Where Do Startup Ideas Really Come From?

Guest author Scott Gerber is the founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council.

Ideas don't grow on trees—especially the kind of ideas that lead to successful startups. So where do entrepreneurs turn for some good, old-fashion inspiration? Do they look for problems to solve, or run right into them and take the plunge?

To find out, we asked 12 successful entrepreneurs from YEC what inspired them to found their current companies.

Frustrated Women

My business teaches women to rediscover the fun of creative play—and empowers them with the web skills they need to bring their dreams to life, without having to hire anyone to help. After working with many women in a 1-on-1 capacity over the years as a branding expert and web designer/developer, it became clear to me that many of my clients were extremely creative and artistic—and I started to feel guilty that they had to come to ME to help them launch their new project, business, or movement.

I knew they would be capable of it themselves, if only they had someone to give them the skills—and that deep down, they would love to be the ones in control of their brands and websites. I created The Girl's Guide to Web Design and The Girl's Guide to Graphic Design for them. —Amanda Aitken, The Girl's Guide to Graphic Design

A Coachella DJ

The idea for Markitors came at Coachella. For the first time, I visually could conceptualize what social media has the power to do, which is the power to move people. What I saw at Coachella was a DJ just killing it when it came to reacting in real time to the crowd. And because he was so on point with delivering what people wanted, the crowd collectively responded in a really positive way.

So what I like to think we do at Markitors is inspire movement through real time social media marketing. Most agencies have clients for whom they pre-schedule content and then push it out every day at a certain time. We don’t think that inspires too many people. We like share client content according to what’s going on in the world at that day, minute and moment. —Brett Farmiloe, Digital Marketing Agency

Language Barriers

As a former private equity investor for Goldman Sachs, I always hoped to someday be on the other side of the transaction as the entrepreneur. After four years at Goldman, I enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania without realizing that I would soon stumble upon a concept that formed the backbone of my business: VerbalizeIt.

While traveling on a school trip to China, I became violently ill. Despite knowing exactly what medication I needed, I could not communicate with any pharmacist due to the language barrier. Despite having the latest machine translation solutions at my disposal, I was unable to properly communicate. A light bulb went off, and I have been building VerbalizeIt ever since to ensure that language is never a barrier. —Ryan Frankel, VerbalizeIt

My Own Problem

I spend about two hours per day reading, and I'm picky about what I want. Selfishly, what I really wanted was a highly curated group of people/publications I trusted to give me only their best stuff. I dreamed about a product that could take a Twitter feed, analyze it for the best content, de-duplicate any identical posts, aggregate it with my other selected feeds and send it in a digest format to email.

I searched for one and couldn't find it. So I built it: it's called Brook. While I never considered that Brook would be a publicly available product, it just evolved and is now available for anyone to use. One of the most common pieces of entrepreneurship advice is "solve your own problems." Now I get it. —Brent Beshore, Adventur.es

Saving Local Businesses

I have always had a heart and desire to serve local businesses. The Internet has made it more difficult for them to compete with the big boys. After helping over 1,500 auto dealerships nationwide get on the road to digital success, I believe that the system and thinking I developed could be translated into other verticals, such as the insurance industry.

I always had a couple agents, but was unfamiliar with their businesses. I realized that this was the place to be. The local insurance agencies in our towns and cities are the backbone of America. These predominately family-owned businesses employ millions nationwide and needed help with embracing technology, marketing and training. Every day at Astonish, I wake up and look for better ways to serve them. —Adam DeGraide, Astonish

Short Attention Spans

I started my company a little over four years ago. It's an infographic/data visualization company. I noticed that people (myself especially) just didn't want to read long articles or text-heavy content anymore. Call it mass ADD or over-stimulation online, but whatever it was, people just didn't seem to be reading as much as they used to.

That's when I first noticed something called an infographic. Whenever one website created one, a thousand other websites would link to it and feature it on their sites. It was like content gold, and it made sense; condense the important points into visual communication. No more reading 5,000-word articles. Slowly over time, I decided to build my own company specializing in that. —Justin Beegel, Infographic World

A Book

I started Sonicbids after being inspired by a book that I was reading back in 1999 called Blur by Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer. I was a talent agent at the time, booking known artists for $30,000 or $50,000 a night around the world. But we had no way of taking on clients who made under $3K a night. How many artists do you know who can command those high fees?

The book—which talked about a new era of speed and connectivity—got me thinking: why couldn’t a marketplace exist online, similar to eBay and without the need for brokers, that connected artists and bands of all kinds with music promoters? Once I got the idea, I just could not sleep, could not rest, could not eat—kind of like falling in love. So that’s when I decided to pursue it full time. —Panos Panay, Sonicbids

A Party Trick

Like all the best UK businesses, the concept for the company actually originated in the pub. Two of my co-founders, who were working together at the time, were messing around by augmenting one of their faces onto a five pound note.

This evolved into a brilliant and bullish business vision for how this tech might be harnessed globally and become a new instinctive behavior within our everyday lives. Two years later, and this “party trick” has evolved into a mobile platform used by many of the world’s leading brands and is well on its way to achieving its behavioral ambition. —Jessica Butcher, Blippar

My Parents

When my parents first visited me in college, I realized they wanted to know all kinds of things about the community that I didn't know: the best hotels, the nicest restaurants and fun things to do as a family. I had a totally different view of the community and wanted really different things. Students don't stay in hotels, and I couldn't afford any nice restaurants!

They also had tons of questions about the college that I didn't know the answers to, and when they searched the school site, it felt like a big black hole. This realization led me to launch UniversityParent, a guide that provides parents with everything they need to know about the school and local area in one, easy-to-use resource funded by the local businesses they wanted to know about anyway. —Sarah Schupp, UniversityParent

The Developer-Customer Gap

I was always intrigued by the gap between great features in software that developers would get all excited about and the disconnect with their customers who didn't really know or understand them. We set about building a company that would help software companies train, support and help their customers be successful. Over the years, our company has evolved from being primarily a services business to being a software company ourselves, and we're focused on not having the same thing happen. —Robert Castaneda, ServiceRocket

A Lack Of Influence

The inspiration for starting Influence & Co. came from the challenges that my co-founder and I faced as young entrepreneurs. Our age prevented us from obtaining potential partnerships, clients and opportunities. We then learned that credibility was a common problem—not just for entrepreneurs, but for a variety of business leaders. This pain point inspired us to build a company around naturally building credibility and influence through thought leadership content. —John Hall, Influence & Co.

Riding The China Boom

When I quit my job at a hedge fund in 2007, I decided to travel to China to challenge myself and learn Chinese. After a few months, I couldn't help but notice the vast amount of business opportunities available. I felt like I was transported to the USA in the 1960s when our economy was booming and opportunities were plentiful.

I fell in love with the people and the culture but also saw this great opportunity to start a business in a country that was ripe for development of educational services to foreigners. There was such a disconnect with customer service, and enhancing the China experience made us excited about the potential of our business model. We knew we could do a better job than a lot of our competitors, and so we started Next Step China in the fall of 2008. —Derek Capo, Next Step China