Ideas are what drive startups—from inception to success—but understanding the process of idea generation is the first step of the process.

Without ideas, there would be no startups. It takes an idea to lay the groundwork for a business plan. It takes ideas to package the business effectively and creatively. When obstacles arise, it takes new ideas to solve them, and when competition arrives on the scene, only new ideas can keep them at bay.

Unfortunately, generating ideas is neither straightforward nor easy—even experienced entrepreneurs can’t force themselves to come up with new material on the spot. Instead, they rely on an old process of conception and refinement to come up with lots of ideas consistently and refine those ideas until they become presentable. Learning this process can help you come up with more and better ideas, so I’ve reduced it the best I can to an actionable process with five phases:

1. Inspiration. The first step is raw inspiration. It might be a turn of phrase you didn’t fully think through until you heard it out loud. It could be a gut feeling about something you drive past every day. It’s unrefined and unperfected, but it’s there. All of us experience moments like these on an almost daily basis, but most of us end up ignoring them.

2. Confrontation. When met with a moment of inspiration, we’re forced to confront it. Most people immediately bury the idea, in favor of more “important” pursuits. As an entrepreneur, you need to train yourself to say “maybe” to every idea that pops into your mind. Saying “maybe” gives your idea life.

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3. Research. Now, you need to research. See if the idea has been done before, and if it has, if there’s any way to modify or improve yours. This can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.

4. Refinement. Whittle your idea down to its core, or build it up into something more massive. Change it. Mold it. Adjust it. The more you refine your idea, the better it’s going to be.

5. Presentation. Once refined, the last phase is to shop it around to other people, and that means preparing it for external analysis and criticism. This is the final polishing step, but you can only get here if you follow the other four.

Use this as your frame of reference when generating new ideas in your startup, whether you’re still building the groundwork or you’re already on your way to success. Better yet, give it to your entire team and turn your whole startup into an idea-generating machine. You never know where the next great idea will come from.

Jose Vasquez

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