To start a successful business, look for a great problem first and then try to find a great solution.
Leah Busque, founder of TaskRabbit, an on-demand marketplace for outsourcing errands, came up with the idea for her business on a cold, snowy night in Boston in February 2008. She and her husband were at home, ready to go out to dinner, when they realized they were out of dog food for their 100-pound yellow lab, Kobe.
"We were thinking, wouldn't it be nice if there was someone in our neighborhood who could grab us the dog food?" Busque told the audience at the Next: Economy conference in San Francisco this month. "Maybe there was even somebody at the store this very moment and wouldn't it be nice if we could connect with them and say, 'Hey can you grab us this bag? Happy to pay for your time.' And the conversation that evening evolved into what became TaskRabbit."
Many entrepreneurs will agree, the best products get made when the founders come upon a problem in their own lives that needs to be solved. By addressing a pain point, they become deeply connected to their mission, and, in essence, become their own first customer.
Steve Wozniak's problem in 1975 was that he wanted his own computer. Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted to search the web.
"It's always important to have a mission -- to have something to work towards," Busque told a student from her alma mater, Sweet Briar College.
Having a mission that you are insanely passionate about helps you overcome the tough times when you are ready to throw in the towel. And if you've ever started a business, you know this happens time and time again.
Sheila Lirio Marcelo, the founder and CEO of Care.com, came up with the idea for her company when her dad went through triple bypass surgery eight years ago. At the time, Marcelo and her husband were both working full time, raising two kids and two dogs. She needed help juggling the myriad demands of her family, her household and her work, and there was no website to help her do that.
"You may have a trusted nanny or a regular pet sitter, but if their personal circumstances change or if they suddenly fall ill, it can be a struggle to find help in a moment's notice," Marcelo explained to Work It Mom.
The solution? In 2006 Marcelo launched Care.com, an online marketplace for caregiving services, including childcare, pet care, elder care and tutoring.
Marcelo's problem is not unique. Her platform helps empower women and increase female participation in the workplace by providing care options around the world. Today Care.com has more than 17.8 million members, spanning 16 countries. The company raised more than $100 million in funding before going public in 2014.
For Kimberly Bryant, founder and CEO of Black Girls Code, the personal driver for starting the organization in 2011 was her daughter, who was going into middle school at the time.
"She was heavily invested in technology," Bryant told the Next Economy audience in San Francisco. "She used it like second nature. She was really tied to it."
But when Bryant looked for opportunities for her daughter to learn and grow, she found the same thing she saw in the tech industry -- very few girls, and even fewer girls of color.
"I thought that was interesting, given the exponential growth of the technology industry both here in the Bay area and abroad."
So Bryant decided to start Black Girls Code (BGC), an organization dedicated to helping girls develop software engineering skills.
"It was really about finding and creating a support network for [my daughter]," Bryant said. "It started with this idea that if we brought girls in on the weekend, sat them in front of a computer, they would learn to code, and perhaps they may like it. Not only did they like the process of learning how to build something from nothing, they came back week after week for six weeks, and they started to bring their friends and parents."
The program grew quickly, and in four years went from a dozen girls in a small basement to an international organization with over ten chapters across the US and one in Johannesburg, South Africa.
For these women, starting a business was about more than making money--it was about solving a problem, and often one that struck close to home. By carefully observing the painful or inefficient processes in your life, you, too, may come up with the next great startup idea.
Samantha is the author/editor of the New York Times-accclaimed book, TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, and co-authoring the upcoming book, GEEK GIRL RISING: Unleashing the Power of Women in Tech.