Hesam Panahi

Hesam Panahi

Essays, projects, and other adventures

Is this a good idea … or a good “startup” idea?

As an entrepreneurship professor, I often get asked by students:

“How do I come up with good ideas?”

Here’s the challenge: not all good ideas are good startup ideas.

I’m not the first person to address how to come up with good ideas. A quick online search will give you insights from serial entrepreneurs like Paul Graham and countless others. Nor am I the expert. But where I can offer a different perspective is what I’ve noticed in thousands of students that struggle with this question.

How not to come up with good ideas

Sometimes, you’re caught in a forcing function to come up with a good startup idea. In a university setting, it could be as part of a course you’re taking. It’s the beginning of the course, and you have a week to come up with an idea. Or perhaps you decided yesterday you want to pursue entrepreneurship on your own. You’re missing that one thing: the idea!

When forced to come up with ideas, you’ll often look inward for inspiration. What problems do you have?

You could lock yourself up in a room, eat ramen noodles for a week, and attempt to come up with as many ideas as possible. Or you could frantically search around your day to day routine, desperately trying to find something that’s painful or annoying. These efforts usually yield boring ideas that aren’t real problems to solve.

Identity matters

Part of the reason this approach fails is that most people focus too narrowly on who they are and their identity. You can think of your identities as labels people might use to define you. For example, my identities include educator, parent, aspiring calisthenic enthusiast, and designer.

When forced to come up with ideas, we scramble and lock into our most obvious identities. We look at what occupies most of our time in the day, or something we’ve mastered. But this doesn’t reveal the identities that are still in flux, the ones where you are still not an expert, or where you are struggling to make progress.

When I started the technology entrepreneurship program at my alma mater, I was solving a problem for previous identities and an emerging one. As a former student, I realized the challenges of breaking into entrepreneurship if you weren’t a business school major. As a former entrepreneur, I had made mistakes that I wanted to prevent others from making. As an emerging educator, I wanted to integrate what I had learned and experienced in the past with structures and programs that would support student entrepreneurs. I used my interest in becoming a better educator as an opportunity to create unique learning and program experiences.

As I look forward to new identities, I realize calisthenics isn’t an area I’ll be an expert in soon. But there are elements of it that I find fascinating: how movements can be adjusted based on skill level, how much you can do with limited equipment, how difficult it is to do a handstand. Like learning how to launch a business, there are many challenges, both short-term and long-term, that I’m experiencing. I’m still “figuring it out” and am curious about how to improve.

Exploration as part of the journey

Will I start a company related to a calisthenics startup idea? Probably not. Is calisthenics and the problems associated with it (everything from selecting equipment for a home gym to the proper nutrition) an area I could explore? Yes, definitely.

Because the reality is that the odds are stacked against you when launching a startup. You are more likely to fail than to succeed. If you can afford the risk, it’s a worthwhile pursuit. You can’t expect to get it right the first time, so you’ll want to get as many reps in as you can.

Some of the best ideas can emerge from your exploration of new identities. Solutions to problems you’re experiencing.

Rather than expecting to come up with the perfect startup idea, use entrepreneurship as an opportunity to dig deeper into an identity you’re interested or curious about. Motivation matters. The curiosity will keep you going. Even if you fail, the progress you’ll make in advancing that identity, along with the reward of learning, will make it worthwhile.


I wrote an email-based course for Rice University students on coming up with good ideas. You can sign up for free to get the 5 emails.