Musings of a twenty-something entrepreneur.

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Pitching TripLingo at StartupRiot

You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing here a lot lately. My bad! Things have just been crazy though, and this blog has consistently been pushed down the to-do list.

The last 8 weeks have been insane. And by insane I mean insanely awesome. The thrill of finding a weapons-grade team, raising seed funding, and building an awesome product, all while fulfilling all the other duties that come with starting a business, has been amazing.

I will continue to update this blog, though it will be somewhat sporadically. One of the great parts about a startup is that there are way more things to do than people to do them. The plus side is that you get the chance to quickly execute on a large variety of issues. The downside is that you have to prioritize everything.

So, I’ll be around, though don’t check back daily. I consider this space a long-term project anyways.

For now, enjoy a couple of different articles that have been written about TripLingo in the past month:

Atlanta-Journal Constitution: “Entrepreneur Hopes to Have Success with TripLingo traveler’s language aid”

CNN: “Startup Riot tries to grow tech companies outside Silicon Valley”

SparkMuse Blog: “TripLingo’s Startup Journey”

Team TripLingo at Karaoke After Winning StartupRiot!

I love this picture.

If you want to read some of what I’ve written lately, check out the TripLingo blog.

I’ve got some interesting pieces for this blog based on my recent experiences- I’ll try to post something interesting once a week. If you need more, follow @TripLingo on Twitter!


Part 1 in this “How to Come Up With Business Ideas” series explained that the Initial Spark is a new idea with the potential for practical uses. This new idea is essentially composed of the combination of two or more existing ideas. Part 3 covers practical ways to come up with new ideas.

Now that we have an (admittedly ambiguous) answer to the question of “What is the initial spark?”, we can discuss what kinds of forms it can take when we’re talking about startups.

In general, these ideas are potential solutions to some type of problem or market opportunity. So what do they look like?

Below are 7 different forms that business ideas can take. Some ideas will have many of these features (and indeed the more the better). Understanding these forms will give you an idea of the kinds of things to think about when trying to come up with new ideas.

Here’s the Table of Contents:

  1. Solve Your Own Problems
  2. Create a Totally New Problem
  3. Take Advantage of Change
  4. “Tweak” an Existing Idea
  5. Adopt an Existing Idea to a New Market
  6. Niche-ify
  7. Do it Better

1. Solve your own problems

This is standard advice for coming up with startup ideas, and there’s a good reason for that. Solving your own problems is a tried and true way to identify opportunities for new products. For me, every single company I’ve started has been an attempt to solve problems that I have.

There are several advantages to solving your own problems, which have been covered extensively by others. Basically, being a potential customer yourself, you’ll know firsthand what the needs of potential customs are. Moreover, since your problem relates to some type of activity you are involved in, you’re more likely to be passionate about it.

One implication of this is that the more problems you have, the more potential ideas you will have. If you are a rock-climbing, book-loving, traveling, concert-going, nature-loving young professional foodie in Oregon, then you’ll be exposed to all kinds of potential problems in those areas.

Not only will involvement in these areas give you ideas for problems that need to be solved, but exposure to the frameworks in these different areas will give you new perspectives from which to gain insights from other areas.

If instead you’re an alcoholic compulsive World of Warcraft lover, you’re simply not putting yourself in a position to have problems that can lead to new ideas. Thus, curious, active, and engaged people are more likely to come up with ideas.

An important caveat is that you shouldn’t take this advice too literally. You’re not actually solving the problem necessarily for you; instead, you’re using your experience to identify an opportunity. That’s only the inspiration part; the perfect solution for you, however, won’t necessarily be the best solution for the majority of your potential customers.

2. Create a Totally New Problem

Not every new idea addresses a well-known problem. No kids needed Pokemon cards until the other kids had them. I didn’t know I wanted biodegradable shoes until I was told I did by Crocs.  And who knew that so many people needed to buy virtual seeds for their virtual farms and tell all their virtual friends about it?

New problems can come about because of changing circumstances, in which case they are literally “new problems”. However, new problems aren’t necessarily “new”. Many times, a new problem is just an old problem that nobody recognized before.

This is a tricky one to address directly. You can’t just start throwing darts randomly against the wall hoping you’ll come up with a new problem. Instead, this one comes direct from the imagination, and more on that in the next section.

For now, just note that in general these “new problems” aren’t what we’d call “real” problems. Most of the examples I’ve come up with fall under entertainment or games, or are essentially marketing gimmicks.

Now that you’ve read this section, go back and replace every “problem” with “opportunity”. Now you’re thinking like an entrepreneur!

3. Take advantage of change

Change is a powerful agent of opportunity. Google couldn’t exist without the internet.  Below are a few different types of change that you might consider:

  • Technological. New technologies create opportunities for new products or business models. The internet is the obvious example, but even within the internet the pace of technological change is rapid and creates a ridiculous amount of opportunity. For web-based startup ideas, here are a few relevant kinds of echnological change to look for:
    • Hardware: The iPhone created a billion dollar market for smartphone apps overnight. In addition, as these devices get more powerful, they’ll be suitable for more and more services that wouldn’t make sense right now. (Just look at what geolocation has done for companies like Foursquare, Gowalla, etc.)
    • Software: Commodity software stacks have made sophisticated technology affordable for bootstrapping entrepreneurs. Does your product require a maps feature or video streaming? You don’t have to make those from scratch anymore, and instead can license them cheaply from Google or Wowza. Your can make products combining these resources that weren’t available five years ago.
  • Social. Social change creates demand for products that didn’t make sense before. For instance, as more people become comfortable using video chat, this opportunities in this place are exploding. The emergence of the Tea Party (shoot me now!) creates new opportunities to cater services to this group.
  • Demographic. Demographic changes increase the size of target markets, perhaps to the point where there is sufficient demand for a product that didn’t have a large enough demand before. When thinking of demographic changes, be specific. It’s not just that there are more people aged 60+, but there are more people that are 60+ and have some familiarity with computers. There aren’t just more people that are have smart phones, but there are more people that have smartphones and are younger than 18 and want to play games.

Anticipating changes is a great way to take on large companies that spend their energies addressing the status quo. To generalize, larger companies are much better at incremental change than revolutionary change, which makes them bad at addressing new opportunities that emerge as a result of change. Your agility and fearlessness make you a daunting David to their Goliath.

4. “Tweak” an existing idea.

“Tweaking” implies taking an existing product or business model, whether successful or not, and changing a critical aspect of it to address a problem in the existing market or in a completely separate market.

Tweaking is highly dependent on the specific market or product, but below are some reasons why businesses may leave themselves vulnerable to a tweak:

  • Something is “too hard” or outside the domain expertise of a company
  • Its simply poorly-managed, and they’re letting opportunity glare them in the face
  • They’re not current with technological trends (I’ve seen so many niche websites, apparently making money, that look like they were made in 2003).
  • They’re in the wrong business. Maybe they have a great business model, but their product isn’t suitable, or vice versa.

This is not limited to the product itself. Perhaps there’s a huge hole that you’ve observed in their sales model, or maybe you come up with a brilliant way to market the product.

As stated above, new ideas are simply new combinations of elements of old ideas. “Tweaking” is simply dissecting an old idea and finding the critical points that could be adjusted to create something new.

5. Adopt an Existing Idea or Model to a Different Market

On its surface, this form of a startup seems less original than others, but the creativity involved shouldn’t be underestimated. The key is to extract value from one product or service, and adapt it to the customs, laws, and environment of another market.

OLX is the eBay for much of Europe and South America. Baidu is the Google of China. And while adapting old products to new geographies is a great way to start a new company, geography isn’t the only flexible aspect of a current idea or model. For example, Chegg applied rental economics to textbooks. Ning made it easy to create customized social networks for groups and organizations. Amie Street brought auction economics to music sales.

6. Niche-ify

When companies create a product with a very wide target market, they have to compromise the value of that product within every single niche market within the larger target market. If I’m making a ballpoint pen for the masses, then i can’t include that fancy push-button top and multi-color option that only some people want.

To be attractive, a niche market must first be large enough to support a product. A niche market’s geography, preferences, demographics, or cost-consciousness are somehow relevant to the product and substantially distinguish this subset from other rest of the target market.

Find a group of people being underserved. Make the iPad cover for the traveler, with a waterproof seal and extra strong cover. Create a music-sharing service for hip hop enthusiasts, an online art gallery for Surrealist artists or an interior-design firm for coffee shops.

7. Do it Better

This is a tricky one, as it can be easy to underestimate the challenge of taking on a competitor’s market by trying to do what they do better. It can work, but you must be able to clearly formulate how you’re going to do something better than an established company that is already doing it.

Maybe a company is doing well, but only because they were first to market and not because their business model is the best to fulfill a certain service.

Perhaps a large company is afraid to move to fast and is innovating too slowly. Make an innovation in their area ahead of the competitor, and you could become an attractive acquisition target.

Maybe a brand has been tarnished beyond repair, or maybe they don’t have the network that you do, or they clearly have incompetent leadership.

For “doing it better” to work, marginal improvements won’t do. Marginal improvements can be quickly copied by your better-entrenched and better-funded competitors. But it can work. Does Hotmail ring a bell? Maybe not, because Gmail kicked their ass straight to the curb (atleast in the U.S.) with a vastly superior product.

As with many of the other ideas above, “doing it better” will achieve best results when combined with other tactics. Vimeo made a better online video player, but targeted it to higher-end and more serious video creators through its community. There were plenty of online t-shirt shops before Threadless, but conquered with amazing products.


The point of this post was to examine a few different forms that new startup ideas can look like. Sometimes incorporating just one of these aspects is enough to give an idea legs, other times it won’t be. Every idea is different, but hopefully this gives you some things to look for.

What’s missing from this list? I’d love to hear your praises, criticisms, or scorn! Leave it in the comments.


For anyone who is familiar with setting up a website, you can stop reading now as you won’t get much from this. Read this or this instead, if you want.

But for those of you who have never created a website, I’m here to correct the misconception that its difficult or that you have to be some kind of computer genius to do it.

The process of launching a startup goes through many stages, from the initial spark, to figuring out exactly what your business is going to do, to then getting it running and launching, marketing, sales, etc.

But it starts with a spark, and inevitably we’re drawn to coming up with a suitable name for our would-be venture, which is often limited by the availability of that name as a “.com”, or sometimes “.net”. In order to prevent that precious “.com” from being stolen in the interim, better to buy it well ahead of any intended launch date.

Assuming you’ve bought the domain, if you actually intend to go through with the project you’ll be talking with a lot of people about it. And you’ll talk with someone important about it, tell them the name, and there’s a decent chance that they’ll go ahead and look it up online. But if all they find is a “Not Available” screen when they go to your website, you’ll look unserious and lose some credibility.

The instructions and video below are for the simplest of websites, when you need to get a blog up and running, or more commonly (for me), when you want to set up a placeholder page before you’re actually ready to put up a real website.

So, here’s how to do it:

  1. Buy a hosting account. I use and love Bluehost, which is $7 a month and allows you to host unlimited domains. For example, right now I have 20 domains hosted on Bluehost, but I pay just $7 a month for it. Also, Bluehost has great support, with 24/7 live chat with support, which I’ve used many times when I’ve been stumped or don’t understand how to do something. The last point is that Bluehost, as well as some others, have a one-click WordPress install button, which allows to create a website in just a few minutes. (Full disclosure: If you click on the Bluehost link, I get a referral fee. There are other options too, but I can’t vouch for them personally. Other options include Dreamhost, Hostgator, etc. Whatever you do, DON’T use GoDaddy. All you need to know is that GoDaddy is a pain in the ass.)
  2. Purchase the domain. I said to get a hosting provider first buying the domain you want through your hosting provider (e.g. buying the domain using Bluehost) will save you a couple of steps that can be confusing if you haven’t done this before (like changing CName, DNS, and MX record entries.)
  3. Assign the domain to your account. “Assigning” the domain is basically saying “I own this domain and I want it hosted on my Bluehost account.”  This is easy. Just go to your Domain Manager, click on the domain you just bought, and there will be an easily visible option to “Assign” it to your account. You have to do this because owning a website name and having it hosted on a server are two different things.
  4. Install WordPress. One reason I recommend Bluehost is that there’s a on the front page once you sign in that installs WordPress for you. So just click the “WordPress” button on your control panel and follow the instructions. If you don’t use this option, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to install the proper files on your server (and do things like set up user permissions, create a new database, etc.)
  5. Once WordPress is installed, then you just need to use WordPress to edit the content of the page. So, you would upload a header image with your logo, remove widgets that don’t make sense for you (like Archives, Recent Posts, etc., since all you want is basic info on the homepage). Edit the first post to say “Coming Soon”, and then you’re done. You’ve got a website up and running that can serve your purpose during the earliest stages of your project while you’re still developing the actual website and content that be up as you approach launch and once you do launch.

To show you how easy it is, I’ve also created a video where I create a placeholder website in less than four minutes. The instructions above should suffice, but maybe some of you will find this video useful.


Recently I said that I would post a link to a keyboard shortcuts file, and here it is. Frankly, I’ve been working a lot on more substantial posts, such as how to come up with ideas, but since I promised this I figured it was time to deliver.

You can download the file here: Download Printable KeyBoard Shortcuts File

If you’re an avid computer user, then using keyboard shortcuts will save you tons of time. In fact, when I worked as a consultant, if you didn’t use keyboard shortcuts not only would you be made fun of, but it would reflect poorly on your efficiency and proficiency doing analysis and getting a lot done in a short amount of time.

Here are a few examples:

  • Press Alt & D at the same time. Neat, right?
  • In excel, copy a group of cells that are determined by formula. Then press in order: Alt + E, S,V + Enter. It will get rid of the formula and paste the values as values.
  • Press the Windows Logo + L at the same time.

Below is a link to download a spreadsheet that is readily-printable and that shows you the most common and useful keyboard shortcuts for Windows, Microsoft Excel, and Google Chrome/Firefox. Download it, print it out, and use it according to the following guidelines:

  • Don’t try to learn them all at once. Figure out what things you do the most, and learn them one at a time. By printing this out and having it handy, you’ll easily be able to reference how to do the actions you do most often.
  • Print it out and place it next to your computer. You’re only going to learn these through repetition, so keep them handy. Trust me, its worth learning them as it will save you lots and lots of time and will also demonstrate your technical expertise when the time comes that you’re giving a live demo or doing work in front of someone else.
  • Try each of them out. Some of these you probably will not understand, and I opted not to post a description of each. Just try them, and that will show you what they can do. After that you can decide whether it is useful for you to memorize it.

I’ll update the file as time goes on, feel free to let me know what’s missing in the comments!

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