Crossposted from informationneeds.org Author Lisa Williams is a consultant for the Knight Community Information Challenge, which offers matching grants to community and place-based foundations funding news and information projects. Applications are being accepted for the Challenge through March 7 at www.informationneeds.org.
As a Knight Community Information Challenge "circuit rider," I use my experience in online media and tech startups to help grantees with new projects get off the ground.
But what if you're not at that point? What if you want to try to get into the world of civic information?
Often, the problem isn't having a good idea -- it's having too many good ideas. How can you sift the great ideas -- the ones that really have a chance at gaining traction and making a real impact -- from the good ones?
As an entrepreneur, I've faced this question numerous times. I've started projects and companies that took off, and I've started ones that...well, I'm sorry about that giant smoking crater, okay? Really.
I learned a lot from these experiences, and I think one of the most important things I learned were tests that helped me weed out ideas that I shouldn't pursue from the ones that I should.
Here are a few of the tests I use when evaluating a new project or startup idea:
Don't do anything for free that you wouldn't do indefinitely. Too often, I hear the following thought process from entrepreneurs and people from the nonprofit world with an idea for an online startup: "Well, it will be really difficult and unpleasant for awhile...but then it will get big and popular and that will be great!" If that's how you feel about a project, it might be a good startup idea...but it's probably not a good startup idea for you. Startups are hard. There are many easier ways to make a living. Better to wait and find an idea you're truly passionate about.
Narrow comprehensiveness, or "everything about something." Sites that have all -- or, barring that, the most of -- something, are more useful than those with a sample or selection. Example: a site with a few Denver restaurant reviews is nice. A site with reviews of every Denver restaurant is likely to be a hit (and a site with reviews of every restaurant practically everywhere, like Yelp, is a monster hit). Ask yourself: what is the thing that I can truly be a comprehensive source for? Is that thing something that lots of people will want? Journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen calls this "The Hundred Percent Solution," and what he has to say about it is worth reading.
Do the math. Speaking of lots of people, are there really lots of people who will want what you have to offer? Often our ideas of how many there are of something don't really match reality. If you're offering something aimed at young parents in a particular area, have you looked up how many households with kids under 12 there are in that area? Consider the fact that getting 100% of those folks to look at what you're doing is unrealistic. If you only get 10%, is that a home run, or is the number so small that you may end up feeling you haven't gotten a good return on your effort?
What can you start without assistance or permission? I often hear project ideas that would require the person with the idea to have access to skills or resources they don't have -- technical skills to build a complex website, lots of money, access to the people or resources of a large institution. If your project requires you to get all of these before you even get off the ground, that's a tough project. It's like picking a ladder where the first four or five rungs are broken. Lots easier if you get one that goes all the way down to the ground.
If your idea passes these tests, you may have something that's worth investigating. If you do, we'd love to hear about it!