Here’s How to Avoid a Disastrous Startup Idea

March 5, 2016, 5:00 PM UTC
Office worker stressed and upset in office
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The Entrepreneur Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question “How do you come up with a new startup idea?” is written by Linda Darragh, professor of entrepreneurial practice at Northwestern University.

If frustration with your day job has you daydreaming about becoming your own boss, keep dreaming. Entrepreneurship is a challenge, not a pastime.

The first step on the entrepreneurial path is to check your motivation: Are you “running away” from the corporate world? Or, have you identified a breakthrough idea that will solve a problem—something so compelling you are “running to” entrepreneurship?

Virtually every successful startup I’ve observed or advised came out of a “pain point” (a problem, challenge, or desire) that the entrepreneur experienced or witnessed—whether professionally or in a personal endeavor—and realized that others experienced the same pain.

See also: What to Do When Someone Criticizes Your Idea

Innovators have a unique way of looking at the world around them, whether at their workplace, at home, or during their leisure activities. At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, for example, one of our students, John Le, cofounded JitsLab, a free service that provides jiu-jitsu players with the tools to analyze, review, and improve their performance. As a jiu-jitsu competitor, he saw the need for a tool to statistically pinpoint weaknesses to help competitors improve and win.

The workplace is another fertile field for discovering problems just waiting for an innovative solution. One success story is Kenny Olson who, while working for Proctor & Gamble (PG) selling consumer products to retail stores, noticed that cardboard display units for promotions often went unused by retailers. As a solution, he developed electronic end-caps that display product information and promotions, which became the seed of his company, DART Displays.


Similarly, Evan Kruger, another Kellogg student, noticed employees struggling with internal career development at his large financial institution. On his own, he developed a prototype that is capable of providing meaningful career development analysis for employees. Based on the beta test at his own bank, Evan is building a commercial tool for other large corporate clients.

A good idea may be the brainchild of one person or a closely knit group. But it takes a network and experience to turn an idea into a startup. Studying the most successful startups will help you find ways to develop your idea. Take Gogoro, which debuted its electronic scooter at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. Its leadership team, including founder and CEO Horace Luke, came out of HTC, where they also worked on groundbreaking products. By “reverse engineering” their success story, wannabe entrepreneurs may get ideas of how to put together their own teams to develop products.

A good idea isn’t one that you passively ponder on your coffee break. It wakes you up in the middle of the night, demanding your attention. If that’s what you’re experiencing, then you’ve got an idea worth pursuing.

Linda Darragh is a professor of entrepreneurial practice and executive director of the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (KIEI) and the Levy Entrepreneurial Institute at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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