to go through your network, or meet people obliquely through interest groups.

I feel like they would want some incentive to disclose the workings of their business. Have you had good results with this approach?

Have you tried? Don't assume, test!

Try working for them. I've worked for a lot of businesses outside of IT and every single one had problems that could be solved with software. Not all of them were viable business opportunities but some of them were huge.

Actually selling them solutions is difficult though because management is often too stupid to understand it no matter how simple the solution. Plus often management doesn't actually care if they are throwing money away. So long as they think they are up to date with industry norms in the region they operate then they feel like they are doing their job. I've proposed solutions that similar companies use in other countries successfully and been met with complete disinterest. YMMV

Why limit to small business? Talk (not email) to a company with a lot of money and figure out their biggest pain point. That is how I would do it now if I had to start over

What problems have you had in your own life? Surely there's an opportunity there that at least deserves further market research.

What do you do now? I found problems at work.

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