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How to Find Your Next Great Idea

Sometimes it's smarter to ditch the dream of finding something brand new. Try riding someone else's wave instead.

You've probably heard of Foursquare, the location check-in app that manages to get a lot of interested users but not much money. But you might not be familiar with FearSquare.

It's an app that lets Foursquare users know if they're in danger by checking the UK crime statistics for their current locations.

This isn't a money-making venture. It's actually part of a study being conducted by the Lincoln Social Computing Research Centre, part of the University of Lincoln's computer science department. But it offers a good lesson to entrepreneurs: Sometimes it's smarter not to focus on finding the next blockbuster idea; instead, look at an existing blockbuster idea and figure out what it should do that it currently does not.

Plug the gaps

Finding the holes left by the groundbreaker is related to looking for and exploiting a market gap.

The Foursquare/FearSquare pairing offers a simple and great example of this dynamic. Announcing your location carries the potential of announcing your vulnerability. And yet, Foursquare doesn't address that. Maybe that is because you are supposed to be "friends" with the people who can see your location. Social networks can mask physical anonymity with the appearance of having a connection to someone.

Combine the characteristics of social networks and checking in from locations with the fact that many people have become more fearful about potential danger in life and you have a small market gap. Some portion of people will be either uncomfortable as they use Foursquare or will abstain from it because of security concerns. If you can realistically allay those fears, you've bridged the gap and offer something of value to that group of people.

Looking for market gaps in the trail of successful concepts isn't new. In the 1990s, many small software companies did well by supplementing weaknesses in Microsoft operating systems. For years, specialty auto parts companies have sold higher performance components like more effective windshield wipers because of limitations in what the car manufacturers provided. Next time you get a "green" coffee filter for your favorite brewer, remember that you're seeing the same process in action.

Why it's OK to ride coattails

There are several reasons this approach works:

  • Someone else making a big splash helps identify potential customers.
  • The giant helps create brand awareness that you can ride.
  • Exploiting a market gap on something hot is less of a gamble than trying to do something completely new.
  • You will likely need fewer resources to launch a market gap plug than a fully new concept.

There are drawbacks. You aren't going to become bigger than the business whose coattails you ride. If your product or service does become very popular, the company might decide to incorporate something similar and cut you out of the game. Also, you only succeed so long as the original company does.

That said, you don't have to pledge your life to one idea and business. Maybe it's something you will ride for a while and sell off, or even close down if it comes to the end of its useful lifetime. After all, you're an entrepreneur. You can take what you gained and learned and start the next great project.

Last updated: May 10, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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