Often the best ideas come from your own experiences. Write a detailed diary of everything you do in a typical day and identify things that could be improved. It could be something important (e.g. what tasks to prioritize in your day) or relatively small (e.g. deciding whether to bike or take an Uber to work). Ask yourself: Is there any particular problem that you are passionate about? Think about past experiences as early as when you were a kid growing up, listen to your family/friends, look to your personal interests, or analyze an industry to find some key issues that need solving.
As platforms emerge and evolve, new opportunities arise. Medium is the new publishing platform so everyone can see your writing, Instagram is the new marketing platform where media shine. There are also more platforms for app development from Slack to Google Home to Oculus.
There is a myth that successful ventures begin with grandiose ambitions. To the contrary, my observation is that great ideas began by asking simple questions:
This question arises when you spot or predict a trend and wonder about its consequences. It works like this: “Everyone will have a smartphone with a camera and Internet access.” Therefore, what? “They will be able to take pictures and share them.” Therefore, what? “We should create an app that lets people upload their photos, rate the photos of others, and post comments.” And, voila, there’s Instagram.
Intellectual curiosity and accidental discovery power this method. Spencer Silver was trying to make glue but created a substance that barely holds paper together. This oddity led to Post-it Notes. Ray Kroc was an appliance salesman who noticed that a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere ordered eight mixers. He visited the restaurant out of curiosity, and it impressed him with its success. He pitched the idea of similar restaurants to Dick and Mac McDonald, and the rest is history.
Look at some of your favorite apps, sites, or products. Can you repurpose and improve upon one of its features as a standalone product? For example, Instagram has created an elegant way to share media, Perhaps others would like to further refine this functionality to just sharing inspiring quotes.
Ideation is the best part of creating a side project. Don't worry so much about the scale of your idea just yet. If finding the "next big thing" is constantly on your mind, you're clouding your judgment and that will only negatively impact your creative process. Focus on finding an idea that most resonates with your experiences and expertise and take it from there.
Sometimes the best ideas come from looking at what's already out there and validating an idea through discovering missed opportunities, bugs, and issues within existing solutions. When validating whether or not an idea has promise, you'll find it beneficial to understand existing incumbents and see how you can make a dent in both open and entrenched spaces.
In entrenched markets, you’re not the one defining what a product does. Incumbents and competitors are actually telling customers what your product should be. You’re trying to differentiate against that story, and often your potential users won’t understand or discover your differences.” - Bret Taylor, Co-founder of Quip
More often than not, when I talk to a talented technical person who’s thinking about becoming a founder, their number one blocker is that they don’t have an idea. At some point during their formative years they learned that every great startup started with a great idea and if the idea isn’t amazing (usually as judged by peers, parents, or other people with little startup experience), the startup will fail. - Michael Seibel, CEO of Y-Combinator
"Because the problems at hand are complex systems problems – where the root causes are not the actors themselves, but the ill-designed structures and incentives that dictate their actions – we should think about redesigning the rules and incentives of social, political, and economic systems as the path forward." – Andrew Kortina
There are tons and tons of opportunities in different industries and spaces, it's just a matter of finding which problem in a certain area interests you enough to take action. You might think industry analysis or market research is typically a job for analysts. However, it's a great side project on its own to research an industry like e-commerce or fin-tech to understand some of the trends that are happening. You might be surprised as to how many unlocked opportunities there are that are sitting inside of industry reports, news articles, interviews, papers, and conference talks. For instance, if I wanted to learn more about the fashion industry, I'd be interested to understand the major trends and find out what some companies and key players are doing. Fortunately, Business of Fashion and McKinsey releases the State of Fashion Report every year.