Business Strategy

How to have a million-dollar idea

What makes a million-dollar idea? Spoiler alert: It’s not by chance, it’s not inspiration, and it’s not a stroke of genius.

Solving problems

At their very core, all ideas are solutions to problems. Think about it. Every good idea you’ve ever had or heard was a way to solve an issue of some kind.

  • Lyft: Solves the problem of single-driver vehicles spending most of the day parked and unused
  • Slack: Solves the problem of wasting time in meetings, calls, and emails when a simple sentence suffices
  • Airbnb: Solves the problem of coordinating logistics for privately owned rental lodging

This is true even for the most basic ideas that we take for granted.

  • Refrigerator: Solves the problem of fresh foods spoiling quickly when left at room temperature
  • Parking meter: Solves the problem of collecting payments for individual spaces
  • Headphones: Solves the problem of distracting others with audio playback intended for one person

Despite this, it’s common to assume that a “million-dollar idea” is complex, impossible to come up with, and of immense value alone. It’s not. Ideas are simply solutions to problems.

Anyone can have an idea. Problems that are worth solving are collective problems, and the best ideas are the ones that people have over and over again because they’re the most straightforward solution. Before the first electric refrigerator was sold, anyone who prepared food had the idea of how great it would be to keep perishables cold without requiring a giant block of ice which eventually melted. Yet 99.99% of them couldn’t do anything about it.

You are the magic

Solutions to problems aren’t inherently valuable by themselves. An idea for a revolutionary school bus design won’t make a million dollars for someone without automotive experience. The idea for an environmentally-friendly and kid-safe bathroom cleaner doesn’t make a million dollars for someone without chemistry knowledge. But the idea for an all-organic, high-end build-your-own-salad bar can be wildly profitable for a restaurant veteran known for sourcing outstanding produce.

Every person brings their own style to everything they do. Simply look at the results of a group painting class or a high school English assignment. Despite the same “idea,” each result is different. An idea that could be worth one million dollars in your hands may be worth pennies in your neighbor’s hands, or vice-versa.

This is why Publix is nothing like Aldi and why Apple is fundamentally different from Lenovo. It’s the same reason a Rembrandt looks nothing like a Picasso, and neither artist would be able to paint in the other’s style. It was never the idea that produced the value.

Your unique experience and expertise makes up the vast majority of your million-dollar idea’s value. The idea itself is only the remaining fraction.

The simplicity of a million-dollar idea

The secret to success is simplicity. Problems already make a process difficult, and the best solution is the one with the fewest steps.

Simplicity helps an entrepreneur focus. It can be tempting to chase after each new shiny addition or expansion with the hope of selling a more expensive product and driving up value, but in reality, each of those additions just drags out your time to market and makes it harder for new customers to adopt. Stick to the very core of your solution, and then wait for feedback from customers before bolting on expansions.

Take the refrigerator example above. The first refrigerator didn’t have adjustable shelving, temperature zones, or a water dispenser. Those features were only added after the concept of a refrigerator became commonplace. Make your solution easy to adopt, and your customers will tell you later what else they’d like it to do.

Unless you are a physicist, engineer, chemist, or other highly skilled technical professional, it’s unlikely that your million-dollar idea needs to be patented. Extra intricacies to become eligible for a patent can come later. Do one or two things extraordinarily and save the rest.

Checklist to success

Being an entrepreneur is one of the hardest jobs around. You will face rejection, disappointment, and delays repeatedly on the path to executing your million-dollar idea. Without the specific advantages that make you the best person to bring your idea to market, anyone else would give up.

If you’re up for the job, here’s how to do it.

1. Leverage your unique advantage

Knowing your strengths should always be your first step. If there’s nothing that makes you more qualified to act on the solution than the next person in line, find a new idea that plays to your specific strengths. You will never succeed otherwise. (Remember, your bank account balance isn’t a unique advantage; that just makes you an investor. Find an entrepreneur to support with that bank account.)

2. Verify the problem you’re targeting is big enough to solve

You should be able to connect with potential customers over how annoying or detrimental the problem currently is. These conversations provide insight on how others perceive the issue and how a solution would benefit them beyond your own perspective.

3. Get comfortable with risk

As a founder, your willingness to stick out your own neck determines how willing investors, partners, or employees will be willing to take a chance on you. If you won’t quit your day job or put your own money into your idea, no one else will either.

4. Seek external advice

Seek partners and mentors you trust for wise counsel. No one is an expert in everything, including you. They will help you work through your doubts and keep you focused on your main goal. Never underestimate the value of an unbiased outsider’s opinion when trying to make a decision.

5. Build a support team

The never-ending challenges and setbacks can be grueling for your mental health. Don’t do it alone. If it all comes falling down on you, know who you can call.

The secret to a million-dollar idea

It’s not rocket science. It’s where your greatest gifts intersect with the world’s greatest needs, as said by Frederick Buechner. You are the secret to your million-dollar idea. What you do with it is up to you.

By Emily Hart