What Makes a Million Dollar Idea?

Million dollar ideas. We’d all like to have one. So why are they so hard to come by?

They needn’t be: sometimes inspiration can strike in the most humble of ways and, more often than not, by sheer accident.  Whilst there are myriad articles on the secret to finding your million dollar business idea, essentially it all comes down to training your brain and finding the pain.

Maggie Aland writing for FitSmallBusiness.com says: “There is no real formula to coming up with the next great business idea. The key is knowing how and when to look for good ideas. Your eureka moment can strike at any moment, so you need to be able to recognize it when it comes. Not every idea that you come up with is going to be a good one. The point is to train your brain to notice a potential opportunity when you see one.”

Dane Maxwell of the Young Entrepreneur Council writing for Forbes.com suggests that it’s all about fact finding.  Here he states that the two most valuable questions you can ask to extract profitable ideas are:

  1. What is the most important activity you do in your business?
  2. Do you have any pain associated with this activity?

He says: “The whole goal with this process is to find the pain, document it, define it, and then describe it back to the customer better than they can themselves. Once you’ve done that, your customer will unconsciously assume that you have a solution. And better yet, once you’ve clearly defined the problem, your mind will flood with ideas for how you can solve it.”

So, is this what happened for some of the World’s most famous million dollar business ideas?  Certainly when it comes to training your brain the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’.  What do wheelbarrows, geometry, hippies and a walk in the forest have in common? They sparked fantastic business ideas by recognising potential opportunities.

The wheelbarrow? It inspired the technology behind the biro for Marcel Bich. Originally invented by Hungarian Laszlo Biro, the idea behind using a ball pointed pen was immediately adopted by the RAF (it’s a bit difficult to use fountain pens in flight).  However when the initial concepts went on sale in the US, thousands were returned for not working properly. The Frenchman’s second attempt came after observing how his wheelbarrow worked and the result was the legendary product that it is today, with 57 Bic biros sold every second.

Meanwhile the Rubik’s Cube arose from creative thinking by another Hungarian, Erno Rubik, who was trying to think of a way to explain 3D geometry to his students.  The result: the best-selling toy in the world with 400 million sales clocked-up to date. Did you know that there are 43 quintillion ways to solve the cube and it can be done in less than 5 seconds?

Hippies? Think Smiley, the world’s number 1 emoji.  Originally drawn in just ten minutes by a graphic artist for an American insurance company, the editor of a French newspaper picked up the concept, using it to highlight good news stories.  After copyrighting the design in 100 countries, the clever Frenchman’s idea boomed during 1970s hippy culture and today the happy smiley face realises revenue of $130million per annum.

The walk in the forest spawned Velcro (think of those annoying sticky burrs that attach themselves to you whether you like it or not). The inspiration was there and the timing was perfect: the resulting product was used during the space race to hold down items floating around rockets in zero gravity. The rest, as they say, is history.

There’s more on these, and other, wonderful stories of million dollar ideas in BBC business presenter Aaron Heslehurst’s fabulously fun video series.

If you have an innovative science or technology-led idea and the drive to build a business, apply for Catalyst and you could be on your way to joining the ranks of the million dollar business legends above sooner than you think.

Peter Birkett, Founder of the Catalyst Centre and CEO of the University of Southampton Science Park, said: “The Science Park is awash with success stories right now: you just need to take a look at our website to see examples.

But, whilst awareness of such success is inspirational, it can also sometimes be daunting for those starting out, filling would-be entrepreneurs with doubts about the worthiness of their ideas or their abilities to create a successful enterprise.  My advice is to banish those fears and go for it!  There’s a lot of truth in the phrase ‘two heads are better than one’.  Our Catalyst programme has been designed to connect early stage businesses with the right people who can help make their vision a reality. You don’t need a business plan: just a great idea and a great deal of passion.”

Still looking for inspiration? Try these articles on Entrepreneur.com, BusinessNewsDaily  and WikiHow.com.