Size Matters: How BIG is Your Business Idea?


You've got an idea. You've always got ideas. But could your idea be great enough, BIG enough, to support a new business?

Of course, some amazing businesses start with accidental ideas. Velcro happened because George de Mestral bothered to examine some burrs under a microscope. Your non-stick pan works because Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon by accident while working at DuPont. Big ideas can happen without trying, but it's a huge mistake to gamble your business on a "maybe."

You need something more: brainstorming.

But wait a minute. Brainstorming seems like a waste of time. How does thinking about your business lead to actually building a business?

You'd be right, except for one thing. No idea is perfect the first time around. Even if you have a idea, you need to test it for weak spots. And if you don't have an idea, you can't exactly dive into selling and marketing your business without having something to sell and market.

You need thoughtful, tested ideas that solve a problem. That's where brainstorming comes into play.

First, make sure you're clear about a few things:

  1. Do you know what problem you're trying to solve?
  2. Why does this problem still exist? Have companies tried to offer a solution or are customers not interested in paying for a solution?
  3. Based on your experiences, what would you do differently?

You may end up with a list of problems and solutions. And that's OK for now. You can use your brainstorming session to refine your objectives.

You can brainstorm as a group or as an individual. Group brainstorming creates a good environment for idea generation, but don't overlook the benefits of going it alone. Several studies suggest that individual brainstorming can lead to more and even better ideas. There's benefits to both.

For instance, going it alone means you get to avoid egos and critical opinions. But you will miss out on the the valuable input of people with different experiences than you.

Think of it this way. If you have a simple problem to solve, see what you can come up with on your own. And if you're facing a complex issue, take a deep breath and dive into a group session. Even if you don't have an official team, reach out to trusted friends to form a mini group. They can help you find the vision and focus for your idea.

To get the most from your brainstorming, I suggest you visualize your ideas. I love sketching out concepts to help me organize my ideas and a lot of us are visual thinkers. Seeing our ideas (even if they're stick figures) can be a powerful tool for finding answers. Beyond business ideas, you can use sketching to help you explore different questions like what business model to choose and how your product should look.

With your big list of brainstormed ideas in hand, you can start fine tuning. What patterns do you see? If an idea seems too vague, what do you discover by asking, What if...?" Finally, make sure you're really clear about the idea you're trying to solve. Can you describe it in five words or less?

By this point, your idea may be taking shape. Let's push it over the finish line and figure out your unique snowflake.

Yep, you read that right. What's your unique snowflake? Walk through a few questions:

  • Does your idea apply to a current product or service? Or does it act as a hub for other products?
  • Does your idea make it easier to for someone to try something new because it costs less or is more convenient?
  • Does your idea have competitors or are you the only one?
  • Does your idea fit into an existing market or are you creating one?
  • Does your idea change the market?

Brainstorming, fine tuning, and your unique snowflake are all about helping you get a clear vision of your BIG idea. And the better your idea at the beginning the more confident you can feel about the business you want to build. Just try it. I promise that in this case, thinking trumps doing.

This column originally appeared at on February 4, 2016.

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