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Surprising Ways to Find Great Start-up Ideas

Here's how to find ideas that are original, but not crazy.
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One of the first characteristics of a successful start-up founder is often that there is a little bit of crazy in the person. David Segal, writing in the New York Times, called it "just manic enough." In order for your ideas to seem fresh, they have to be a little bit off-center, a little bit off-kilter. You have to see your ideas a little more clearly than everyone else in order to believe they will work.

So where can you look to find a new perspective? How can you find those groundbreaking ideas? You can’t look at the same things everyone else is looking at, or you’re bound to get the same ideas everyone else is coming up with. Here are four places to train your eye:

Design

During the next decade all of our careers will move closer to design. The more human-computer interaction there is, and the more computer mediation there is between humans, the more we will rely on good design to lead innovation. Venture capital firms are looking more and more toward designers as CEOs. I saw this first-hand when the guy who is supposedly my blog designer, Will Roman, told me one day, when I was screaming about the size of the photos on my home page, that he'd rather be running a company than working as a designer. He told me, "I want to do things that are bigger. I think like a designer, but I'm not interested in doing the design."

Mostly, I thought to myself, Crap. I have to find another designer before he quits. But I also thought to myself: He really should have his own company. And look, now he does. Roqbot just got funded, and he's reinventing the jukebox. But really, to me, Will is reinventing the idea of how design fits into a startup. Design can drive ideas. It doesn't have to be the other way around. 

Subscription Models

When I think of subscription models, the first thing I think of is Columbia House Record Club. It's how I learned about scams when I was a kid. TEN ALBUMS! NO PAYMENT! Just a commitment to buy three more. WHENEVER YOU WANT! I signed up and then the albums started coming. Every month. I had to ship them back if I didn't want them. Of course I wanted them. They were there. In my hands. And then I owed tons of money to Columbia House. And I'm sure I’m not the only person who got taken this way by subscription model clubs.

Today, though, subscription models are for hipsters. They are about building relationships. Subscription models today combine the idea of community with the idea that disruptive companies start at the bottom--with stuff that has low margins. My favorite example of this is Emily Books. This is a brilliant way to improve the very low-margin business of publishing novels. Emily Gould picks books for you to read. She's great at picking the novels, and she sells her "insider" aura--that Emily is smart and cool, and if you subscribe to her book clubyou will be reading stuff you can't find yourself.

Gambling & Porn Companies

We all know that gambling and porn are industries that are always out in front. If nothing else, they can take risks with business models that supposedly respectable businesses won’t dare to take. But you know what? Almost every innovation from these industries trickles down to the rest of the business world. Intrusive advertising, high-end video, micro payments--all these ideas emanated from gambling and porn. You can be first to appropriate these business practices by scouting a forum like this to find out how people are looking at the gaming industry--what customers are expecting, and what is making people excited. Because that's what's coming down the pipe--eventually--even for something as squeaky clean as the world of mommy bloggers. 

Street Photographers

The key to finding a new idea is to put two things together that don't go together. For example, apartments moonlighting as hotel rooms, or mainstream brands advertising on (what was essentially) a site for hookups.

A literal example of seeing two things next to each other that don't go together is street photography. In New York, James Maher is one of the top street photographers. He shows us that the world is full of odd pairings that create something new and different, if we just take the time and energy to look for them. 

Coming up with new ideas is really all about watching with a careful eye. The bottom line is that you need to be a good trend spotter to see an opening in the market. Here are ideas for how to be a better trend spotter. And if you’ve tried all this and nothing's working, you probably need a vacation or a big change of scenery to clear your mind. 

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jul 12, 2012

PENELOPE TRUNK | Columnist

Penelope Trunk is the founder of three VC-funded startups. She is the author of the bestselling book, Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, and her blog, penelopetrunk.com, receives about one million views a month. Earlier in her life Penelope played professional beach volleyball, which, believe it or not, taught her just about everything she needed to know about marketing.

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



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