6 Questions to Make a Good Startup Idea Great

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David Szabo avatar

Have you ever been stuck in the mud with your car? I experienced this recently -- there's a secret to getting out of the mud that is similar to the process of turning ok startup business ideas into great ones.

The trick? Have one person controlling the car and one or more people pushingand pulling the car’s body to shift the car back-and-forth,left-and-right to give the spinning tires a chance to grab a surfacethat’s stable enough to climb up on. Otherwise, the car sinks itselfdeeper and deeper as the tires are spinning -- and pretty soon, you’llhear the chassis touch the ground.

The process I’m sharing in thisarticle issimilar: pushing-pulling left-and-right, back-and-forth and the ideathat passes through becomes a sure survivor and in some cases, a greatone.

I work with many startups on a daily basis and am usually the first person they share their business ideas with. While this is an honor and a sign of trust I appreciate, most of these ideas are pretty premature and naive when I first hear them -- even when the 2-3 exceptionally bright people who called the meeting have been chewing on the idea for a while. The reason why we meet is to make the idea a great one together.

Ideas like online cookbooks, online football match event management, rate your workplace, online hitchhiking apps or an idea to revolutionize a global supermarket giant’s shopping experience become completely different after only a 3-hour workshop.

Using the 6 step technique below and a crowd of people (potentially “creative strangers” -- students, fresh graduates or bohemian colleagues) can help to shift these ideas from being fairy tale dreams into business ideas that stick and potentially survive on the market and could even end up being successes!

At the heart of the process lies the 6 distracting questions, or 6 well-directed pushes to follow the car-in-a-mud analogy. You might find many of them similar -- most of them are pushes into slightly different directions to find a piece of solid rock to get the car out of the mess.

1. Tell me two scenarios how this app makes someone happy?

Leave the question open for interpretation: “happy” can mean anything. It may mean that the person can save time by using the app -- therefore she will end up being happy. Or she’s happy because the app makes her feel good.

Answering this question helps people build empathy against an imaginary persona/user of the application and imagine a real-life scenario how they use the app. This exercise can drive out a number of things -- it can make the development work persona/story/scenario-focused, it can drive a better User Experience (UX), or a consciously focused marketing campaign to target the personas with the hottest scenarios.

2. If you had this app ready right now, how else could you use it?

In other words, how can you innovate your product idea even further?

Think about a brick: you can use bricks to build a wall, or you can use one to hammer in a nail. You can also use a brick if your car’s handbrake is not working and you want to stop it from rolling away, or as self protection if you’re in a fight with a polar bear. Or you can apply the good old  two brick convincing technique if your male camel doesn’t want to walk further in the desert.

Ask how else can they use this app, what else can this app be? This question can drive the discovery of other scenarios which sometimes turn out to be better than the original ones were -- oops!

If a better scenario is found, take a note of it -- this can be the main scenario for which the app and marketing strategy will be designed for. It sometimes helps people answer this question if you ask them to turn around by 90 degrees or move within the physical space and look at the same room from a different perspective.

3. Tell me a scenario that this app can almost deliver, with *SOME* changes?

This one is similar to the one before, but here people start to think with a different mind-set -- i.e. what’s that little change or extra feature that if I introduce, the app can be used by a lot more users? This idea came from Geoffrey A. Moore in his book Crossing the Chasm:Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers when he spoke about finding a “beachhead” niche and a route moving further from there.

Another example, when Lawson Software made its success in the Healthcare industry, it already knew that the same software -- with some changes -- could be easily sold to retail franchises in the fast food industry, given the similarities of the two completely separate sectors.

Again, it’s a simple question and can drive out a product segmentation strategy, or at least, define the initial target markets -- the “beachheads” that Moore refers to. A good book to read about “Market Innovation” is Saul J. Berman’s new book Not for Free: Revenue Strategies for a New World.

Learning Opportunities

4. What are the scenarios that this app can’t be used for -- at all?

Or in other words: why are you telling me that Microsoft Excel can’t be used to draw floor plans? Identify scenarios that people wouldn’t think as part of the scope of the idea, while these scenarios could be deal-breakers or game-changers for a particular niche. Conflict-lovers will love this exercise!

5. What's the core feature of this app? How else can you package it?

This question is particularly useful if the initial business model doesn’t stick very well. If it’s not “Market Innovation,” then let’s explore if the idea’s business model can be innovated.

Can you re-shape it and sell it in a different form? Can you build a white-labelled version of your idea? Can you attach it to something else? Can you offer the service for free and get your revenue elsewhere?

When I facilitate LEGO Serious Play workshops to build a business strategy, I start this particular exercise by identifying all of the stakeholders for the service and get the participants to build them on LEGO tables. Sometimes, even the idea owners get surprised how many stakeholders there are for even the simplest idea.

Once the stakeholders are identified, it’s time to look at their connections, dynamics and analyze their benefits and interests towards your service. This discovery can result into building a new business model.

6. How would you get users NOT to use this app? To hate this app? Now, this one is fun

This exercise is based on the Anti-Problem game from Dave Gray’s famous Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers book. As Dave says:

By asking players to identify ways to solve the problem opposite to their current problem, it becomes easier to see where a current solution might be going astray or where an obvious solution isn’t being applied.”

In other words, you can identify -- early in time -- what makes users not use or hate the app and you can build your strategy in a way that accounts for these outcomes.

You simply open the play by asking the audience how they would make users not only just hate, but not even start using the app. I personally would require them to complete a 45-field long registration form as the first step (no way to use the service beforehand) and display a thank you message and a promise that we’ll be in touch within 24 hours.

Or I could get them to hate the entire company by not displaying a phone number or email address where they can contact in case they’re in trouble. Only these 2 anti-ideas could help to identify some of the possible barriers to adoption and to customer trust. So, don’t build your service this way!


Even the brightest idea could start being a naive dream -- and it takes a group just a few hours’ time to make it great. Often, people who are too close to the idea have real difficulty thinking outside of the box -- this 6-step process helps you distract them and exercise the amazing skill called creativity.

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About the author

David Szabo

David Szabo is Cloud Strategy Advisor, Firestarter and Rulebreaker at Microsoft. Startupaddict, SaaS & Cloud consultant and LEGO serious play facilitator.