By Rieva Lesonsky

Over the years I’ve met lots of people who want to start businesses. And while you might imagine the typical entrepreneur is someone with strong small business ideas–a person with a passion for starting a pie shop, or someone who’s known since high school that they wanted to be a tech entrepreneur, the reality is much different. There are tons of people out there who know they want to be their own boss, but have no idea what business to start—or have only a vague notion that they’d like to, say, start a retail store, or do something involving pets, or run a restaurant.

If this is you, all is not lost. The first step to coming up with your perfect business is to brainstorm small business ideas. Here are four steps to get you going.

1. Start your business brainstorming by getting your creativity flowing. Read as much as you can about small business, business in general and trends that relate to business and the industry you have in mind. For instance, if you think you might want to start a retail business, then read retail publications and websites, visit shopping malls and outdoor shopping venues in your area, and go online to all kinds of ecommerce websites. This will generate small business ideas.

2. Then think about businesses you admire, use, and rely on in your everyday life. What do they have in common? Jot down everything that comes to mind about why you like these companies, whether it’s their outstanding customer service, their one-of-a-kind products or their cool branding.

3. Next, think about issues you are facing in your own life. Are there problems that commonly frustrate you? Do you wish there were an easier way to do X or a faster way to do Y? You’re probably not the only one who feels that way, and if you come up with a problem that affects a big enough group of people, it could lead to some great small business ideas. Ask your friends and family members for their frustrations, too. Some of the biggest businesses around grew out of frustrations or unmet needs.

4. From your brainstorming, you should be able to write down dozens of possible business ideas. Now it’s time to narrow them down. Grab some friends, family members or businesspeople you know, and see what they think of your ideas. Particularly if they’re in the target market for the business you’re considering (such as moms, and you’re considering a child-related business), they’ll be able to give you some good insights about what they’d look for in a business serving their needs.

Of course, keep in mind that your friends and family are not impartial observers. They’re likely to have their own agenda, and may either discourage you (because they’re worried you’ll lose money) or encourage you too much (praising every idea you have). That’s why getting advice about your small business ideas from an impartial business expert, like those at your local SCORE or SBDC office, is the smartest thing you can do at the pre-startup stage.

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