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How to come up with startup ideas – there’s nothing special about it

After graduating with an MBA from the Rotterdam Business School, Lex Ouburg, serial entrepreneur and angel investor, briefly joined the corporate lifestyle expected by his surroundings. Only to realize it wasn’t the place to fully develop himself and where his specific skills were not appreciated and therefore underutilized.

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“A good sign to see if you should start a business is when you feel like a small wheel in a large machine. When both lower and higher ups feel too far away, too vague, and too heavily occupied with procedures. Of course, you could join a startup, but then you’d be close to the boss and you might get the thought of being able to do things better.”

After starting multiple business and investing in startups for several years, Ouburg’s here to reflect on taking the leap to startup founder and where it all starts: the idea. In this interview, he shares seven possible ways to not only come up with, or run into ideas, but also refine and validate the opportunity before you decide to go all in, creating a stepping stone that is invaluable for anyone finding themselves at this very same crossroads.

Grow into it

Looking back on his personal trajectory, Ouburg describes his journey as simply growing into it. “I started doing web design as a hobby, but soon found out I could earn a nice buck doing something I liked. I already collaborated with other freelancers quite often, so I quickly turned into more of a project manager without doing the actual building myself. And that’s how business number 1 took off.”

Talk, talk, talk

It wasn’t long after that Ouburg ran into the founder of DiningCity, who was looking for people to grow the company to other cities. “So I started as a franchisee, then after we merged at HQ. And suddenly, I was in the restaurant business.”

It was only in hindsight that Ouburg realized how he got a chance to participate in what was then one of the hottest startups. “There are people who have very specific plans about what they want to do. If that works for you, fine. For anyone else, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities. Talk to as many people as possible. Not only will you learn from them, but they will also think of you when they’re talking to others who are able to present you with an opportunity.”

Collaborate professionally

That jarring realization came up when Ouburg started his third company, Procent.

“I was thinking about a purchasing collective for restaurants, when, through talking with some business partners, I found out they were as well. It made perfect sense to work together. Not only because of scale, but also because working with others offers everyone in the team the opportunity to do what they like to do.”

The only way Ouburg found out about this opportunity was because he rigorously maintains his professional network. And he urges anyone to do the same. “You have to open up to people and stay in touch. Go to relevant events and be open for other people’s opinions. People will find you there, because they know you will listen. Of course, on occasion you’ll run into something or someone who’s completely not worth your time, but the benefits justify the effort. And eventually, you can only find out if something is extremely special by reflecting on it, working out a plan and discussing it with people you know and trust.”

Look at what already works elsewhere

Another way to find great ideas for a startup is to look at what works elsewhere. “When we launched the Restaurant Week at DiningCity, we thought it would be a fun gig. We had no idea it would blow up as it did. We got a tip from someone who experienced it in New York and we decided it would be worth a shot. Eventually that specific week turned us into the leading player in the field.”

“The same goes for Procent. Purchasing collectives have been around for decades, centuries even. But for some reason no one had taken the time and effort to connect the thousands of mostly independent restaurants. The branch organisation looked at the possibility, but didn’t act on it. So we invested the time and money to bridge the, what we thought would be 1 or 2 years, gap to profitability. Now so many restaurants are members that the older organizations join us.”

How novel or innovative your solution should be, compared to what already exists, is not an exact science, according to Ouburg. But he suggests to keep 80% of your business the same as to what is already out there, so people will know how it works, and create something new for the other 20%. “I love the example of Swapfiets (a monthly subscription on a bicycle), because leasing transportation is not new, but for this market it is. This made it easy and fast for people to adapt to.”

Start small

Scalable businesses don’t make sense financially at low numbers, but you can only find out if you’re providing value to customers when you meet with them directly. “We never thought we would connect tens of thousands of restaurants. I mean, we started with 50, then all of a sudden it became 100 and a little later 150. Before we knew it, we were selling to 10.000. As long as you’re offering a quality service and your customers can trust you to deliver repeatedly, scale will follow.”

Start with a great product

“Another insight that is key to a startup’s success, even though obvious, but often overlooked, is to offer a simple and great product. You will never grow exponentially if you have to drag your customers over to your side. It only happens when they instantly see the value. No marketing or sales can compete.”

Do things that are considered crazy

To get to a great product is not a simple feat. “You have to be different from your competitors if you want people to switch,” according to Ouburg. “In that sense it helps to do everything yourself in the beginning, so you can learn from your customers and partners. For example, I visited luxury restaurants, asking them if they would like to participate in the Restaurant Week. They had never thought about doing anything with their prizes. They laughed at me, because the idea was silly to them. But somehow they also liked it. Eventually their restaurants were taken a storm by new guests for weeks. Some of them returning on a regular basis. So for the restaurants, it turned out, participating made sense financially as well.”

Keep selling

Even though a product should be able to sell itself eventually, for your startup to take off, no B2B startup can go without cold acquisition. “This is entrepreneurship 101 in my books. Cold calling, walk ins. Showing your product. Getting feedback and getting a next meeting.”

“The chances of coming up with something no one has ever thought of before are close to zero. It may happen, perhaps, in the fields of fundamental sciences, but those theories won’t be applicable for ten, twenty or maybe even fifty years and therefore not useful for starting a business. Eventually, running a startup is always more straightforward than you think. You just have to think logically and work hard.”