5 sources of inspiration for starting a small business

Interestingly, most solid, profitable businesses are developed from rather mundane ideas. While it might take a Levi Strauss to invent blue jeans or a Steve Jobs to create a personal computer, you can make money selling those jeans or providing services for those computers.

Granted, if you're looking for a huge investment from professional venture capital firms, you'll probably need a big, bold market-changing idea. But most of us aren't trying to start huge multinational enterprises; we just want solid, profitable companies or a decent income. Even knowing that, however, it's easy to get stuck figuring out which way to turn.

Readers of The Planning Shop email newsletter told us where they found inspiration for their businesses. Subscribers represent a broad cross-section of businesses and industries at various stages in their life and hail from diverse locations across the United States, Canada, and a few other countries. While the survey was not statistically weighted, the results illustrate where entrepreneurs who are probably a lot like you got their ideas.

1. Previous work experience. This is good news: It means you don't have to have a brilliant new idea to start your successful business. Even if you feel like the last thing you want to do is go into the same line of work again, the first place to start looking for an idea for a new business is in your past.

Consider some of the needs of former customers that weren't met, some of the skills you developed that might be transferable to another industry, or some of the things your former employers did poorly that you could do much better.

2. Hobbies. Many books urge career-seekers to "follow your bliss." However, having to earn money doing something inevitably changes the way you feel about it. Before you forge ahead with a business based on a hobby, examine the pros and cons:

Advantages• You know and enjoy it• You build on your existing knowledge base• You may already have contacts—suppliers, potential customers, distribution channels• You may be able to work in an environment you like (outdoors, foreign locations, auctions, etc.)

Disadvantages• You lose your source of relaxation and distraction• Your skills may be insufficient as a professional • Decisions are based on pleasing the customer instead of yourself• You may not be able to make enough money

3. An "Aha!" moment. Most of us have time when we've encountered something in life—a personal need, a business situation, fiddling around with equipment or technology—and thought up a way to approach it better. Of course, it's likely that most "Aha!" moments are based on past experience and expertise, even though we may not be consciously aware of the connection at the time.

Many respondents realized they could offer something new or better in a field they were already familiar with. The better you know an industry, a product, or a market, the more likely you are to realize how you can fill an unmet need and find your inspired new idea.

4. Someone else's work experience. Often the work experience of a spouse or close friend can spark an idea. Taken together, inspiration from existing experiences covered nearly half of those who responded (47%). If you feel like you've never had an original idea, take comfort in the fact that serendipity was cited less than half as often as previous work experience. Clearly, you don't need a brand new idea to start a business.

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