10/13/2010 04:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Turn My Problem into Your Profit

The Idea

Many people see great inventions as lucky breaks for innovators who simply had the ideas fall into their laps. In reality, however, there are several steps that go into coming up with a great idea, let alone turning that idea into a successful product or company.

Ideas are cheap and it's likely that only one of a few dozen seemingly good ideas will actually be worth pursuing. But even if an idea seems worthy of pursuit, it's still statistically unlikely that the idea will develop into a successful company. The odds are stacked against you, so the best way to come up with a great idea is to first come up with a lot of bad ones. As Linus Pauling said, "The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away."

I've always believed the business aspect of building a company is easy, if you provide the best solution to solve a big and common problem, you can potentially make a lot of money while at the same time improving the lives of many people. The hard part is: (1) Finding a big, unsolved, problem and (2) Finding the best solution.

Solve a Big Problem

A great place to look for problems is in your own life. It's likely a gold mine if you're anything like me. I am constantly coming across new problems: How can I help my son find a good college that fits his requirements? How can I help my daughter find a good job? Where can I compare objective information on things I need to make decisions about?

The way I have come up with ideas in the past that have led to highly successful products and companies is through the Brainstorm and Prioritization Technique (BPT), which I explained in an article entitled, "Don't Make the Solution Part of Your Problem." If you use the following process, you will come up with a hundred ideas, of which ninety may never see the light of day, nine may be feasible, but more than likely one will have the potential of being something great.

Using the "BPT," come up with a few dozen interesting problems and narrow your ideas down to three to five.

Technology Solves it Best

Unfortunately, coming up with a great problem is only half of the process. The other half is finding the most efficient solution. More often than not, the best solution involves technology -- whether it is technology that already exists, technology that has not yet been created, or early stage technology that has just emerged.

The best opportunity to start a company is during the early stages of a major technology trend -- this is when "disjoints" occur. During a technology disjoint, you're hoping existing companies either haven't recognized the new technology trend or they fear this new technology will "cannibalize" their existing business. Companies hate to eat their own children, so you have the opportunity to do it for them.

During the past twenty years, massive disjoints have resulted in thousands of new products and companies. Examples of major technology disjoints include personal computers, networks, mobile phones, and the Internet. Within each major disjoint, you'll find smaller disjoints which also create big opportunities. For the Internet, examples include mobile internet, social networks, crowd sourcing, vertical search and cloud computing.

Using BPT, identify three to five major technologies you believe could have the greatest impact in the market. Next, using BPT again, brainstorm solutions to the problems you've come up with by applying your major technology to each problem you identified. You should be able to come up with 50-100 product ideas. Narrow this list down to the top three to five product ideas.

Now, for example, take the problems I mentioned above and see how technology can be used to solve them:

Problem                                                Technology              Solution

Which college should I go to?     Vertical search          Objective college comparison site
Where can I find a job?                  Crowd sourcing          Job placements provided by crowd sourcing
Where can I compare                     Interactive search
normalized data?

My favorite unique product idea occurred when I went back to my old high school, Detroit Catholic Central, where they came up with the following solution to an interesting problem:

Problem                                        Technology                      Solution

Redemption of sins/                Video chat                        Online confessionals with priests in India
shortage of priests

Now What?

I've gone through this process many times and it has resulted in numerous great products and companies from DoubleClick to The process is simple (I've used it to help second graders at Crane school "invent" products) yet very effective. So go out and try it. And one more thing, make profits from my problems or somebody else will.

In my next post, I'll show you how to vet your idea without wasting time or money. But until then, I'd like to hear from you. What do you see as the biggest problems and the most innovative emerging technological trends?