6 questions to make a good startup idea great – A recipe for startups and venture capitalists

Have you ever been stuck in a mud with your car? I had the fortune to experience this recently – the secret to get out of the mud is to have someone controlling the car and one or more people pushing and pulling the car’s body to shift the car back-and-forth, left-and-right and give the spinning tires a chance to grab a surface that’s stable enough to climb upon. Otherwise, the car sinks itself deeper and deeper as the tires are spinning – and pretty soon, you’ll hear the chassis touch the ground. The process I’m sharing in this article – to make an “OK” startup business idea a great one – is similar: pushing-pulling left-and-right, back-and-forth and the idea that passes through becomes a sure survivor – and in some cases, even a great one.

Car stuck in a mud

I work with many startups on a daily basis and have the fortune to be the first person they share their business idea with. While this is an honor and certainly the sign of trust which I appreciate, most of these ideas are pretty premature and naive at the time I hear them first – even though 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 revolutionise a global supermarket giant’s shopping experience turn to be completely different only after 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 will potentially survive on the market and believe or not – could even end up being successes!

In the heart of the process lie 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 and get the car out of the mess.

The 6 distracting questions for a startup business idea to make it surely great:

1. Tell me 2 scenarios how this app can make someone happy?

Leave the question open for interpretation: “happy” can mean anything here. It may mean that the person can save time by using the app – therefore she’ll end up being happy. Or she’s happy, because the app makes her feel good in her skin. 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 avoid it rolling away, or if you’re in a fight with a grizzly bear. Or you can apply the good-old 2-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 – whose 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 & marketing strategy will be designed for. Sometimes, it helps people mentally to 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 Moore in his book Crossing the Chasm when he spoke about finding a “beachhead” niche and a route moving further from there. In more details, when Lawson Software made his success in the Healthcare industry, they already knew that the same software – with some changes – can be nicely 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 … “beachheads” in Moore’s dictionary. A good book to read about “Market Innovation” is Saul J. Berman’s new book Not for Free: Revenue Strategies for a New World.

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 scope of the idea, while these scenarios could be deal-breakers or game-changers for a particular audience. 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 perhaps … 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 discovering all 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 analyse 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 book: Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers. 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/idea and you can build your strategy in a way that accounts for these possibilities. 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 of 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 you 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 this amazing skill called creativity.

Please leave a comment – let me know what you think!

Linkedin David Szabo, Cloud Strategy Advisor, Firestarter and Rulebreaker at Microsoft. Startup-addict, SaaS & Cloud consultant, blogger at http://cloudstrategyblog.com and LEGO serious play facilitator. Follow me on Twitter!

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8 Responses to 6 questions to make a good startup idea great – A recipe for startups and venture capitalists

  1. Elijah Penz says:

    Valuable information. Lucky me I found your site by accident, and I’m shocked why this accident didn’t happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

  2. Thank you for your blog.Really thank you! Much obliged.

  3. Very informative blog post.Really thank you! Cool.

  4. Patrycja says:

    say I currently have a Dedicated Server that hosts small soical networks (i.e.: salsahook[dot]com) and other database-driven (sql) websites. What is a price comparison that I can get and/or are there any benefits for a small fish like me? Is private cloud hosting for someone like me or for a larger customer that runs very large websites? I will appreciate a response.

    • David says:

      Hello, thanks for your comment. The Cloud comes beneficial for you when you service quality (uptime and scalability) gets critical to your business. I can look into it in more details if you tell me more about the kind of business you run. Feel free to email me at dszabo@microsoft.com

  5. Pingback: Why startups love the Cloud? | The Cloud Strategy Blog

  6. Pingback: Why startups love the Cloud? - Cloud Gazette | Cloud Gazette

  7. Pingback: Why startups love the Cloud? | Xcluesiv Cloud Technology Blog

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